In 1916 A “Rainmaker” Was Hired To End San Diego’s Drought – But The Result Was A Devastating Flood

Image: Bettmann/Contributor / via Tribune Publishing

It’s December 1915, and San Diego, California, has not seen wet weather for weeks. Desperate and drought-stricken, the authorities turn to an unlikely ally – Charles Hatfield, a man who claims to be able to make it rain. But Hatfield’s tricks seem all too successful, and the city soon finds itself drowning in an epic flood.

Image: via San Diego Magazine

Back in the 16th century, the first Europeans arrived on America’s west coast, naming the area where they landed San Diego Bay. And more than 200 years later, they founded the earliest settlement in the region. And that community would eventually grow into the vast city of San Diego, California.

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But although the presence of the San Diego River attracted early explorers, by the 20th century the city was lacking in natural water supplies. Instead, citizens depended heavily on artificial stores such as reservoirs. And when long dry spells came, these resources were known to dry up entirely.

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Despite these problems, however, San Diego was thriving, just like many cities across the United States. With the troubles of the Civil War long behind them, Americans were enjoying an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. And by the early 20th century, the country had become a world leader in industry.

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As America prospered, its cities grew. And, thanks to the railroads, more people than ever came to the previously isolated communities of the west. Meanwhile, in San Diego, the bay’s strategic naval location, along with its temperate climate, promised to make it a world-famous destination in its own right.

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However, the arid conditions that made San Diego appealing also caused significant problems for the city. And in the winter of 1915, residents experienced drought after several weeks of unbroken dry weather. As the reservoirs on which the citizens were so dependent began to empty, the mood became one of increasing desperation.

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Today, a lengthy drought might see the authorities placing a limit on luxuries such as garden sprinklers and swimming pools. But back in 1915, there were no similar policies to fall back on. Instead, Californian officials consulted Hatfield, a self-proclaimed rainmaker who assured them that he could end the dry spell.

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Amazingly, Hatfield was far from the first of the rainmakers. In fact, back in 1841, the meteorologist James Pollard Espy published The Philosophy of Storms, a book in which he laid out some startling claims. Apparently, the author believed that he had figured out how to bend the weather to his will.

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According to Espy, controlling the weather was relatively simple. Apparently, it just required relocating hot air into the cooler upper atmosphere, artificially causing condensation to form. And in this manner, rain could be produced. In fact, he even advocated the burning of forests as a method of inducing precipitation in Appalachia.

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Although Espy’s ideas might seem outlandish today, he was apparently regarded as the foremost weather expert of his time. And in 1843, he secured a position as the U.S. Government’s first official meteorologist. In fact, although his theories about rainfall proved inconclusive, his work laid the foundations for much of the forecasting that we do today.

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Compared to other rainmakers, or pluviculturists, Espy’s methods were almost scientific. However, some believed that nothing more than extreme emotion could inspire the heavens to open. Apparently, this theory dates back to the ancient Greek writer Plutarch, who reportedly observed that “extraordinary rains generally fall after great battles.”

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Some three decades after the publication of The Philosophy of Storms, a man named Edward Powers penned another interesting work. In War and the Weather, he expounded on Plutarch’s idea, detailing over 200 Civil War battles that had been succeeded by notable rainfall.

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Shockingly, towards the end of the 19th century, the U.S. Government invested almost $20,000 in testing pluviculture theory. Under the direction of Robert St. George Dyrenforth, a team of assistants launched guns, explosives and combustible chemicals into the atmosphere in the hopes of making it rain.

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Unsurprisingly, nothing happened – except for a few fires. And with these unsuccessful experiments, Dyrenforth earned himself the moniker “Dry-Henceforth.” However, around the same time, a new branch of rainmaking was emerging. And this time, its adherents were taking a more sensible approach.

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Born in July of 1875 in the Kansas settlement of Fort Scott, Hatfield was just a boy when his family relocated to California. Raised as a Quaker, by all accounts he grew into a polite and humble young man. And when he was older, he took a job in sales with the New Home Sewing Machine Company.

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However, Hatfield also developed an interest in pluviculture and began experimenting with his own techniques. And in 1902, he claimed to have invented an effective method of making it rain. Apparently, it involved evaporating a secret combination of 23 substances, thought to include nitroglycerine and dynamite, into the air.

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Hatfield referred to himself as “a moisture accelerator,” and had previously conducted his first real tests at the family’s ranch in Bonsall, near San Diego. At the top of a tower, he filled galvanized tanks with his secret formula and waited for it to rain. And amazingly, his approach appeared to work.

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In 1904 Hatfield began pursuing a commercial outlet for his rainmaking formula and enlisted the help of a promoter who launched a publicity campaign. That year, a number of curious California ranchers offered him $50 if he could produce the desired results. And after building a tower in Los Angeles, he climbed it to release his secret chemicals into the air.

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Amazingly, Hatfield’s formula appeared to work, and the ranchers duly forked over the promised cash. And from there, the rainmaker’s business went from strength to strength. However, he was humble about his success. “I do not make it rain,” he is reported to have said. “That would be an absurd claim. I simply attract clouds and they do the rest.”

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That December, Hatfield accepted a challenge from a collective of merchants also based in L.A. If he could make it rain a total of 18 inches over the course of the following five months, he would be furnished with a reward of $1,000. Keen to prove himself, the self-styled moisture accelerator constructed another tower and got to work.

