Rats of Old San Francisco

Between 1848-1849, ships from all over the world arrived in San Francisco harbor. As a burgeoning town sprung from a once backwater Mexican hamlet, ethnic stew poured into the streets daily. Paralleling the influx of humans, and disembarking the same ships, was another creature as well: the rat.

Indigenous to the West Coast were wood rats; however, soon, spotted about the harbor and town were giant gray and black rats*, as well as white rats from China. Rats were seen day and night, swimming ship-to-ship, rooting for food among abandoned goods, &c.

San Francisco Harbor, 1849

In fact, by late-1849, the rat population was out of control. Organized efforts were taken to rectify this, and rat poison was liberally used. While ultimately it did kill rats, it first drove them mad with thirst. En masse, they dove into nearby wells, therefore contaminating the water supply.

Good plot for the next Pixar smash?

As time went on, those rodents that did survive the rat genocide of 1849 became craftier and even in some cases domesticated. The bartender at the Occidental Hotel, Professor Jerry Thomas, “The Father of American Mixology,” was known to have two pet white rats named Tom and Jerry. Legend has it they would hop about his shoulders and black bowler hat as he prepared drinks. Many cocktail historians believe rat-lover Thomas to be the originator of the martini.

Also at the Occidental, as late as 1890, guests reported that large rats, fat from hotel food, wandered freely. They were known to approach humans in the hallways and eat from their hands. At night, you could hear them scurrying in the crawl spaces above the ceiling.

Occidental Hotel Advertisement from the Blue Book (click for larger)

It wasn’t until the turn of the century, with fears of “the black death” hitting S. F., that S. F. rats were again aggressively targeted.

* Though the brown rat is today’s most common rat, experts say they didn’t arrive in California until after 1851.

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