Charles Hatfield made it rain 105 years ago in San Diego. The only problem was he couldn’t make it stop. A deep dive through the San Diego Historical Society archives courtesy of the OB Rag reveals the legend and facts surrounding this strange, and wet, episode of local history. And, as they said about Liberty Valance, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Since the beginning of time, humans have sought to stage-direct our environment. The drama of history may have proceeded through act after act, but the trickster in the story has remained the same: the weather.
Over the centuries, our methods for trying to control the elements have gotten ever more sophisticated, and outlandish. We’ve tried to dance the rain down, blast precipitation from the skies, give the atmosphere an electrical wake-up shock, and seed the clouds with chemicals to bend them to our will.
The pseudo-science of what was later dubbed pluviculture, or man’s attempt to artificially bring about rain, began to develop more rapidly in the early 20th century. The men behind these schemes walked a tightrope between science and con artistry, many experimenting to improve their methods while also charging farmers and other desperate customers large sums of money for services that provided dubious results at best.
One of the most famous of these rainmakers—or “moisture accelerators,” as he preferred to be called—was Charles Hatfield. A proponent of the “smell-maker” school of weather control, Hatfield concocted a secret and proprietary blend of 23 chemicals that, for a small sum, he would release into the heavens from a high tower to bring down the rain.
“I do not make rain. That would be an absurd claim. I simply attract clouds, and they do the rest,” he explained.
His business boomed for over a decade until the end of 1915, when he received his biggest commission to date—a contract to provide rain to the thirsty city of San Diego. The problem was not that he failed to dispel the drought, rather that Hatfield was a little too successful.
He had promised to fill the reservoir within a year. But less than a month after he began his ministrations, the county was deluged—valleys had been leveled and over 20 people were dead. While Hatfield was either very lucky or in the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on how you look at his situation, he has forever been connected to the flood of 1916, which is still considered one of the worst weather events to strike the city.
Hatfield was born into a farming family in 1876. It was in the kitchen of their southern California ranch that he first began his chemical experimentations.
Maybe he was driven by an inherent love of science, or maybe it was his intimate familiarity with the struggle farmers waged against the weather. Either way, by 1904, the sewing-machine salesman had settled on what he thought was an effective, weather-inducing blend of chemicals. That year, he officially began selling his services to farmers.
His business proposition was as follows: Hatfield guaranteed he would bring about showers within three hours to five days of releasing his chemical concoction. (“The gasses smell so bad it rains in self-defense,” one man later reported.) His fee of $50 a rain shower was due only once he had met these conditions.
In December 1904, several local newspapers raved about his recent work in Pasadena. In The Pomona Daily Review, he claimed that the job was “the twentieth test of my system and has proved a perfect success… I think that it has been clearly demonstrated that I can bring rain.”
Bolstered by newspaper coverage, Hatfield’s reputation had risen so high within a year of launching his business that, in 1905, he raised his rates to $1,000 a rainy pop.
And so it went for the next decade. With the help of his two brothers, Hatfield traveled wherever his services were needed, erecting his tower, mixing up his secret blend of chemicals, and claiming to bring the rain for anyone willing to pay.
One question we are left with is to what extent did Hatfield believe in his own skills? Evidence suggests that he fancied himself a scientist: he conducted experiments, developed a system, and, following in the tradition of the others in his field, refused payment until he had provided results.
But later scholarship also suggests that these early pluviculturists were also adept meteorologists. Sure, they each peddled their own weather “cure,” but they also were highly educated in the regional climate patterns where they worked.
“Aided by weather forecasts and information on local meteorological patterns, the pluviculturists depended on occasional coincidences with the occurrence of natural precipitation to demonstrate the viability of their rainmaking operations,” Richard W. Katz wrote in Nature in 1981.
While their work may have gripped the popular imagination, the scientific establishment wasn’t quite so welcoming, according to Katz. “The scientific community, including the US Weather Bureau, remained steadfast in opposition to nearly every rainmaking scheme, but to no avail; scientific expertise was no match for expert salesmanship.”
