By Patricia Maxwell / This is Part II of a Series
In today’s world where landing a government contract is a labyrinthian process of being vetted, investigated and scrutinized, one wonders how the San Diego council chose Charles Hatfield, a rainmaker, to fill the nearly empty Morena Reservoir with water. Life was different in 1915, but one thing was similar and that is that it pays to have someone promote you.
Charles had Fred Binney, a man who jumped onto the rainmaking wagon after losing two-thirds of his citrus orchard in Otay to a drought. As early as 1912, Binney had approached the City Council about hiring Hatfield, but was turned down. By 1915, the Council was ready to listen.
Charles Hatfield made his pitch on December 9, 1915, promising to fill the Morena Reservoir within a year for $10,000. The Council voted four to one to hire him. Their decision wasn’t completely without background knowledge of Hatfield. Charles could be called a “local boy,” selling newspapers on the streets of San Diego as a kid; and later, conducting his first experiments in rainmaking at the family ranch in Bonsall.
He’d also been successful in producing rain in Los Angeles, the Central California valley, Texas and other areas known for their dryness.
Charles came from a Quaker background which stressed individuality, honesty and morality. Following in his father’s footsteps, he became a sewing machine salesman, always dressed in a freshly pressed suit, spotless shirt and tie. He was polite as well as diligent. A thin man, with a long nose, he was quiet except when he rhapsodized about weather theories. He was self-educated in rainmaking, reading numerous books and periodicals on the subject, being most influenced by “Elementary Meteorology,” written by Harvard Professor, William Morris Davis. Later in life, Charles stated that his compulsion to make rain stemmed from the severe droughts of the latter part of the nineteenth century and the impact this had on everyone from farmers to bankers.
Charles Hatfield usually wrote his own simple contracts for “moisture enhancement” as he called his work. When he made his presentation to the San Diego Council, he presented three alternative contracts. The council apparently accepted the one where he promised to fill Morena Reservoir within a year. It was a verbal agreement, since he and his youngest brother, Joel, set out for the mountains to begin work before a written contract was drawn up.
Throughout his lifetime, Hatfield never disclosed his secret formulas and discouraged visitors to his work sites. Seth Swenson, the dam keeper at Morena, and his wife, Maggie, lived in a cottage next to the dam and two miles away from where Charles and Joel set up their tower. Whenever the Swenson’s would approach the tower, Charles would come down the ladder or out from his tent and meet them twenty feet away from his work. Maggie recalls one conversation when she said “It’s sure raining now!” Charles replied “You haven’t seen anything yet. Wait two weeks and it will really rain.” The only thing the Swensons learned of Hatfield’s work was that he “was evaporating something from shallow pans.”
The Swensons relayed telephone messages to the Hatfield brothers. When unrelenting rain started on January 10 and flooding affected most of San Diego county, the newspaper wanted information from the rainmaker. By this time, roads were impassable. The only way to get a news story was via the Swenson’s telephone.
The story appeared in the next day’s paper. “The mysterious Hatfield, rainmaker, was said to be particularly active in the vicinity of Morena Sunday…While engaged in his experiments, Hatfield is not altogether sociable, but persons watching his work from a distance said he seemed to be on the job at all hours of the day and considers the downpour due to his efforts. Incidentally, it was said that Hatfield himself is getting a good soaking.
Hatfield’s scheme was on almost every tongue yesterday. Many were inclined to jest, but all agreed that things were going his way. (http://www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/70winter/hatfield.htm)
By January 27, when the Otay Reservoir Dam collapsed, people had more serious reasons for seeing Charles Hatfield. On the 30th, Maggie Swenson delivered a phone message to Charles that contained a threat that some people were on their way up the mountain to lynch the rainmakers.
Charles and Joel dismantled their tower, took down their tents and started walking the sixty miles to San Diego. The devastation must have surprised them. Angry, swollen rivers and streams. Trees, brush, dead animals tossed about in the muddy waters. Valleys completely inundated. Bridges gone. Railroads destroyed. Houses swept away. People lost.
On February 4, 1916, Charles held a press conference in which it became clear that collecting the $10,000 from the city of San Diego might be difficult. Many people claimed that Hatfield’s work didn’t produce rain. It was simply the result of a severe weather system moving through the entire coastline of California. The deal-breaking question, however, was this: “If Hatfield were to get credit for the rain, would he accept liability for the damage?”
The controversy that swirled around Charles Hatfield concerning his rain-making activities, is what caught my attention early on. The San Diego Central Library has a collection of his tools. In the ranger’s station at Morena Reservoir is a model of Hatfield’s tower and tents, along with other artifacts and pictures of the disaster. When I look at these things, my imagination conjures up the arguments of a hundred years ago:
“The man’s a con artist.”
“No, he isn’t. He’s been successful in the past.”
“A nice guy. Doesn’t sound or look like your usual snake-oil salesman.”
“The slick, polished men are the ones you really need to watch out for.”
“There could be some science behind it all.”
Patricia Maxwell grew up in Oregon and attended Walla Walla College in Washington state, where she started writing poetry which was published in the school literary magazine. She met her husband, Burton, at college. After they married, he became a pastor which led them to pastorates all over the country. In 55 years of marriage, they have moved 25 times! In the mid- 1960’s, in a tiny town in northwest Pennsylvania, with two toddlers, Patricia took a correspondence course in non-fiction writing. Since then, she has authored four inspirational books and many articles, humor pieces, as well as technical articles about her husband’s world-class model railroad. When Rain Comes is her first novel.