By the early 1900’s, the art of rainmaking offered more hype than hope. Before large-scale water projects, farmers, ranchers, cities, and towns in the arid west were often desperate for liquid relief. They would pay handsome fees to anyone who could summon moisture from the air.
Most of these self-professed pluviculturists were con men. Some were run out of town and others simply skipped town. Yet, amid the turmoil of the time, one man held himself above the fray. His name was Charles Hatfield and he was a moisture accelerator.
Hatfield had been inspired by early reports on pluviculture – the new “science” of making rain. By 1902 he developed his own cocktail of 23 chemicals, and related release gadgetry, which he believed would attract rain. In 1904 he was ready for the clouds to rumble and he hired a promoter to get the word out about his capabilities.
His first clients were several ranchers in Los Angeles and his initial rainmaking attempts were so successful that his reputation spread. Even the City of Los Angeles hired him to make it rain. He promised the city 18 inches of rain and delivered. He received a whopping fee of $1,000 (approximately $24,400 today) for his efforts.
His success led him to the Yukon Territory in 1906, where he was invited to make it rain for the Klondike mining industry. The mines in the area were fed by precipitation so it was difficult for the miners to get enough water for their sluicing and hydraulicking activities. He signed a contract for $10,000, a small fortune for his time (roughly $250,000 in today’s dollars).
In an interesting twist of fate, Hatfield had minimal success in the Yukon, with only two small showers over his test period. Hatfield expressed dismay with his inability to produce rain for his clients and chalked it up to “the still imperfect understanding of the principles of scientific rainmaking.”
However, Chief Isaac, the leader of the Hän people at Moosehide, had a different explanation for Hatfield’s failure. The Chief said his inability to make it rain was “due to the power of the First Nation’s four Medicine Men.” If the miners truly desired rain, they should make an agreement with his people and his Medicine Men would produce “oceans of rain” for half the cost.
Did the Hän Medicine Men influence his failure? Who really knows, but Hatfield was clearly shut-out and he shut-down his operation. He left with barely enough money to cover his expenses and headed back to California.
Years later his biggest rainmaking “success” would lead to death and destruction. In 1915 drought-stricken San Diego hired Hatfield to fill the Morena Dam reservoir. Terms were discussed but a formal agreement was never signed. Hatfield was to be paid $10,000 to fill the reservoir over the course of a year.
He began his work on January 1st, 1916. News reports suggest he had an immediate impact with a light drizzle starting shortly after he began. It rained directly over Morena Dam on January 5th, but it wasn’t until January 10th that some serious precipitation started to fall. In fact, that’s when things started to go awry.
According to historical accounts, it rained heavily from January 10th through January 18th. On January 17, the San Diego River overflowed its banks and flooded the Mission Valley. The Associated Press reported Mission Valley was “inundated for miles” and “flood waters of the Tijuana River threatened…and submerged many homes at San Ysidro, a few miles south of this city.”
Hatfield, believing his agreement with San Diego was well on its way to completion, stepped forward on January 20th to finalize his contract with the city. Skeptics denounced his contention of rainmaking…until more storms hit southern California and the Otay Dam, southeast of San Diego, collapsed causing massive destruction and the loss of 20 lives. The event came to be known as the Hatfield Flood
Suddenly everyone believed it was Hatfield’s fault. He had intervened with nature and was negligent in knowing how to stop the rain. Rumors of lynch mobs looking for Hatfield didn’t keep him from seeking payment for services rendered.
In a prompt about-face, the City Attorney denied his payment unless he accepted full legal responsibility for the flood and its damage. Hatfield sought a settlement through the court system which was ultimately dismissed when the Judge ruled the flood was “an act of God” and apparently not an act of man.
Despite the catastrophe of the Hatfield Flood, his services were very much in demand until around 1930 when the economy of the entire country came crashing to a halt with the Great Depression. This was also the time that large dams and canal systems were being constructed in the west and so need for rainmakers was greatly diminished.
Some sources expressed that Hatfield had over 500 rainmaking successes, but professional meteorologists continued to doubt his claims based upon known weather patterns occurring at the time.
In the end, Hatfield died in obscurity in 1958.
Did his chemical concoction ever really attract rain? No one will ever know. He took the formula with him to the grave.
- Emery, David, Did San Diego Hire a ‘Rainmaker’ to End a Drought in 1916? Snopes Fact Check Website. Posted January 15, 2018. Accessed April 29, 2018.
- Klein, Christopher, When San Diego Hired A Rainmaker A Century Ago, It Poured. Daily JSTOR Website. Posted December 15, 2015. Accessed April 29, 2018.
- Maxwell, Patricia, The Rainmaker, Charles Hatfield, and the Flood of 1916. San Diego Free Press website. Posted January 13, 2016. Accessed April 29, 2018.
- Maxwell, Patricia, When Rain Comes Charles Hatfield’s Secret Formulas. San Diego Free Press website. Posted January 20, 2016. Accessed April 29, 2018.
- Yukon: Placer Mining Industry, 1998-2002 (PDF). Whitehorse, Yukon: Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Mining Inspection Division, Yukon Region. 2003. pp. 28–29. ISBN 0-662-33838-3.