By late 1915, when the City Council of San Diego decided that they needed a Hail Mary, Hatfield must have been the obvious choice as not only a local son, but also one of the most popular rainmakers working at the time.
In January 1915, the Panama-California Exposition had opened in San Diego. For two years, the city would be on display to a wave of international visitors. While it had been a dry year and while the Morena Reservoir which provided water to the region was down to a third of its capacity, the city wasn’t yet dangerously parched.
The problem was that the city’s administrators wanted to make sure that potential international investors were seeing the area in its best light. Hence the desperation for rain.
On January 1, 1916, Hatfield and his brothers began their process: build a tower near the reservoir outside of town, mix the chemicals, release them into the air.
The deal they struck in December of that year stipulated that Hatfield would be paid $10,000 for one of three scenarios, all of which had to do with filling the reservoir and providing up to 50 inches of rain.
It may have been a dry year, but Hatfield had the region’s weather patterns on his side. San Diego had a history of flooding about every 11 years, and it was due for another wet event, something Hatfield probably knew given the amount of climate research his team did.
On Jan. 1, 1916, Hatfield and his brothers began their process: build a tower near the reservoir outside of town, mix the chemicals, release them into the air.
Five days later, it began to sprinkle. Then the rain came. By mid-January, it was pouring. On Jan. 27, the water overwhelmed the city. [Scroll down to see photos from the Great Flood of 1916 in San Diego.]
“Dams and reservoirs filled beyond capacity and burst,” Jeff Smith wrote in 2003 in the San Diego Reader. “Flash floods barraged every canyon and arroyo. They carried off barns and houses, some rolling head over heels on the rapids. The concrete bridge at Old Town collapsed. At 5:30 p.m., the rock-fill dam on Otay Lake disintegrated. Backed by 50-mile-an-hour winds from the east, an estimated three billion gallons of water made a gigantic spillway down through Cottonwood Creek, the Tia Juana River, and finally out to sea.”
While the official report stated that 22 people had died, some estimate that the number was as high as 50. Among the devastation was $1.5 million in damage to agricultural lands, $650,000 in damage to highways and bridges, and, most importantly, the loss of stored water from the busted dams and reservoirs.
He wasn’t satisfied with fleeing for his life. The town still owed him $10,000.
The event came to be known as Hatfield’s Flood, and the locals knew exactly who they blamed for their suffering. As the death threats began to pour in, Hatfield, who was completely oblivious to the destruction that was occurring from his perch outside of town, got the hell out of San Diego.
But he wasn’t satisfied with fleeing for his life. In his eyes, he had fulfilled his end of the bargain—over-fulfilled, you might say. The town still owed him $10,000.
But when he sued the town for payment, he found himself in a legal conundrum. Despite having hired him to provide rain, the town now refused to concede that he was responsible for it—lawyers called the flood an “act of god.” If Hatfield wanted to fight them for payment, they were willing to give him the credit and concede the funds. But, they warned, if he got the credit, he also would be forced to take responsibility for the destruction that had occurred and the monetary claims of loss that the city now faced.
Hatfield fought for a year before finally leaving without a cent.
But while the City Council may have refused to validate his work, he would go down in infamy in popular culture.
Among the references to his rainmaking that survive is one poetic plea written by a citizen of Los Angeles to beg Hatfield to stop his work for the city before he ruined an upcoming parade. One wonders if Hatfield thought about it years later as he surveyed the fruits of his “labor” in San Diego.
“Oh Mister Hatfield, you’ve been good to us: / You’ve made it rain in ways promiscuous! / From Saugus down to San Diego’s Bay / They bless you for the rains of yesterday. / But Mister Hatfield, listen now; / Make us this vow: / Oh, please, kind sir, don’t let it rain on Monday!”
Check out these photos – taken 105 years ago in January 1916 during the Great Floods of the Rainmaker. (Most of these photos are from the San Diego Historical Society.)