TAHOE NUGGET #231: HATFIELD THE RAINMAKER
This March, Lake Tahoe finally had a decent month of rain and snow worthy of the winter season. However, the April 2 snow survey that measured the liquid equivalent in the Sierra snowpack came in at a disappointing 55 percent of normal. One above-average month of rain and snow wasn’t enough to make up for this mostly bone dry season. This graph represents an average of how much precipitation has fallen in the Northern Sierra since October 1, the beginning of the water year.
Blue line represents this winter. Note huge spike in precipitation during March. Red line indicates last winter's profile. Note how precipitation continued to add up well into June.
The early April survey is considered the most important of the year since the snowpack usually peaks at this time, just before it begins to melt and feed the state’s streams, reservoirs and aquifers. With only one month left with statistical chances for much precipitation before the storm season shuts down for good, it’s too late to bring on the Indian “snow-dance” or call in professional rainmakers like days of yore.
Avid fans of the American rock group Widespread Panic are familiar with their tune “Hatfield.” The song spins a tale about an early 20th century rainmaker named Charles Hatfield who was famous for producing moisture during extended droughts. In December 1915, San Diego’s city council promised to pay Hatfield the Rainmaker $10,000 if he could generate enough precipitation to break a four-year dry spell that had dessicated local reservoirs.
In the contract, Hatfield stated: “I will produce enough rain to fill the Morena Reservoir to overflowing, between now and next December , for the sum of $10,000. I will deliver the first 30 inches of rainfall at no charge (San Diego averages just over 10 inches of rain per year). But you will pay me $500 per inch, for the next 20 inches. Should I fail to deliver as promised, I ask for no compensation whatever.” It was a bold, brash statement but incredibly, Hatfield would be good to his word, and then some!
Hatfield was a “pluviculturist,” a term coined by a Stanford University professor to describe the type of pseudo-scientific quackery regarding weather modification that was popular in the decades around the turn of the 20th century. These “weather wizards” traveled around the country, boasting about the efficacy of their proprietary chemical brews, strange machinery, and artillery firepower used to bring the rain. Each flimflam artist took a different approach to rain making; whether unleashing fusillades of cannon fire into the atmosphere, stirring up chemical concoctions that wafted into the air, or cranking dynamos to send electric charges up long metal wires suspended by balloons rising into the clouds, all in hopes of pulling water from the sky.
"Weather Wizard" using electricity to coax rain from clouds, circa 1880.
Mankind’s quixotic quest to influence weather is as old as civilization itself. Best known among America’s huckster rainmakers was “Professor” Charles Mallory Hatfield. Born in Kansas about 1875, the sewing machine salesman had no formal education beyond ninth grade. By 1902, young Hatfield was studying weather records and finding work as a noted rain engineer in San Diego and Los Angeles. In early December 1904, he approached some L.A. business interests with a proposal to guarantee 18 inches of rain by April 1905 in exchange for $1,000. Hatfield seemed to take a big risk betting his reputation on this contract, but when 18 inches had fallen by the deadline and the money paid, the public and press began to take Hatfield much more seriously. The following year he earned $250 from Grass Valley-based South Yuba Water Company when he broke a dry spell with a 4.5 inch deluge.
Charles Hatfield studied weather and climate patterns to enhance his chances for success.
Hatfield’s reputation was based on fortuitous rains that seemed to follow his “treatments,” as well as his simple, down-to-earth approach. Many would-be rainmakers were con-men trying to separate desperate, drought-stricken farmers from their hard-earned cash. Hatfield, however, had a marketing advantage over most of them. He came across as being honest and a straight-shooter. Unlike other flamboyant shysters who relied on flashy pyrotechnics and other outlandish methods meant to dazzle their clients, Hatfield was modest. He said, “I do not make rain. That would be an absurd claim. I simply attract clouds and they do the rest.”
It seemed that Hatfield really believed that his approach was an effective weather producer. In reality, as someone knowledgeable about weather and climate, he calculated that it would probably rain anyway within the time parameters of the contracts he offered. Hatfield, assisted by his brother Paul, erected tall towers topped by large wooden containers filled with a noxious, gas-producing brew. Hatfield claimed that certain chemicals stimulated by electricity, when released into the atmosphere, could increase rainfall, a concept similar to how fertilizer applied to crops boosted production. Although Hatfield said that the odor was mild, one farmer observed, “These gases smell so bad that it rains in self-defense.” Hatfield said, “I have nothing to do with bombs, dynamite or explosives of any kind whatever.” His low-key approach stood out in stark contrast against his competition.
Charles Hatfield stands before his rain towers near Hemet, California, 1912.
By the time Hatfield cut the deal with the San Diego Chamber of Commerce in Dec. 1915, he had been disparaged as a fraud by the U.S. Weather Bureau, but he was big news all across the country. After negotiations with civic leaders, Hatfield withdrew his commitment to produce 30 inches of rain, but promised to fill the city’s depleted reservoir system for $10,000. Although a formal agreement was never drawn up or signed by the town council, by early January Hatfield had built a tower near the Morena Reservoir and his brew was wafting into the sky. The first heavy rain storm hit on Jan. 10, followed by days of persistent showers that led to even more intense downpours that lasted much of the month. No one had ever seen such rain, but Hatfield continued to work his magic up in the mountains, about 60 miles east of San Diego. Near Hatfield’s tower, nearly 13 inches of precipitation fell in just four days.
The unusual tempest temporarily halted a Panama-California Exposition being held in Balboa Park. The weather also forced officials to cancel opening day races at the new Agua Caliente Race Track in Tijuana. Rising waters throughout the region began washing away bridges, marooning passenger trains, and flooding homes. Despite the deluge, Hatfield used a telephone to call City Hall from his remote location at Morena: “I just wanted to tell you that it is only sprinkling now. Within the next few days I expect to make it rain right…just hold your horses until I show you a real rain.”
Heavy rain in January 1916 washed out bridges and stranded trains.
Meanwhile, San Diego engineers watched nervously as torrents of water poured into the regional reservoirs; Morena, Chollas, and Upper and Lower Otay lakes. Operators warned that despite huge releases through relief gates, several dams were at risk for failure due to the unprecedented inflow. Their worst fears were realized when the Lower Otay Dam collapsed and water surged out of the mountains toward the ocean, sweeping away everything in its path. Afterwards San Diego was cut-off from the outside world save for naval ships that ferried people and supplies. Fortunately, due to the sparsely populated countryside, less than 20 people died.
In addition to the Lower Otay Dam failure, water breached the Sweetwater Dam as well.
San Diego picked up 300 percent of normal rainfall for that January, but refused to pay Hatfield his $10,000 until he paid for the nearly $4 million in damages he caused. A lesson was learned, however. When San Diego hired a cloud seeder in 1948, the city took out damage insurance. As a wise man once said, “Timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance.”
Charles Hatfield may have been a con man, but his reputation for "milking the skies" hasn't been forgotten.
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