As California endures its worst drought in 1,200 years, residents of the Golden State are turning to extreme—and desperate—measures to quench their collective thirst. Sun-baked farmers are hiring “water witches” to divine underground water sources with forked branches, while a company called Rain on Request has pledged to end the drought by building electrical towers that would induce rainfall by ionizing the atmosphere. When California found itself in a similar parched position exactly 100 years ago, the city of San Diego did something that seems even more bizarre—it hired a rainmaker. The thing is, it might have worked. After Charles Mallory Hatfield began his work to wring water from the skies, San Diego experienced its wettest period in recorded history. So was the rain an act of God or an act of Hatfield?
A century ago, in 1915, as today, San Diego thirsted for water. Dangerously low reservoir levels threatened the region’s potential to grow. Promoters of the city’s Panama-California Exposition, entering its second year, worried about the drought’s impact on fair attendance. A civic organization, the San Diego Wide Awake Improvement Club, demanded action.
Onto the arid stage—and into San Diego’s city council chamber on December 13, 1915—stepped a potential savior. A dapper, 40-year-old sewing machine salesman named Charles Mallory Hatfield vowed to make it rain. As Barbara Tuthill details in “Hatfield the Rainmaker,” the self-professed “moisture accelerator” told the councilors that he could have the Morena Reservoir—only one-third full at the time—overflowing within a year for a fee of $10,000, to be paid only if he succeeded.
Hatfield’s path to San Diego started more than a decade earlier in nearby Bonsall. There, on his father’s ranch, Hatfield conducted his first rainmaking experiments from the top of a windmill tower.
By 1904, he was able to convince some of California’s water-starved ranchers and farmers that he could milk the skies by releasing a secret 23-chemical cocktail into the air from tall wooden towers perched on stilts. “I do not make rain,” Hatfield said. “That would be an absurd claim. I simply attract clouds, and they do the rest.”
In December of 1904, he guaranteed Los Angeles business leaders that he could coax 18 inches of rain to fall over the ensuing five months in return for $1,000. When the target was eclipsed, the rainmaker became a star. “Hatfield immediately became the darling of excitement-hungry newspapers and popular magazines,” wrote scholar Clark C. Spence.
Although a salesman by trade, Hatfield was no smooth-talking huckster. Born into a devout Quaker family, he had a polite, homespun manner. His piercing eyes were as blue as water, and his eerily pale skin suggested that he had little affinity for the sun.
As scholar James Rodger Fleming pointed out, Hatfield followed in the soggy footsteps of a line of scientists and pseudo-scientists who claimed they could make the skies weep. The founding father of American rainmaking was perhaps James Pollard Espy, “the leading meteorologist of his day” according to Fleming. In his 1841 book The Philosophy of Storms, Espy claimed that by moving humid air currents upward into the cooler layers of the atmosphere, condensation would occur and rain could be artificially induced. After being hired as the country’s first federally funded meteorologist the following year, Espy tested his thermal theory of storms by intentionally setting forest fires to create massive updrafts, but the experiments fizzled along with his thesis.
Other “pluviculturists,” the term for pseudo-scientists engaged in rainmaking, believed they could shoot the moisture out of the sky through shock and awe, a notion that dated back to Plutarch, who noted that “extraordinary rains pretty generally fall after great battles.” In 1871’s War and the Weather, Edward Powers itemized more than 200 instances of precipitation falling just after Civil War artillery engagements.
The concussive theory of rainmaking gained such traction that in the early 1890s Congress appropriated nearly $20,000 to test it in drought-stricken Texas. Civil War veteran Robert St. George Dyrenforth, who oversaw the experiments, deployed his assistants as if he was going to war with the great blue yonder. He assembled three battle lines that included 60 makeshift guns, kites bearing explosives, and balloons laden with a combustible mix of hydrogen and oxygen. When the experiments ultimately proved more successful in setting the prairie aflame than in making it rain, Dyrenforth earned the mocking nickname “Dry-Henceforth.”
Hatfield, The Rain Man
Hatfield graduated from yet another school of rainmaking that emerged in the 1890s in which practitioners brewed secret chemical formulas that they burned in an attempt to produce fumes that would make clouds blossom into rain producers. By the time he made his offer to San Diego in 1915, Hatfield could point to 17 contracts he had signed with commercial entities ranging from cotton growers in Texas to mine operators in Alaska. He commanded as much as $4,000 in return for the delivery of the four-inch rainfall that he typically promised to municipalities across southern California as a result of his chemical concoctions.
San Diego’s desperate city council was willing to give Hatfield the job, particularly because it would only have to pay out in the event that a deluge struck the city. “It’s heads, the city wins; tails, Hatfield loses,” said Councilman Walter Moore after his fellow members verbally agreed to hire the rainmaker. Only Councilman Herbert Fay objected to the deal, calling it “rank foolishness.”
Even though he still lacked a signed contract as San Diego rang in the new year of 1916, Hatfield set off deep into the woods 60 miles east of the city and began construction of a 20-foot tower near the banks of the Morena Reservoir. He poured his rainmaking brew into shallow iron pans resting on a platform at the top of the wooden structure. Curiosity-seekers reported that Hatfield set the fluids on fire and let the smoke drift skyward. One witness noted that the noxious chemicals smelled as if “a Limburger cheese factory has broken loose.”
