TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Avid fans of the American rock group Widespread Panic are familiar with their tune “Hatfield.” The song spins a true tale about an early 20th century rainmaker named Charles Hatfield who was famous for producing rain during droughts. In December 1915 San Diego’s city council promised to pay Hatfield $10,000 if he could generate enough precipitation to break a four-year drought that had dried up local reservoirs.
In negotiation with the city, Hatfield insisted he could fill the city’s Morena Reservoir within one year for the sum of $10,000. Even though San Diego averages little more than 10 inches of rain a year, he said he would deliver 30 inches of rain for free, but then he wanted $500 per inch for the next 20 inches. It was an outlandish proposition, but Hatfield would be good to his word, and then some!
Hatfield was a “pluviculturist,” a term coined to describe the type of pseudo-scientific quackery regarding weather modification that was popular around the turn of the 20th century. These “weather wizards” traveled the west, boasting about their proprietary chemical brews, strange machinery, and artillery firepower used to bring rain. Each flimflam artist took a different approach to rain making; whether unleashing fusillades of cannon fire into the atmosphere, stirring up chemical concoctions, 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.
Mankind’s quixotic quest to influence weather is as old as civilization itself. “Professor” Charles Mallory Hatfield was the best known among America’s huckster rainmakers. 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 “rain engineer” in Southern California. In December 1904, he approached some Los Angeles businessmen with a proposal to guarantee 18 inches of rain by April 1905 in exchange for $1,000. Hatfield was taking 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 this weather wizard more seriously. The following year he earned $250 from Grass Valley-based South Yuba Water Company when he apparently broke a dry spell with a 4.5 inch downpour.
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, came across as being honest and a straight-shooter. Unlike flamboyant shysters who relied on flashy pyrotechnics to dazzle their clients, Hatfield was modest. “I do not make rain,” he said. “That would be an absurd claim. I simply attract clouds and they do the rest.”
Hatfield erected tall towers topped by large wooden containers filled with a noxious, gas-producing brew. Hatfield claimed certain chemicals stimulated by electricity could increase rainfall. Although Hatfield said the odor was mild, one farmer observed, “These gases smell so bad that it rains in self-defense.” By the time Hatfield cut a deal with the San Diego Chamber of Commerce in late 1915, he had been disparaged as a fraud by the U.S. Weather Bureau. Ultimately, Hatfield withdrew his commitment to produce 30 inches of rain, but promised to fill the city’s depleted reservoir system for $10,000. A formal agreement was never signed by the town council, but by early January Hatfield had built a tower near the Morena Reservoir about 60 miles east of San Diego. 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. Near Hatfield’s tower, nearly 13 inches of precipitation fell in just four days.
Rising waters throughout the region began washing away bridges, marooning passenger trains, and flooding homes. Meanwhile, San Diego reservoir operators were nervous as several dams were at risk for failure due to the unprecedented inflow. Finally, one dam collapsed and water surged out of the mountains toward the ocean, sweeping away everything in its path. 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.
San Diego was doused with 300 percent of normal rainfall in January 1916, but council members refused to pay Hatfield his money 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.”
— Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his new blog: www.tahoenuggets.com