The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Winter 1970, Volume 16, Number 4
Linda Freischlag, Editorial Assistant
HATFIELD THE RAINMAKER
|Oh Mister Hatfield, you’ve been good to us:
You’ve made it rain in ways promiscuous!
From Saugus down to San Diego’s Bay
They bless you for the rains of yesterday.
But Mister Hatfield, listen now;
Make us this vow:
Oh, please, kind sir, don’t let it rain on Monday!And other doings full of fun and glee
For New Year’s Day are planned abundantly
From Saugus down to San Diego’s Bay
And they will bless you on tomorrow’s day,
Great moistener, if you will listen now
And make this vow:
Oh, please, kind sir, don’t let it rain on Monday!*
* At the conclusion of the drouth-ridden year 1904 the citizens of the Los Angeles area, who had raised money to hire him, were singing praises of the rainmaker Charley Hatfield, their savior. He had achieved success. The rains had come—and come—and come. As the New Year approached, however, an ugly thought crept into the minds of some o/ the populace. What if Charley Hatfield made it rain on the day of that stupendous event, the Tournament of Roses Parade? This anonymous piece of doggerel, appealing to him for charity on Monday, January 2, the date of the parade, appeared in several newspapers. Evidently the plea was heard. Although it rained earlier in the day and still sprinkled where Charley was working five miles from the parade, no rain fell during the procession.
I. WHOSE DISCIPLE?
The best remembered facts about Hatfield The Rainmaker are that when he ministered to the sky it rained torrents and when he tried to collect $10,000 from the City of San Diego the mayor and council welshed.
There will always be room for a query: Was the rain really a coincidence? Did he really believe what he claimed, or was he a fellow with a knowing wink?
Some wrote delightedly that he was a scoundrel. Others, especially David Starr Jordan, wrote as though they thought him a cruel fraud against whom the public needed protection.
Nobody ever got behind his mask, and, in fact it may never have been a mask. The actual record of Hatfield’s activities explodes some commonly held truths, but the strangest facts and coincidences persist. The record makes no real headway against the legend.
Charles Mallory Hatfield got into the public’s attention when the Los Angeles Times on February 2, 1904, misspelling his name, said:
Charles Hadfield, expert rain manufacturer, has been sent out by a number of South Spring Street merchants to bring down the recreant showers. For the consideration of $50 Hadfield has planted his instruments in the foothill district near Pasadena and with a new process of chemical evaporation promises abundant moisture in five days. The magician holds himself responsible for the abundant rain in San Diego County late last spring, and says he has tried 17 times, scoring only one failure. Barnett & Gude, H. E. Memory, H. G. Ackley and others stand sponsor to this commander of nature.
It was no credulous account, but rainmakers were a discredited lot. They had had their vogue in the Midwest in the 1880’s and 1890’s. The ancient world had known a theory that noxious fumes, such as the stench of bodies after a major battle, caused rain. After artillery became a significant part of war, Benvenuto Cellini wrote of explosions causing rain. This theory lasted several centuries and explained, to the satisfaction of some, the storm that handicapped the Spanish Armada and the mud at Waterloo. It was Americanized after the Civil War by a man named Edward Powers,who wrote War and The Weather contending that most of the Civil War battles caused rain. Then there was a belief that prairie fires caused rain and that the Chicago fire drenched itself, although tardily.
Congress, pressed by influential senators who owned Western land and hoped there might be something to it, spent over $20,000 testing the explosion theory by some spectacular Texas balloon busting and cannonading, supervised by a flamboyant character named Robert St. George Dyrenforth. The explosion theory faded out after that, but the fume theory returned. A whole school of rainmakers practiced in the Midwest, each with a secret formula.
The biggest names among the fume men were those of Frank Melbourne, known as the Australian Wizard, and G. B. Jewell, who operated originally under auspices of the Rock Island Railroad and practiced from a specially equipped boxcar. These men never operated in California, but in 1899 one of Jewell’s disciples sought a rainmaking contract at Pasadena. In 1900 another persuaded a group of San Diegans to pay the cost of sending aloft the fumes of zinc dissolved in sulphuric acid, and this was described as the great Jewell’s secret formula.
There had been three terrible years of drouth at the end of the century, drying up irrigation canals in the Central Valley and leaving Southern California as brown in winter as in summer. Now, in January 1904, no rain had fallen since early December and precious little since the previous spring. Matters were so bad that Catholic and Protestant churches appealed through the newspapers for a day of prayer for rain on Sunday, January 31.
In the brown Los Angeles hinterland no one was far removed from the traditional grazing economy. Jotham Bixby, the big cattleman of Long Beach, complained in the public prints: “This is the first time since 1872 that we have not had any green grass at this time of year.” Those who looked far ahead were talking, quietly as yet, about a preposterously long aqueduct from Owens River Valley, but for the present there was water in the city mains, as far as they reached.
Hatfield set up shop two days after the day of prayer. In another two days there was rain in the northern part of the state, but forecaster George E. Franklin of the Los Angeles office of the U. S. Weather Bureau predicted there would be none for Los Angeles. He was wrong. At 6 o’clock that evening it started raining heavily, continuing off and on for the rest of the night and most of the following week. It rained well over an inch downtown, more in the foothills.
Franklin explained that it was the tail-end of the Northern California storm that had come over the Tehachapi. Still there was the coincidence that it had followed quickly after Hatfield’s presumed activity.
The newspapers had almost forgotten the prayers as a possible cause. All of them saw fit to mention Hatfield and his manipulations, but the Herald left no bases uncovered, saying:
In answer to the prayers of the church, as a result of Rainmaker Hatfield’s manipulation or from natural causes, rain began falling last evening….
The coincidence was so interesting that the papers did not drop it for several days. Although they could not find Hatfield, the Herald located friends who believed he set up a tank on a high point near Newhall. They understood he mixed chemicals and sent vapor into the clouds, requiring not less than three hours or more than five days to bring rain. This last was stressed in all reports—five days, not more.
