He was right as rain, to a fault

With San Diego again caught in a drought, the city re­vis­its Charles Hat­field’s 1915 ‘Rain­maker’ saga

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Tony Perry

SAN DIEGO — As Cal­i­for­nia is find­ing out, drought can make peo­ple — and their gov­ern­ments — do things that might oth­er­wise be un­think­able. Take the San Diego of 1915. With their small city be­set by drought, civic lead­ers hired “mois­ture ac­cel­er­a­tor” Charles Hat­field, who claimed to have a se­cret for­mula of chem­i­cals to pro­duce rain.

“It was a dis­as­ter,” said Rick Craw­ford, su­per­vi­sor of spe­cial col­lec­tions at San Diego’s cen­tral li­brary.

For $10,000, Hat­field promised to pro­duce enough rain to fill the city’s de­pleted reser­voirs. The oth­er­wise fis­cally con­ser­va­tive City Coun­cil agreed — although one coun­cil­man called the idea “fool­ish­ness.”

Hat­field and his younger brother built a 20-foot tower in the deep woods east of the city and be­gan what one city of­fi­cial would later call “an in­can­ta­tion aimed at wring­ing mois­ture from the air.”

Smoke drifted sky­ward.

What fol­lowed in Jan­uary and early Fe­bru­ary of 1916 was a down­pour — 30 inches of rain by some es­ti­mates.

Mission Val­ley f looded. The San Diego River jumped its banks. Farms, homes, bridges and busi­nesses were swept away. Lit­tle Lan­ders, a farm­ing com­mune, was de­stroyed. Two dams were dam­aged and a third failed. Es­ti­mates of the deaths range from a dozen to 50.

Hat­field, who had done other rain­mak­ing chores, de­cided to flee.

“Fear­ful of be­ing lynched by an­gry farm­ers, Hat­field ‘got out of Dodge,’ as the say­ing goes, leav­ing town dur­ing the night,” wrote Dan Walker in his “Thirst for In­de­pen­dence: The San Diego Wa­ter Story,” pub­lished in 2004. “He never re­ceived his $10,000.”

When the wa­ters re­ceded, Hat­field re­turned and filed a law­suit. Lit­i­ga­tion dragged on for years, not set­tled un­til the San Diego County Su­pe­rior Court re­jected it in 1938.

From the “Hat­field Flood” came a leg­end that has en­dured for decades, inspiring books, his­tor­i­cal re­views, at least two coun­try­west­ern songs and, very loosely, the 1956 movie “The Rain­maker” star­ring Burt Lan­caster and Katharine Hep­burn.

The de­bate con­tin­ues over whether Hat­field was a fraud or a man who had dis­cov­ered an early fore­run­ner to mod­ern cloud-seed­ing.

With San Diego again gripped by drought, the Hat­field saga is get­ting re­newed no­tice: a dis­play cu­rated by Craw­ford in the spe­cial col­lec­tions sec­tion of the down­town li­brary and a short docu-drama on the Travel Chan­nel.

Then, as now, San Diego was deeply con­cerned that its mea­ger amount of na­tive wa­ter would not sus­tain its pop­u­la­tion. By the late 19th cen­tury, San Diego of­fi­cials were determined to cap­ture as much rain runoff as pos­si­ble. “We were build­ing more dams than any­body in the world,” Craw­ford said.

A busi­ness or­ga­ni­za­tion called the San Diego Wide Awake Im­prove­ment Club de­manded that the City Coun­cil do more to keep San Diego from wither­ing with thirst.

When drought left the reser­voirs at a low ebb, the coun­cil was ready to take a chance, even if it meant spend­ing lots of money. The means have changed but not the mo­tive; as Walker’s book sug­gests, the quest for wa­ter “in­de­pen­dence” never ends in San Diego.

Mod­ern-day of­fi­cials have bet on an ex­pen­sive deal for wa­ter from the Im­pe­rial Val­ley and a $1-bil­lion de­sali­na­tion plant be­ing built in Carlsbad.

In 1915, of­fi­cials were taken with an im­pec­ca­bly dressed, po­litely earnest trans­plant from Kansas, the son of a de­vout Quaker fam­ily.

Charles Hat­field spoke in sci­en­tific terms and promised to work for free un­less he could fill the Morena reser­voir. He talked of hav­ing suc­cess­fully us­ing his rain­mak­ing tech­nique in Alaska, Los An­ge­les County, the San Joaquin Val­ley, Texas and Hemet. He had stud­ied the works of other rain­mak­ers, in­clud­ing the so-called Aus­tralian Wiz­ard, and was familiar with the popular book “El­e­men­tary Me­te­o­rol­ogy.”

At first, San Diego re­joiced at the rain: “Rain­maker Hat­field In­duces Clouds To Open,” read one head­line.

Then con­cern set in, fol­lowed by dis­tress and then hor­ror as the wa­ter roared west­ward, un­stop­pable. The San Diego River, usu­ally a few dozen yards wide, was cal­cu­lated to be a mile in width.

“It seemed the rains would never end and the dam­age would never stop mount­ing,” his­to­rian Thomas Pat­ter­son wrote in a 1970 ar­ti­cle for the San Diego His­tory Cen­ter. “Great trees tum­bled root over branch. Sticks of lum­ber, rail­road ties and parts of houses floated crazily.”

Just what Hat­field did at his tower near Lake Morena is un­clear.

Some ac­counts in­di­cate he set the chem­i­cals on fire and let the smoke drift up­ward.

Shel­ley Hig­gins, who later served as a Su­pe­rior Court judge, wrote in his book “The Fan­tas­tic City of San Diego” that he went by the tower and saw Hat­field “shoot­ing bombs” into the air.

The con­tro­versy and lit­i­ga­tion did not hurt Hat­field’s ca­reer. Of­fers to make rain came from farm­ers and oth­ers through­out the Mid­west and Texas.

The li­brary ex­hibit in­cludes a let­ter in 1920 from a New York-based sugar com­pany beg­ging Hat­field to come to Cuba. In 1929 he an­swered a plea from of­fi­cials in Hon­duras to pro­duce rain to douse a for­est fire.

The De­pres­sion ended Hat­field’s rain­mak­ing ca­reer; Dust Bowl farm­ers could not af­ford his ser­vices. He went back to his orig­i­nal trade: sell­ing sewing ma­chines.

Hat­field died in 1958 at age 82 and was buried in Glen­dale — never hav­ing re­vealed his chem­i­cal for­mula.

Gor­don Wal­lace Los An­ge­les Times

CHARLES HAT­FIELD scans for signs of rain. The de­bate con­tin­ues over whether he was a fraud.

CHARLES HAT­FIELD (on lad­der) and his brother built a tower east of San Diego in hopes of “wring­ing mois­ture from the air.” What fol­lowed was f lood­ing.

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