Charley Hatfield: The Rainmaker Who Flooded San Diego

Charley Hatfield made it rain. Allegedly.

He claimed to be able to bring rains to drought-ridden areas. No surprise then, that in the early 20th century, Southern California demanded his services. It was the February 2, 1904 edition of the Los Angeles Times that proclaimed him an “expert rain manufacturer.”

Days earlier, on January 31st, the Catholic and Protestant churches of Southern California banded together to call for a day of prayer for rain. The Los Angeles office for the US Weather Bureau foresaw none. Hatfield set up shop.

When it rained two days later, papers couldn’t stop talking about Hatfield. Although Hatfield had no witnesses or reporters covering his endeavor, the papers tracked down friends of Hatfield’s who guaranteed the man had set up equipment outside Newhall.

As hard as they tried, the papers could not actually locate Hatfield. He was a young salesman of sewing machines. They wrote his rain formula was a mixture of chemicals that sent vapor into the clouds. It took at least three hours to prepare. Rain would occur within five days.

His mother’s statement to the Times only bolstered his sudden legend: “The people’s prayers for rain have been answered through my son. For five years he has studied alone against prejudices. His determination is simply marvelous. Some divine power must aid him.”

Hatfield had set up a rainmaking tower with his brother Paul at the foot of an isolated hill in La Crescenta. According to legend, it wasn’t until the end of the week that the brothers stopped at a grocery store, bought a copy of the Times, and saw Charley’s name in print.

Now, the Hatfields didn’t immediately become full-time rainmakers. They went back to work selling sewing machines for the Robert B. Moorhead Agency. Charley made a solid salary for 1904: $125 a month. Rainmaking was, for Hatfield, a hobby or a side job. His family was also secure in its finances, owning a property large enough in Pasadena that Charley’s experiments in rainmaking took place far from the home.

In the years following, Charley’s legend as a rainmaker grew. He certainly helped it. Two years after the fact, he took credit for storms over San Diego that had taken place in 1902. His hobby became his calling and his legend sometimes spread faster than fact. Jobs took him from Southern California to Alaska. He became a household name everywhere west of the Mississippi River.

By this point in time, the job title of rainmaker would usually get you run out of a town. Con artists had plagued the Midwest in the decades previous, each harboring a secret formula and leaving town before the effects (but after their payment) had been secured. Expending the trust of this area of the country, and foiled by years of more generous rain, the rainmakers had pushed west. Charley was of the west, however. His claims seemed to come from passion, and early apparent successes dissuaded doubt. Perhaps this was because he hadn’t sought public consideration of his experiments until the Times landed a mountain of publicity in his lap.

Unlike many rainmakers, Charley would not accept pay without the production of rain. “Four Inches of Rain for Four Thousand Dollars. No Rain, No Pay.”

Despite his success, there’s only one thing more dangerous for a rainmaker than no rain. After being hired by the San Diego city council in December 1915, the city experienced too much rain. San Diego had agreed to pay Charley $10,000 if he could fill the Morena Reservoir. In the weeks following the rainmaker setting up his experiments, the reservoir filled. Then it overfilled, causing a thunderous waterfall over its spillway.

San Diego had experienced reasonable rainfall that season. The Morena Reservoir was at 5 billion of its 15-billion-gallon capacity. The situation there was hardly critical, but San Diego anticipated a boom in growth and recognized the shortage in other reservoirs. Ranchers were already making noise.

It was real estate broker Fred Binney, a friend of Charley’s wife, who campaigned for the city council to hire Hatfield. After three drafts of the contract had been drawn up, on December 13, 1915, the city council agreed to pay Charley $10,000 if he could fill the Morena Reservoir by December 20, 1916. He had a year and a week.

Councilman Moore stated the city’s logic thusly: “If he fills Morena, he will have put 10 billion gallons into it, which would cost the city one tenth of a cent per thousand gallons; if he fails to fulfill his contract, the city isn’t out anything. It’s head the city wins, tails Hatfield loses.”

The Morena Reservoir had never filled since its construction in 1897. It was expected to be nothing short of an act of God were it to fill. The Southern California Mountain Water Company had actually sold the reservoir to San Diego because they realized the structure had been built too large. They were paying taxes on it that didn’t justify the income it produced.

Charley set up on January 1, 1916. From the 10th to the 18th, it didn’t stop raining. Downpours were often torrential. Highways were closed. Railroads had to stop operation. A town named Little Landers on the Tijuana River wasn’t just flooded, its land was swept away.