The papers also learned that Hatfield was a young man and a sewing machine salesman. The Times located the family home in Inglewood, but the rainmaker was not there and the family did not know or would not tell where he was. The Times photographed his mother and printed her statement:
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.
The rainmaker’s base of operation was neither at Pasadena nor Newhall. It was midway between the two at the foot of the present New York Avenue in La Crescenta. There in the brush country at the base of the mountains a tower some 20 feet high had been erected, surmounted by a platform 10 feet square. What appears in photographs to resemble a fume hood, somewhat narrower than those over stoves or laboratory cookers, protruded several feet upward from the platform. Beside it was a small pedestal surmounted by a narrow can—a rain gauge. At the base of the tower, Charley Hatfield and his young brother Paul camped in a tent.
Hatfield might have been seen, but for the isolation of the place, first helping to build the tower, then climbing up and down the ladder carrying loads. For hours at a time he might have been seen busy with something near the fume hood, out of the line of vision of anyone watching from the ground nearby.
He was 28, thin and of medium height. His hair was thinning slightly in front and receding at the corners. His face was narrow and the impression was sharpened by a long, thin nose. He wore a business suit as though he were in an office or ringing a doorbell in search of a sewing machine prospect. Before he was long in camp his suit had sadly lost its press and sometimes was soaked with rain.
Paul, a boy of 17, was working equally hard—fetching, carrying, tending the camp and caring for the horses.
An elderly Englishman named Metcalf had a cabin a quarter mile away from which he tended a bee apiary. When he called at the tower to pay his respects and possibly to promote a conversation, Charley and Paul were too busy for more than a casual greeting. Later, after a walk, they returned to find Metcalf inside their tent. Charley promptly ordered him out. When Metcalf protested that his intentions were friendly and sociable, in keeping with Western custom, Paul leveled the shotgun and commanded, with all the authority a youth could muster, “Get out of here!”
A week after they arrived, with the rain stopped, Charley and Paul dismantled the tower and stowed the lumber and some heavy trunks and the tent into their wagon. They drove southeasterly, following the dirt road that is now Honolulu Avenue, to Verdugo Road, then turned onto Colorado Avenue where they stopped at the little grocery operated by Joe Olivas. Charley bought a Times and for the first time saw himself discussed in a news story. Despite the doubting tone, it did report that Hatfield had gone forth and that rain had fallen. They drove on to Inglewood.
II. THE SEWING MACHINE SALESMAN
Charley and Paul went back to their routine at the Robert B. Moorhead Agency, dealer in New Home Sewing Machines, 349 South Spring Street. Within the year reporters would be seeking the rainmaker in greater excitement than ever, but in the spring, summer and fall of 1904 he was back in the business where he had been recognized as a young man with a big future. His salary then, or so he said a few months later, was $125 a month, a very respectable figure in 1904.
He was city manager, supervising other salesmen including Paul. For a brief interlude their father, Stephen E. Hatfield, was also working in the office of his old friend Bob Moorhead, who was one of the sponsors of Hatfield’s efforts to produce rain at La Crescenta.
Stephen Hatfield had owned a sewing machine agency in Fort Scott, Kansas. He sold it in 1875, the year Charley was born, then moved with his family to Minneapolis where he built homes and traded in real estate. Late in 1886 they moved to San Diego, then enjoying a boom as the original Pacific Coast terminus of the Santa Fe railroad. Among his San Diego operations was the building of three substantial homes at Sixteenth and Broadway, one of which the family occupied for a time.
The Hatfield brothers all learned to take sewing machine heads apart, adjust or repair them. Nevertheless, for the greater part of his economic life the elder Hatfield engaged in building and trading property.
Charley and his elder brother, Stephen G., were born in Fort Scott. Paul and the only daughter, Phoebe, were born in Minneapolis. Joel, the youngest, was born in San Diego. Young Charley, aged 11, became Newsboy No. 9 for Hanley’s News-stand at Fifth and F Streets, selling the San Diego Union. He made big money when Gen. John A. Logan, founder of the GAR, died on December 26, 1886. Charley sold 65 newspapers bearing that headline.
The San Diego boom fell off after 1886 when the Santa Fe reached Los Angeles, opening its rate-cutting war with the Southern Pacific. Los Angeles then experienced its wildest real estate boom while San Diego felt cruelly sold out.
The Hatfields acquired ten acres at Melrose and Vermont Avenues, far out west and north of Los Angeles, in 1890. The beach cities farther west were well established by then. Hollywood was only an unsuccessful subdivision and other in-between areas were beginning to acquire a scattering of people in place of cattle and sheep. The Hatfields with their imposing suburban house, surrounded by a young orchard, were the second family to live in what was then called Cahuenga Valley. In 1893 they sold and moved to Mission Road in South Pasadena and from there to Pasadena. In that area Charley finished his formal schooling by attending high school. There also, filled with the nation’s surge of patriotic fervor and notwithstanding a Quaker background, Charley tried to enlist for the 1898 war with Spain. He was rejected as too thin to be a soldier.
By that time he was a full-time salesman, but he had a consuming side interest. In the pursuit of it he haunted the Pasadena and Los Angeles public libraries, pouring over tables of rainfall statistics and probably reading popular disputations about the science discredited rainmakers. He was impressed most, according to his later recollections, by a book named Elementary Meteorology by the Harvard professor of geology and science popularizer, William Morris Davis.
In later years, Hatfield repeatedly gave his reason for dedicating himself to rainmaking. He said he was prompted by the terrible years of drouth near the end of the century. In fact, drouth had been chronic since the mid-nineties despite occasional local floods and passable seasons. The suffering was not confined to those who lived on farms or herded grazing animals. It reached into business, town and family life.
Hatfield denied that his rainmaking method was akin to any other, old-time or contemporary. Nevertheless he was well acquainted with the big rainmaking names of the past. He was familiar with Edward Powers’ War and the Weather—The Artificial Production of Rain, which served as the chief inspiration to that movement. He would have known of the publicized efforts of the G. B. Jewell disciple, W B. Hughes, to secure a contract from Pasadena in 1899. Secretary Frank Wiggins of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce rejected Hughes’ offer to work for a fee of $5,000.