When a light sprinkle christened the New Year, a newspaper headline cheered, “Rainmaker Hatfield Induces Clouds to Open.” The rain grew steadier over the next couple of weeks. And then on January 15, a biblical rain started to descend from the heavens. As much as 17 inches of rain fell in the mountains outside San Diego over the ensuing five days as rejoicing quickly morphed into horror. The San Diego River leaped over its banks and ran a mile wide. Landslides oozed down saturated mountains. Floodwaters washed away nearly everything in the vicinity, including homes, roads, railroad tracks, telephone lines, and the entire community of Little Landers.
Although rain was simultaneously dousing cities up and down the Pacific coastline, even skeptical San Diegans wondered if Hatfield indeed possessed pluvian powers. “Let’s pay Hatfield $10,000 to quit,” quipped one property owner after he was rescued in a rowboat. The San Diego Union reported that Hatfield called city hall to say, “Within the next few days I expect to make it really rain.” When asked if he was joking, he replied, “Never more serious in my life. Just hold your horses, and I’ll show you a real rain.”
Indeed, the drenching rains quickly returned after a brief respite—with deadly consequences. On January 27, the mighty stone dam at the Lower Otay Reservoir gave way, sending a 40-foot wall of water thundering to the coastline. More than a dozen people died in the torrent that swept away all trees, livestock, and houses in its path.
By the time the epic rain stopped in San Diego County, nearly 30 inches had fallen in a month, making January 1916 the wettest period in the region’s recorded history. The county coroner estimated that 50 people had died in what residents began to call “Hatfield’s Flood.” With communication and transportation lines severed, naval ships were required to ferry people and supplies in and out of San Diego. As promised by Hatfield, water lapped to the top of Morena Reservoir, yet no one was particularly happy about it.
Believing he had upheld his end of the bargain, the rainmaker walked the 60 flood-stricken miles back to San Diego to collect his money. With city officials flooded with not only rain but also lawsuits seeking compensation for the resulting damage, city attorney Terence Cosgrove refused to pay Hatfield—that would make San Diego liable for the deluge in the eyes of the courts. Cosgrove denied payment on the basis that a contract was never inked and that Hatfield could not furnish proof that the rain was of his own doing and not an act of God. The attorney did say he would be willing to pay the $10,000 if Hatfield took responsibility for the damages, but the rainmaker refused and sued the city. The litigation dragged on for two decades before it was finally dismissed in 1938. Hatfield never received a dime from the city.
San Diego didn’t want to pay Hatfield, but others surely did. Over the next decade, he received offers from as far away as Cuba and Honduras, where he was hired to put out jungle fires to protect the country’s banana crop. In 1921, he signed the biggest contract of his career—in excess of $25,000—to bring five inches of rain to Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. The Great Depression, however, decimated his business. Spending dried up, and newly constructed dams improved civil water supplies. Not even the Dust Bowl could revive his rainmaking career.
Hatfield briefly returned to the public eye in 1956 to attend the premiere of The Rainmaker, a Hollywood production loosely based on his life that starred Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn. Two years later, he died, taking his secret chemical formula to the grave. Hatfield was laid to rest under clear skies, just the type he would want to milk for rain.
Critics claimed Hatfield was a huckster who merely benefited from coincidence. As Spence pointed out, many so-called rainmakers “were little more than gamblers, betting their time and what reputation they may have had that rain would fall while or after they commenced their machinations.” By working only in the midst of dry spells, Hatfield could improve his odds of timing an impending rainfall. Indeed, Hatfield likely profited from his keen knowledge of meteorology and close examination of weather records. Knowing when storm fronts were imminent, he could target cities in advance of the rain and claim success when moisture fell from the skies.
Others saw Hatfield as a forerunner of modern-day cloud-seeding, in which chemicals such as dry ice and silver iodide—perhaps among those used by Hatfield—are introduced into cloud banks to foster the formation of ice crystals and raindrops. These chemicals provide particles around which water vapor can condense and eventually fall as rain once the droplets reach a sufficient size. The condensation process generates its own heat, which causes air to rise and fosters the growth of additional rain clouds.
While Hatfield relied on the ascension of chemical vapors into the skies, rainmaking went airborne with the advent of the aircraft. The U.S. Army Air Service began experiments to determine if rain could be produced from electrified sand in 1921; however, the modern science of rainmaking truly began in 1947 with Project Cirrus, a joint venture of General Electric and the U.S. military under the direction of Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir that seeded clouds with dry ice. “The results of Project Cirrus gave scientific credence to the mystic works of such pioneer rainmakers as California’s now famous Charles Hatfield,” wrote Donald D. Stark in the California Law Review.
A century after Hatfield’s exploits, the science of rainmaking and the effectiveness of cloud-seeding remain points of contention, as Virginia Simms wrote in a 2010 article in The International Lawyer. Even so, cloud-seeding is on the rise. A 2014 report from the World Meteorological Organization found that 52 countries had active cloud-seeding programs, up from 47 the previous year, and 39 weather-modification programs were in place west of the Mississippi River.
Even after its experience in 1915, San Diego continued to be seduced by the hope offered by rainmakers. Incredibly, in 1961, the city council considered hiring Edmond Jeffery, who promised he could make it rain 40 inches in 40 days for a fee of $8,000. This time, with memories of “Hatfield’s Flood” still echoing in their minds, San Diego’s councilors refused the offer.