Upon the city council’s agreement with the rainmaker, the San Diego Union wrote simply that it was “an excellent business proposition from the city’s standpoint. The publicity alone is worth $10,000.”

By the 17th, the main headline of the Union asked, “Is Rainmaker at Work?”

San Diego’s streets themselves began flooding. More than 200 bridges were washed away. The city coroner’s office listed the number of dead at 50, but this only included a sole dam breakage. The numbers from surrounding towns and suburbs, as well as from areas where Japanese and Chinese immigrant populations lived, could never be accurately tallied. At one point, Hatfield claimed 17.5 inches of rain in five days. Then January 26th came, and Morena overflowed, even with its spillway open to capacity.

When the dam operator received a call notifying him a lynching party was on its way to get Hatfield, Charley and younger brother Joel left by foot. Whether the lynching party was real or just a threat, the Hatfields walked the 60 miles back to San Diego on foot, through flooded wilderness and farmland.

On February 4th, the rainmaker held a press conference in order to get ahead of the potential that San Diego would refuse to pay him. He was a salesman acting as his own lawyer, however. In a city where water rights were a primary concern, he never stood any chance. In order to deflect counter-claims in smaller towns throughout his career, Charley often estimated his contracts based not on total rain, but rather on the amount of rain that fell above average. This allowed him, when rain was already present or occurred in other areas simultaneously (such as in a large storm), to claim that he had increased the rain rather than causing it.

Complicating his argument was the fact his agreement with San Diego had been a verbal one made on a handshake. Despite the city council publicizing the agreement, since nothing was signed, it wasn’t recorded which of the contracts San Diego had accepted from the three Charley had offered.

This allowed San Diego City Attorney Terence Byrne Cosgrove to argue that Charley had only increased the rainfall, as opposed to causing it entirely. The rainmaker had made a deal with the city council to fill Morena by 10 billion gallons. Although Morena had filled by that amount, Charley couldn’t claim all of the rain was his. He could only claim the portion above the average amount of rainfall was his. He could only claim four billion gallons of it. Thus, Cosgrove argued, Charley had not fulfilled his end of the deal.

Defeated before the city council, Charley finally retained a professional attorney and filed suit. They offered a compromise. At the mark of 4 billion gallons, they asked for $4,000 instead of the entire $10,000 amount.

Cosgrove made a counter-offer. The city would pay Charley all $10,000 if he would sign a statement assuming all responsibility for the flood. San Diego had nothing to lose. If Charley assumed liability and San Diego was then victorious in a damages lawsuit, Charley would be financially ruined and San Diego would simply re-assume the liability that was already on its shoulders. If Charley refused, San Diego got out of paying him $10,000. Only Charley could lose. He refused to sign the statement.

Charley continued his suit. Despite the lawsuit lasting 22 years, until 1938, he could never navigate the reality that if the rain was ruled his cause, he could also be ruled liable for an incredible amount in damages. If the rain was ruled an act of God, as it was in two trials, he could never collect his due.

Legend has it that San Diego paid Charley $5,000 from a secret fund they maintained for confidential purposes. Charley said this was untrue.

Charley Hatfield would continue in his business. What happened to San Diego only fueled his legend. Contracts were regular and, in between, he would always return to his job as a sewing machine salesman. He died in 1958, taking his secret chemical formula with him.

Whether Hatfield had true success creating rain is a piece of American folklore that few will ever agree upon. There always exists the possibility he was onto something. Many simply think he was a con man who used an ability to predict the weather in remote locations not covered at the time by weather forecasters. Either way, he was an innovator who pursued the more profitable avenue of rainmaker. He was also a good enough salesman to make himself a legend.

For an even more in-depth history of Hatfield and the San Diego flood, check out the exhaustive 1970 article “Hatfield the Rainmaker” by Thomas W. Patterson at The Journal of San Diego History.

To read about today’s conflict for water rights between the farming and fishing industries of California and Oregon, check out our “Klamath Fish Kill Points to Ongoing Water Crisis.”


What do you think? Should Charley Hatfield have been paid by the city of San Diego?




Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel is a movie critic who's been a campaign manager in Oregon, an investigative reporter in Texas, and a film producer in Massachusetts. His writing was named best North American criticism of 2014 by the Local Media Association. He's assembled a band of writers who focus on social issues in film. They have a home base.