Hatfield often told how he first tried his own theories. The Hatfield family had taken up residence in 1902 on a ranch in Gopher Canyon at Bonsall in northern San Diego County. Charley remained a resident of Los Angeles, but he performed his first rainmaking from the top of the windmill tower on the ranch. Its use might have been suggested by earlier towers in Europe from which explosions were set off.
Later there were reports that Hatfield himself had set off explosions at Bonsall and the reports were to persist for years. He always denied it and the stories lack confirmation. One account persisting in many versions quotes Fred Hanson, a longtime friend of the Hatfields. It relates that Mrs. Hatfield mysteriously referred to explosions and said that some day her son would be a great man. Hanson, in a letter in 1958, said he could recall hearing nothing about explosions. Charley consistently said he evaporated a fluid from shallow pans.
There is no doubt, however, that Mrs. Hatfield thought her second son would be a great man, and later that he had indeed become great. Charley had a self-assured rather than a boastful manner. More than one acquaintance of his early rainmaking years, Fred Hanson included, recalled later that he had an almost religious zeal. Not that he claimed special dispensation or higher calling. He did have the attitude of a man with a mission. Those who could not be convinced, he allowed to go in error rather than labor to correct them. He never condemned.
The Hatfields were proud of their lineage, which was traceable for some 300 years. They carried their Quaker beliefs into manners and morality. They were in firm disagreement with one forbear, Elder Elias Hicks who founded the Hicksite sect of Quakers. They favored the orthodox outlook.
Quakers, especially orthodox ones, held tenaciously to the doctrine of individuality. The teachings of George Fox, founding theorist, were strong with the Reformation spirit, decrying a conventional authority and proclaiming the wisdom of the individual’s own interpretation of the Scriptures.
To be sure, a Quaker was expected to bring every revelation of a religious character to meeting and submit it to his peers, who might dissuade him. But Quakers also set themselves apart in manners and dress, resisting easier ways of those not subject to the discipline. Some carried the doctrine of individuality into secular matters, with a strong sense of being right. Certain tough-minded Quakers had reputations for inpervious individualistic views on politics, science, commerce or the state of the nation.
Young Charley conducted himself in the business world with application, diligence and neatness becoming a gentleman and a Quaker. His suit was always pressed, his linen fresh and his manner alert as he went about his selling. While the practice of business could be combative and deceptive, Charley sold an honest product in an approved way. On the other hand he knew that business does not operate by Sunday school rules. Fred Hanson once asked him what he did when a house was posted “No Peddlers or Agents” and when the woman of the house inquired if he could not read. Charley replied that he would say, “Yes, but I don’t believe in signs,” and added that he had sold more than one sewing machine following just such an introduction.
The elder Hatfield wore the traditional broad Quaker hat to church. The Hatfields attended traditional meetings where men and women sat on opposite sides. Charley attended regularly as a boy. Although he was seldom seen in church after 30, his strong sense of being right remained with him.
There was no public knowledge of Charley’s doings on Bonsall tower and probably there was no surprise at several small showers that fell in parts of the coastal region of San Diego County in April and May of 1902. In July, however, .92 of an inch fell in San Diego. That was rare, although old-timers know that if it rains at all in July in Southern California it’s likely to rain hard. Charley later said it was his work, based on his own theories, that caused all the spring and summer rains in the coastal San Diego area.
Before he took his first paid engagement early in 1904, Charley built, with Paul’ s help, at least three other towers for experimentation. The first and most successful, according to Charley, was near the mouth of Big Tujunga Canyon, November 6 through November 9, 1902. He said rains of three inches or more fell along the west-east line from La Crescenta through Pasadena, and 1.95 inches fell on downtown Los Angeles. Another higher tower was erected in Big Tujunga, near the present dam, and still another was at Inglewood, the Hatfield family home after Bonsall. At Inglewood he claimed to have induced a modest .43 inch in September, 1903….
III. WHIDDEN WAS A DOUBTER
Between the years 1903 in Bonsall where he performed his first rainmaking experiments and 1912 when he was invited by a group of ranchers in northern San Diego County to break a severe drouth, Charley Hatfield’s activities carried him as far north as Alaska and all through central California. He achieved much success in the San Joaquin Valley “West Side” and in that part of the West Side between Los Banos at the foot of Pacheco Pass and Westley, some 40 miles to the north—including the towns of Volta, Gustine, Newman, Crows Landing and Patterson.
In 1907 Oregon’s grain farmers called upon him for help. His reputation spread into Texas, Idaho, Arizona, Kansas and other areas west of the Mississippi River.
Still he never was far in heart from San Diego, for after Inglewood, in 1903, the elder Hatfields bought a home and olive grove at Fallbrook, ten miles north of the Bonsall Gopher Canyon ranch where Charley had experimented in 1902. A few years later he married a San Diego girl.
The year 1912 found him living in Fallbrook, near San Diego. He had two assignments during that time, at least one of which paid him more than he received for his most successful efforts in the San Joaquin Valley West Side. The first one was at Hemet, in northern San Diego County. The second was near Carlsbad, Texas, whose grain farmers, hearing of Charley’s success at Hemet, wired him to come to Carlsbad to assist with their cotton crop farming, which drouth had hampered.
The invitation to make rain at Hemet came from Tommy Rawson, dominant personality among dry farmers. Several Rawson brothers together farmed some 15,000 acres. The initiative may have come from W. P. Whittier, the San Francisco investor and sportsman who founded Hemet. The two publicly announced men serving on the committee with Rawson were W. Alger Fast, manager of several of Whittier’s Hemet enterprises, and John Shaver, longtime member of the county board of supervisors. Shaver lived in San Jacinto, the smaller and older town of the valley, where he ran a hardware store.