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Apparently, Hatfield reached his target in just three months. And with almost 19 inches of rain recorded, the merchants had little choice but to award him his payment. Now something of a celebrity, the rainmaker and his unusual ability became regular features in the tabloid press of the era.

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In fact, in 1905, the Dawson Daily News reported that the rainmaker had apparently manipulated the weather on a number of occasions. “The indisputable fact is that Hatfield went into the hills 19 times to bring on rain, and 19 times it rained when he promised,” the article read.

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The following year, Hatfield was called to Canada’s remote Yukon territory, where the gold mines of the Klondike were dependent on sufficient rain. But even though he signed a lucrative contract for $10,000, the rainmaker did not appear to be successful this time. Instead, he ducked out of the deal without collecting his hefty fee.

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Amazingly, this incident had little impact on Hatfield’s growing fame. And by December 1915, he had an impressive track record behind him. In fact, he had completed as many as 17 official contracts, apparently delivering rain to satisfied customers all the way from Alaska to Texas.

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In San Diego, the rainmaker put forward a tempting proposition. Apparently, he told officials that he could fill the city’s Moreno Reservoir to overflowing in just 12 months. And if he didn’t, Hatfield told them, they would not have to pay him a dime. However, if he was successful, they would owe him $10,000.

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According to reports, the San Diego City Council voted four-to-one in favor of letting the rainmaker tackle the drought. In fact, they viewed it as an ideal solution to their dilemma. “It’s heads, the city wins; tails, Hatfield loses,” Walter Moore, a city official, is reported to have said.

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Despite the fact that the deal was never put in writing, Hatfield established a base outside the city and set about building a tower near the reservoir. Eventually, it reached some 20 feet in height. And as the new year began, he climbed to the top of his structure. Once there, the rainmaker laid out his special potion in iron containers.

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According to witnesses, Hatfield set the concoction alight, letting smoke rise up into the clouds. Apparently, one onlooker reported that the strange process gave off an unmistakable aroma of cheese. And shockingly, a light rain began to fall almost immediately after the ritual was complete.

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By January 5, the drizzle had turned into proper rainfall. Amazed, one local is said to have commented on the weather, only to have Hatfield respond with confidence. “You haven’t seen anything yet,” he is reported to have claimed. “Wait two weeks and it will really rain.”

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At first, the people of San Diego were elated that the unlikely plan seemed to have worked. In fact, one local newspaper ran the headline, “Rainmaker Hatfield Induces Clouds To Open.” Then, on January 10, the rain turned into a full-on deluge. And outside of the city, the weather was even worse.

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From then on, it seemed as if nothing could stop the rain. On January 14, things got even worse, and the biblical downpour continued for days. By now, property was beginning to get damaged, and forgotten storm drains had begun to overflow. Then, three days later, the San Diego River burst its banks. And in the resulting floods, entire roads and homes were washed away.

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But while the community reacted with horror, Hatfield remained proud of his apparent feat. In fact, he continued to insist that he would fulfil the conditions of his agreement. Meanwhile, the rain continued, and on January 27 the Lower Otay Dam outside the city collapsed. Tragically, some 20 people are thought to have died as a tidal wave of water swept the land.

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Eventually, the rain stopped, having poured almost 30 inches of water over the city of San Diego. It was, apparently, the wettest month that the region had ever seen. As many as 50 people in total were believed to have died, and the community was left all but cut off from the outside world. Nevertheless, Hatfield insisted that he had fulfilled his end of the deal.

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However, officials were now facing millions of dollars in legal claims and they refused to pay Hatfield his dues. Likely concerned about admitting liability for the floods, they argued that his informal contract was not valid. And when the rainmaker took them to court, they offered to pay him on one condition – that he accept legal responsibility for the deadly weather.

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For 20 years, Hatfield fought the city of San Diego for the money that he believed he was owed. The courts, however, repeatedly ruled that the floods had been an act of God. And in 1938, the case was dismissed for good. Amazingly, the incident did not have a negative impact on the rainmaker’s career, and he continued to receive a number of commissions over the years.

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In fact, in 1921 Hatfield was promised more than $25,000 if he could make it rain in the Canadian city of Medicine Hat. But eventually, the Great Depression put a stop to his lucrative business. For years, the rainmaker languished in relative obscurity, until a 1956 movie brought his story back into the public eye.

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That year, Burt Lancaster starred in The Rainmaker, a story somewhat based on the pluviculturist’s life. Interestingly, Hatfield did not seem to object to his depiction as a conman – in fact, he even attended the Hollywood premiere. And just two years after the movie’s release, he passed away, having never revealed the ingredients of his secret formula.

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So did Hatfield really make it rain all those years ago? According to experts, probably not. Instead, many believe that he was a trickster, using his expertise in meteorology to choose appropriate targets for his scam. Simply put, they believe that he was able to determine when storms were likely to hit and proposition cities with his solution before the inevitable rain fell.

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Apparently, Hatfield claimed to have created rain on over 500 occasions – an unlikely success rate that made his critics even more suspicious. As time has passed, however, modern methods of affecting the weather have become more commonplace. And today, the idea of a rainmaker seems perhaps less ridiculous than it might have done back in Hatfield’s time.

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In modern times, the practice of cloud-seeding is a common phenomenon, with more than 50 countries engaged in active programs. Essentially, this method involves introducing dry ice and other chemicals into clouds in the hope of producing rain – although its effectiveness has never been proven. So could Hatfield have simply been ahead of his time when it came to weather manipulation? Sadly, he took his secrets with him to the grave.

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