Southern California has weathered many droughts, most endured by native peoples who couldn’t do much but seek the most reliable of their watering holes and hope for enough to get through. By the early part of the 20th century, many reservoirs had been built, offering a buffer against the dry times. A hundred years ago those familiar drought conditions were plaguing San Diego. In 1915, San Diego was a small but growing city and its water needs were also growing. The rainfall records of that year don’t indicate severe drought conditions, and in fact by year’s end there was even more rain than average. But the city fathers were concerned about future needs and were looking for ways to increase the amount of stored water.
At about this time, a former sewing machine salesman named Charles Hatfield came to their attention. He had been for some years engaged in the somewhat questionable business of rainmaking. By means of burning concoctions of secret chemical brews or blasting explosions of these mixtures into the sky from tall wooden towers, he claimed to induce clouds to let loose with their bounty and save parched farmers and cities. He had been successful, by his own accounts, in 16 out of 17 instances of rainmaking. He worked his miracles all over California’s Central Valley, Southern California, the Midwest, and even in Alaska. The amazing results of his activities sometimes occurred after some rain had already fallen or was in progress, but he claimed he increased the amount that came down. Residents of the places he practiced his form of science were by and large delighted by the results, though there remained skeptics who felt he was only lucky in his timing. All droughts eventually break, after all.
But Charley was talkative and good at persuasion, so when the City of San Diego expressed the desire to see Morena Reservoir filled, he said he could do it. That water container had been hugely overbuilt in 1897, and never filled. His handshake contract promised $10,000 for bringing sufficient rain to top off the basin, then at about one-third capacity. He struck a deal whereby he’d only be paid if he delivered that much rain. Hatfield and his crew went to work in January of 1916. Things started slowly and gradually, with rain indeed falling, whether by Hatfield’s hand or that of nature. By January 10th, the precipitation really started to take off. San Diego got intermittent rain but in the hills it came down strong and without pause. This continued for the next week and people began to worry about the operation being too successful. The San Diego river topped its banks and covered much of Mission Valley. Small communities began to get flooded and erosion of hillsides and good farmland soil grew and grew. With well over 30 inches falling in January in some parts of the county, the landscape was transformed by the amount of mass wasting in the hills. Railroad tracks, roads, and telephone lines were washed away, leaving the county cut off for a month. Morena Reservoir filled and spilled, but another dam failed and caused even more damage as all manner of debris poured downstream to the sea, destroying houses and farmland. San Diego’s urban area, on somewhat higher ground, had less damage but by the end of January, 20 to 50 people in nearby communities had been killed, the region was soaked beyond absorption, and the damage was enormous.
City of San Diego did not make good on its agreement to pay Hatfield his $10,000, and some wanted to lynch him. Hatfield found it prudent to beat it out of town. Whether he had indeed caused all the rain, he was not popular. Hatfield later brought suit for the payment, but never received it. The city claimed he couldn’t prove he had caused the rain, and if he did, he’d be liable for the damages. His rainmaking career continued in other places with successes, but never the disaster that befell San Diego. How did he do it, you might ask, given our present circumstances. We’ll never know – he died in 1958 without ever disclosing the secret formula he sent skyward.