Up to March 1 it was an extremely dry season at most points in Southern California. Charley, at Hemet, February 21, in negotiation with Rawson, called to mind the great moistening of Los Angeles in 1904-05.
“Will you guarantee to produce rain?” asked the Hemet News reporter, to which Charley replied, “I certainly will, or it won’t cost the people a cent.”
He had prepared a draft contract, the heading of which put squarely the impression he wanted to convey: “Four Inches of Rain for Four Thousand Dollars. No Rain, No Pay.” In it he agreed to set up a “rain precipitation and attraction plant” and to operate it from March 1 to May 1. For each inch of rain falling during that time he was to receive $1,000, up to four inches. There would be no pay for any additional amount. Three gauges, one in Menifee Valley, one near San Jacinto and the third at the Hatfield tower were to govern the payoff. Signers were obtained to underwrite the $4,000.
Charley returned to Hemet March 1. A. K. Whidden, county bee inspector, chanced to meet him in a lumberyard. It was already raining, a circumstance that scoffers assumed would be embarrassing to a rainmaker who hadn’t yet started working.
“I wish I was out under this with my apparatus,” Charley said, and Whidden asked, “What could you do?” Charley answered, “You may get three inches from this storm. I could give you three and a half.” This was Whidden’s recollection, in which he said he might not be exactly right as to the figures but was sure of the substance of the remarks. Whidden was a doubter, recalling that Charley “could talk more and say less than anyone I had ever known.”
Whittier’s carpenters built the tower at Little Lake, three miles southeast of the town. An inch had fallen before Charley proclaimed himself at work Despite the unassisted start of the rain and Whidden’s skepticism, Hemet harbored few publicly identified doubters. The News reported the rainmaking and the rain extensively, without a sour note. As to the rain itself, it was like Esperanza or one of the bigger years at Crows Landing.
Again the coincidence was repeated that rain elsewhere in Southern California was only average or less. Poor Crows Landing had a bad year. Hemet got 3.12 inches in April compared to a 40-year average for that month of 2.5. After his start of operations, Hatfield got credit for more than seven inches. In summation the News reported:
So well pleased are the ranchers in Mr. Hatfield’s work here that he has been prevailed upon to store his apparatus in Hemet until next season, when he will likely come back and take a bigger contract…Mr. Hatfield has had 15 contracts…and he has not failed in one instance…(his theory) is proving beyond doubt that rain can be produced.
Charley did not return, possibly because Hemet was not troubled by drouth in the next several seasons. The receptacles he left behind were still on hand at the Rawson ranch in 1960, when a series of dry years and an ultra-dry one caused old-timers to recall the Hatfield visit.
Close on the heels of Hemet, from June 10 through July 22, the brothers practiced the art with the aid of three towers alongside a slough of the Concho River in Water Valley near Carlsbad, Texas.
Among Paul’s troubles as a commissary chief at that location were the opossums that invaded the larder, reaching even the ham and bacon hanging on wire from the tent ridgepole, and Texas ants three quarters of an inch long.
Carlsbad, Texas is one of the Hatfield engagements where the published recollections, in spite of Hatfield’s denials and other opposing evidence, have it that rocket-like streaks of smoke were seen and that balloons were exploded at high altitudes. There is basis for confusion of recollection. The Dyrenforth experiments of 1892-93 had started at Midland, Texas, including balloon explosions at high altitudes.
In 1910 and 1911 there were latterday experiments in rainmaking by explosions near Post City in the Texas Panhandle, north of Carlsbad. C. W;. Post, the breakfast food man, owned a ranch there and was impatient with drouth conditions. Several bombardments at widely spaced intervals brought no results. Finally in August of 1911 his men exploded 1,000 two-pound charges of dynamite in rapid succession, soon after which an inch of rain fell. Post claimed he was satisfied of success. He scheduled another demonstration for the spring of 1912 at Santa Barbara, Calif., but it didn’t materialize.
The Hatfield records have it that 3.37 inches of rain fell at Carlsbad during the engagement there. The cotton crop should have thrived on that.
IV. COSGROVE’S DROUTH
Following his successful experiments in Texas, Charley came back to California and more particularly, to San Diego which was beginning to view its situation, water-wise. In rapid fashion the community, initially concerned about not enough water, switched to a worry about too much, after Charley was hired in December 1915, for soon after that came the disasterous floods of January 1916.
These floods left scars on the mountains and hills of San Diego County for years, and scoured river channels to bedrock. Washouts tore out miles of tracks and trains were stopped for 32 days. Highways and the telephone and telegraph were cut off, leaving only the sea for transportation and Marconi’s wireless for direct communication.
Brush-covered hillsides, probably overgrazed, were saturated to the consistency of slush and the soil gave way in great slides. The scars permanently changed the contour of hills and disappeared only as new brush grew and the new contours became familiar. Springs previously unknown to the back country flowed for years afterward. Lower Otay Dam went out and loosed a flood that demolished everything in front of it. Many lives were lost.
Old residents with an ingrained habit of hoping for rain remember today that for the first time they were fearful. It seemed the rains would never end and the damage would never stop mounting. On the high land of San Diego itself life seemed to be perched, wet and insecure, above raging disaster. The San Diego River was a mile-wide torrent covering Mission Valley from the Kearny Mesa to the mesa of the city and sending back-waters between the jutting fingers of both. Great trees tumbled root over branch. Sticks of lumber, railroad ties and parts of houses floated crazily. Out of the gullies from the east and south came droves of cattle, horses, sheep and goats.
All of it would be known thereafter as Hatfield’s flood, comparable only to San Diego’s great flood of 1862 in stream flow. Despite the tragedy, it would also suggest the plot of comedies in which a little man made hocus pocus at the sky and the rain fell in torrents.
San Diego has since assumed the strained air of amused tolerance as it views the simplicity of its 1916 city council. No other government body except the rambunctious Yukon Territorial Council ever employed Hatfield. San Diego has a vague discomfort because it agreed to pay Charles M. Hatfield $10,000 if Morena Reservoir was filled. Morena was filled until a thundering cataract went over the spillway, but San Diego behaved like the town of Hamlin after the deal with the Pied Piper.
Toward the winter of 1915, San Diego was talking of drouth, although the rainfall record in the city fails to explain why. The year 1915 had started with good rains. Others came at reasonable intervals. In early December there was rain, before the deal was made with Hatfield on December 13. More came before he got into action. The calendar year 1915 ended with 13.62 inches compared to an average of 9.90. The average of five calendar years, 1909 through 1914, was 9.25.
Even in the Laguna Mountains to the east, from which came most of the water supply, the city’s shortage was not critical. Although Morena Reservoir had not been filled since it was built in 1897, by the end of 1915 it was calculated to be holding five billion gallons of its fifteen billion capacity.
However, other reservoirs had not been filled either, and the city’s growth had placed increased demands on the supply. The area’s potential growth was a bigger factor in creating concern over possible shortages. It was well understood that water shortages in Southern California must be anticipated. Legal battles over water in the Southwest have frequently been accompanied by maneuvers to suggest that the tank is already dry.
Acutely aware of future needs, its lack of reserve supply and its present shortage, the City of San Diego had decided in 1913 to gather in all its potential water supply. It engaged a city attorney expert in water matters. He declared in 1914 that the city, by virtue of a grant in the name of the Spanish king, had the right to the full flow of the San Diego River. In December of 1915 hearings were started in Los Angeles on the Capitan Grande Case, against ranch owners and promoters who had appropriated much of the stream’s flow. These circumstances made San Diego receptive to the claims of Charley Hatfield and set in motion a series of events that the city would regret.
San Diego knew Charley Hatfield. Some had said harsh things about him when he declared, two years after the fact, that he caused the big rain of July, 1902. Rain in July is the last thing a California dry farmer wants. However, Charley’s wife was a San Diego woman, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. J. F. Rulon, and their family visits kept some of the Hatfields’ old San Diego contacts on the list of active acquaintances. One of the most presistent and faithful was Fred A. Binney.
Fred Binney was well known in San Diego, only partly because of his active interest in the San Diego rainmakers of 1900. He was a large, lean man with an ample set of whiskers, a squeaky voice, an English accent, a belief in socialism and an evangelistic tendency. He made his living as a real estate broker. He painted his own “for sale” signs with an amateur hand and took liberties as to where he set them up. The houses he advertised were “pretty homes with nice gardens and pretty flowers.” He was an indefatigable walker. The 15 miles from downtown San Diego to La Jolla were for him an easy stroll.
Binney believed in Charley Hatfield’s ability to cause rain. He took pains to say he was not Charley’s agent, but was taking his own initiative. In all but one matter Charley was a conservative man, who wanted no conventions upset. He would have preferred an advocate with more standing, but he accepted such help as he could get.
Binney knew the feeling of rejection. Once he was regaling City Councilman Don Stewart concerning Hatfield when the councilman may have given facial expression to his reaction. Or perhaps Binney already sensed the rejection and knew what was meant by an attitude of polite listening. In any case he broke off suddenly and said: “There are all sorts of wonders you believe in, like wireless and Burbank’s new plants, and automobiles. But when a man comes in with a simple, sensible idea, you treat him as though he were a lunatic!” With that he arose to his full dignified height and stalked out.
As early as 1912, soon after the city acquired Morena Dam and Reservoir from the Southern California Mountain Water Company, Binney wrote to the council asking it to engage Hatfield. Late in 1915 he made a public appeal in newspaper advertising. While he was too much associated with lost causes to be impelling, he helped dramatize and sell the idea. The councilmen, however much some of them pretended later it was a kind of jest, were interested enough to give it a whirl and not skeptical enough to reject it. Still, there might have been a certain cunning involved, not necessarily recognized by them.
Early in December, Charley appeared before the council in conference. Shelley Higgins, assistant city attorney and later judge, was to spend a large share of his time thereafter defending, morally and legally, the city’s treatment of Hatfield, and indirectly his own conspicuous but hardly heroic role in it. He said in his memoirs many years later that the councilmen in a jocular spirit, after exchanging knowing smiles, said “If you can fill the lake, we’ll be glad to pay you.”
Since the council probably did not chant this sentence in unison, like a Greek chorus, we will assume it was merely Higgins’ interpretation of the councilmanic attitude. But in the same memoirs Higgins also said Charley “bore himself importantly and had what salesmen term impressive presence.” What the council actually did was to ask Charley to put his proposition in writing and to come again.
Charley drew up his own contracts, without the benefit of an attorney. As usual he offered alternate propositions. His first written proposal stated that by June 1, he would “produce 40 inches of rain (at Morena Reservoir) free gratis, I to be compensated from the 40th to the 50th inch by $1,000 per inch.”
On December 8 the council asked Fred Lockwood, manager of operations, for a recommendation. Next day Charley re-submitted his first written offer plus two alternatives, also in writing, to another councilmanic conference. He offered to fill Morena Reservoir, without reference to the amount of rain necessary to do it, by December 20, 1916. Or he would cause a rainfall of 50 inches by June 1, 1916, for which he would require either $500 per inch from the 30th to the 50th inch or $1, 000 per inch from the 40th to the 50th. Each of these alternatives meant $10,000 for completion.
On December 13 the council voted, four to one, to accept Charley’s offer to fill the reservoir by December 20, 1916, and asked the city attorney’s office to prepare a written contract. The lone and adamant opponent on the council was Herbert R. Fay. The one councilman outspoken in favor of Charley’s proposition was Walter P. Moore. Mayor Edward P. Capps and Councilmen P. J. Benbough, Henry M. Manney and Otto M. Schmidt did not disclose their reasoning but voted to engage Hatfield.
On the ninth, when Charley submitted his three alternatives, Councilman Moore explained, “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 heads the city wins, tails Hatfield loses.” This was Charley’s own reasoning.
One man did take a superior attitude—City Attorney Terence Byrne Cosgrove, 34-year-old graduate of Notre Dame University and Yale Law School. He was a rising star in the profession, winning a name in water litigation. He was an advocate, a fighter for the client who retained him, shrewd in conference and able on occasion to seem like Patrick Henry striking an attitude. Currently he was spending a good deal of time in Los Angeles on the Capitan Grande Case.
At the December 9 meeting Cosgrove was asked if the proposed contract would be legal. It was recorded that he grinned broadly when he replied, “If Hatfield fills Morena, I guess there would be no doubt about the legality.” It was a nice parrying of an honest and perhaps simple question. Obviously there was a preformed doubt in Cosgrove’s mind that Hatfield would be responsible if Morena should be filled. One can almost see the lawyer’s mind looking ahead. He also could have had in mind that it would do no harm, during the current water litigation, to dramatize the city’s water shortage as though it were clear and present instead of clearly potential. Negotiations with Hatfield tended to do this. Hatfield at work could do it even better. Cosgrove, of course, would have had no part in explicitly or publicly encouraging a deal with Hatfield, but he pointedly said nothing to discourage it.
Charley was his own attorney, and, as must have been apparent to Cosgrove, his legal footwork was amateurish even for a layman. If Morena overflowed, how would he prove he did it?
Whatever else he was thinking, Cosgrove must have reasoned that it would be a long day in January before either Hatfield or God filled Morena. It had been there since 1897, a big overbuilt reservoir, one that could hold 15 billion gallons and had never been full. Indeed the city had been able to acquire it along with Lower Otay Reservoir because the Southern California Mountain Water Company discovered itself to be overbuilt, paying taxes out of proportion to income. The city purchase had enabled the backers to recover their capital and something extra.
Charley did not wait for the written agreement, which Cosgrove and Higgins were in no hurry to draft, but was at work by January 1. His assistant was not Paul as usual, but Joel, the youngest of the brothers. Having had no rainmaking contracts since the spring of 1914, Charley and Paul had returned to selling sewing machines. Paul continued to sell, to keep the camp supplied pending the day Charley would take home the prize.
The tower was built on a slope, along side the road leading to the dam, just beyond the city’s present Morena Reservoir headquarters. Despite the attention it received from 60 miles away in San Diego, the tower had few visitors. Shelley Higgins in his memoirs speaks of seeing it from a mountain road, although the road at that point is not mountainous and the deluge very quickly made it impassable to cars.
Probably the only visitors to the tower were Seth Swenson, the dam keeper, and his wife, Maggie. They lived not at the later lake headquarters, which was then non-existent, but in a cottage at the dam. >From there Mrs. Swenson answered the telephone and relayed messages to Charley, two miles away by road and a little over a mile as the crow flies.
For a man who spent so much time contentiously embroiled with Hatfield, Shelley Higgins was elaborately casual about his visit to Morena. He said in his memoirs that he was passing on a “field trip” in his Model T when he saw the tower and occassional puffs of smoke and heard muffled explosions. Whereupon, he continued, “I smiled—I hope indulgently—and went on about my business.”
But the Swensons were in sight of the tower all the time and were curious about it and keenly interested. They could have heard shots and seen puffs of smoke and would have remembered them. Charley Hatfield told them he was evaporating something from shallow pans. Shelley Higgins’ description of the Hatfield tower, especially the smoke puffs and the explosions, must have been a visualization of something he read.
V. HATFIELD’S FLOOD
The headlines in San Diego newspapers that December and January told of many things. Apart from the rain they talked of the current Panama-California International Exposition, starting its second year in San Diego, the war in Europe and Pancho Villa’s depredations in northern Mexico.
Charley Hatfield’s verbal agreement with the council caused little initial excitement, although it proved of some interest to columnists and other discursive people. One who wrote in the Sunday San Diego Union under the name of Yorick adopted a good journeyman air of superiority, calling it:
… an excellent business proposition from the city’s standpoint. The publicity alone is worth $10,000.
There was snow in the mountains and a light sprinkle in the city near the year’s end, and water flowed in the San Diego River through Mission Valley—a rare sight since upstream diversion had become so extensive.
On January 5 a good rain was reported at Morena Reservoir and the water department said 48-1/2 million gallons had been impounded since December 27. Though welcome, it was not enough to change the round number of five billion gallons Morena was estimated to have been holding December 20.
The Union published a feature story January 9 on the Weather Bureau’s San Diego office and its chief forecaster, E. Herbert Nimmo, and his young assistant, Dean Blake. There was a discussion of storm centers and their movements from the north Pacific southeastward across California. There was talk of the basis of weather predictions and their uncertainty. Nimmo’s opinion of Hatfield was already publicly known: he thought Charley a mountebank. But in the Sunday article both Nimmo and the Union writer ignored him.
The weather played fewer tricks on Nimmo than it practiced on the unfortunate George Franklin of Los Angeles in 1904 and 1905. The San Diego rains of 1915-16 arrived as predicted, but in much greater volume.
Rain of a genuinely remarkable quantity began January 10. For 24 hours in San Diego itself it rained off and on, but reports from the back country said it rained hard and almost continuously. From then until the 18th it was rainy weather. On the 14th it rained torrents and continued to rain heavily for several days. Roofs leaked. Storm drains that had not been taxed for years overflowed.
The San Diego River went over its banks and spread across Mission Valley in the early hours of the 17th. Real tragedy developed on the 18th in the valley of the Tijuana River, a little north of the international border. There, some 40 families, 100 persons or more, constituted a colony known as the Little Landers. It was based on the semi-utopian idea of W. E. Smythe, who claimed that a family could make a modest and healthful living on an acre of ground and turned real estate promoter to demonstrate it.
The river left its channel and overflowed the Little Landers’ homes and gardens. It cut a new channel and not only destroyed many of the homes but literally carried the land away. Two women were drowned. In San Diego a fund was started for the Little Landers’ relief.
The Santa Fe and the San Diego-Arizona rail connections with the north and east respectively, were put out of operation at that time. Main highways and most by-ways were closed. On one day mail went out to only six of the county’s 36 post offices. Tall tales were told of the kind experienced Southwesterners have learned not to reject too quickly, even when they are as tall as Rex Clark’s silo story. Clark said the flood picked up a cement silo from one of his Mission Valley ranches and set it down upright, with contents intact, on another of his ranches a mile distant.
Lower Otay Reservoir on Dulzura Creek filled to the lip of its spillway and started flowing over.
With the rains that started on the 10th, it became apparent that people were interested in the activities of Hatfield. The Union‘s main headline of the 17th read: “Is Rainmaker at Work?”
Unfortunately it was not possible to get the kind of details a newspaper story needs in such a situation. The obvious need was a description of the tower and the activities around it, together with interviews with the busy rainmakers. By the time it became apparent that this was a big story—science or not—the roads were impassable. Through telephone calls to the Swensons the Union was able to report on the 17th:
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.
Nimmo’s office pointed out that the storm was general along the West Coast, which did not fully explain the proportions of the San Diego County rainfall.
The sun came out indecisively and repair crews went to work on railways and highways. By the 24th automobiles were able to drive north on the inland highway, but the damaged rail lines and the coast highway could not be repaired that quickly.
Nimmo on the evening of January 25 anticipated rain next day. He was right, and as a conventional general storm approaching from the northwest it was a heavy one. But according to the Weather Bureau’s later analysis it was overlapped by another and more rare type of rainstorm that affected the San Diego area—a storm from farther south in the Pacific. The distinction was lost on plain people, who viewed it as one terrifying rain.
It was worst in the back country, but in San Diego it was frightening enough. A veritable river rushed out of the canyons of Balboa Park, down Fifteenth Street, requiring pedestrian ferry service by a horse-drawn fire wagon. The confused stray animals and the pelting rain made a strange noise, night and day. Business was suspended and nothing was normal. People gathered at Mission Cliffs Gardens and other vantage points overlooking Mission Valley to watch the strange torrent pitch, roll and toss.
The Santa Fe bridge spans only the normal channel of the river, and even that is usually dry. With the valley running full from mesa to mesa, railroad crews weighted down the bridge with loaded freight cars and relieved pressure by cutting the dirt fill approaches on both sides. Water then flowed around as well as under the bridge, which stood isolated in midstream. City crews tried to save the approaches to the new concrete bridge on the coast highway, assuming the bridge itself could stand the strain. They piled the approaches with sand bags, so effectively that the unrelieved pressure of the stream lifted the concrete spans off their piers and left them fallen, broken and askew.
Corresponding episodes took place where other rivers and creeks came out of the interior to the sea. The coast highway and Santa Fe rail line were cut in several places. When the flow of a stream increased rapidly it developed a wall of water advancing downstream. The Fallbrook station in the canyon of the Santa Margarita River and the house of the station master were carried away. Miles of the Fallbrook branch line were destroyed and rolling stock isolated.
Debris of all kinds including broken parts of buildings, piled up 20 feet high at obstructions on the beaches at the mouths of canyons.
The adobe bell tower at the Pala mission outpost in the valley of the San Luis Rey River, a relic of Spanish times, was undermined and toppled. More than 200 bridges were washed out. Roads were severed in places where no noticeable water channel existed. Landslides were greatest in the vicinity of Dulzura summit above the doomed Lower Otay Lake.
R. C. Wueste, superintendent of the city impounding system, was worried about Lower Otay from the start of the second storm. The lake was already full and the stream in the spillway began to rise. For the better part of the two days the spillway managed it, but precariously.
Soon after 4 p. m. on the 27th, Wueste walked along the dam from the north to the south side. At 4:30 the first tiny stream trickled across the middle. Wueste had to jump a sizeable stream a few minutes later when he returned to the north side. It was cutting into the two feet of earth and gravel that lay on top of the coarser rock and earth. With the soft top gone and more than two feet of water pouring over, the momentum of the flowing lake was added to the cutting force. The heavy rock fill was soon tumbling. When Wueste next looked at his watch it was 5:05. The dam was disintegrating rapidly.
It had been built with concrete abutments, to which a wall of thin steel plate was anchored as a core for the fill material. Wueste described the flow as a torrent, not a waterfall, rushing through the breach and into the narrow gorge below. The principal noise was made by the torn remainder of the steel plate, banging against the rocks.
Downstream the released head of water behaved characteristically. Although not released through a toppling wall but as a rapidly increasing flow, its advancing front soon took the shape of a wall of water. It was 40 feet high, someone said, and the figure appeared in print next day—40 feet high and no one testified it was not. It must have looked that high and it might have been. It roared like a passing train with a monumental roll of thunder in the background. When the headwall passed, the pursuing current raged and boiled. Hitting obstructions it shot spray hundreds of feet upwards, some of it seeming to merge with the overcast sky.
Wueste had dispatched four men down the valley to warn the several hundred who lived there. Others from San Diego were trying to warn those who had telephones. F. E. Baird, one of the messengers, saw the headwall approaching when he was six miles below the dam. He cleared its main impact, but was caught in the following rise. He reached safety after swimming and clinging to trees.
Next morning Don Stewart, then city treasurer and a Naval Reserve officer, went out onto San Diego Bay off the mouth of Otay River. There he saw many small boats, manned by Japanese who lived in Otay Valley. Isolated from the general population, telling its troubles to no one, the Japanese colony was searching for its dead.
On the beach the flood had fanned out and made a delta several hundred yards wide covered with debris. There, rolled up and battered, was the bulk of the sheet core from the dam, twelve miles distant.
How many lives were lost, Japanese and other, was promptly confused among newspaper headlines and counter-headlines. When the flood subsided the Union sought to encourage visitors to come to the exposition. In the excitement it had been forgotten that the nation was listening and San Diego was being made to seem impossible to reach and extremely dangerous on arrival. In the manner of newspapers of the day, the Union accused the Scripps-owned Sun and the United Press of frightening the East with scare headlines announcing as many as 65 dead. The Sunreplied in kind.
The coroner’s office on the 28th had estimated the dead at 50. Later estimates have placed it in the vicinity of 20 and some lower. This refers only to deaths resulting from the dam failure.
The fund started for the relief of the Little Landers expanded into a larger appeal for the relief of the disaster victims throughout the county.
In the listing of the casualties, bizarre events, damages and ironies, one item is almost never omitted. Jim Coffroth, a show-type personality and erstwhile boxing promoter, had finished construction of his new Tijuana race track. On the eve of its opening the flood overran it, making channels across the track and entering the buildings. The opening was postponed for weeks.
From Morena Dam between the big rains, Charley Hatfield telephoned San Diego and was quoted by the Union: “I understand the newspapers are saying I didn’t make the rain. All I have to say is that Morena has had 17½ inches of rain in the last five days and that beats any similar record for the place that I have been able to find.”
That was the last remark directly attributed to him until after the storm. He may have been in touch with his mother-in-law and Fred Binney, each of whom issued a statement that appeared to have knowledge of his wants and intentions.
Mrs. Rulon said, as Charley had said many times himself, that her son-inlaw did not “make” rain, but released it when conditions were favorable. She also said: “If Morena has overflowed we may expect him shortly. If it has not, he will remain until it does.”
Binney in a letter to the Union said that Lake Cuyamaca, higher in the mountains, usually had 36 inches of rain in a year compared to Morena’s 21-1/2. But up to the 27th Cuyamaca was still 4.79 short of its yearly average while Morena had exceeded its by 4.50.
“Here we have scientific proof,” he explained, and expanded on the theme. The Union was accustomed to him and his letters. This one it entitled: “What Hatfield Has Done, as F. A Binney Sees It.”
One of the many telephone messages Mrs. Swenson relayed to Charley was from a man she assumed was his attorney. It might have been Fred Binney. The voice advised him to go back to San Diego at once and sign an agreement with the council, without which he would not be paid. Charley did not appear to take the message seriously.
Charley and Joel had cleared the brush from the soft ground under and near their tower. With a hand rake they frequently combed the ground immediately under the platform, leading Mrs. Swenson to suppose they were trying to avoid identification of their chemical. When the Swensons approached the tower, Charley would come down the ladder or emerge from the tent, to meet them some 20 feet away. This they found to be amusing, being sure they could not identify anything so mysterious, but they kept their respectful distance.
Of many conversations with Charley, Mrs. Swenson remembers most vividly one during the first of the two storms. She said, “It’s sure raining now!” and Charley replied, “You haven’t seen anything yet. Wait two weeks and it will really rain.”
When the big storm got underway on the 26th the telephone failed, but not before Mrs. Swenson received a message for her husband from George Cromwell, city engineer and Wueste’s superior. The city council, he said, was determined to impound all possible water. Swenson was instructed to keep the spillway gates closed until the water level reached the very top. The gates when closed were virtually as high as the dam itself.
All day on the 26th the rain came down heavily and steadily, out of a light gray sky. It was odd, the Swensons noted, that the overcast did not seem heavy and dark, notwithstanding the downpour.
Toward midnight the lake level was rising faster. Swenson gauged it frequently and timed its rise at two feet per hour. Considering the expanse of the lake, this must have required an enormous inflow. Enough engineers’ conversation had rubbed off on Swenson to indicate that the problem involved common sense. He estimated that the spillway, even wide open, would not handle the flow at the rate the lake was rising. The telephone being out, he decided to use his own judgment.
Just before midnight, with the lake level still twelve feet below the spillway lip, (according to his recollection a little over 40 years later) he rowed to the outlet tower, climbed the outside and descended the slippery inside ladder to open two 24-inch outlet valves, far below the surface. Despite this outflow, the level continued to rise rapidly, and continued to rise after spilling started. By dawn the spillway was an impressive waterfall, with nearly five feet of water tumbling over its crest.
Topping the upstream face of the dam was a coping, two feet high, intended more as a guard rail than as a part of the dam. With all the outflow, the water level at daylight on the 27th was only five inches below the top of the coping. By virtue of this scant five inches, Morena Dam and many human lives were saved.
For the rest of his life, Charley Hatfield claimed that more than enough water flowed over the dam in the next few days to have filled Morena a second time. With this the Swensons agree, and it must have seemed that way, although the estimate of the San Diego water department is that only a little over three billion gallons spilled in the month of January. Overflowing continued into April, however.
Charley and Joel stayed at the lake until three days after the storm. They had reduced the tower to a neat pile of lumber and had carefully raked the ground where it had stood.
On the 30th the telephone in the Swensons’ cottage came to life again and a message was relayed from Dulzura headquarters below and to the west. Then they heard that Lower Otay Dam was gone and that damage throughout the back country was unbelievable. Someone was even talking of organizing a party to come up to Morena and lynch Hatfield.
How seriously to take that report was a question, but for all the Swensons knew, their informant seemed to be serious. Charley had seemed in no hurry to leave, but when they told him what they had heard he decided to go at once, on foot. Swenson pointed out the trail leading down the canyon from the dam. As he watched them go he saw two men far below, upward bound on the same trail. They proved to be Wueste and Cromwell, and when they arrived, Wueste asked for Hatfield.
When Swenson expressed surprise that they had not met on the trail, Wueste recalled seeing downward bound footprints and wondering why they had not met the men who made them. Charley and Joel had evidently gone off the trail to dodge the unknown upward bound men.
Wueste and Cromwell arrived in time to cope with a new threat to the dam. The east wind had blown to the spillway everything that floated—dead trees and brush, fence posts, dismembered barns and outhouses and other lumber. It formed a heavy jam covering the narrow neck of the lake in front of the dam. It blocked much of the overflow, and the lake level was rising.
A guard of steel rails had been installed on the lake side of the spillway to keep the debris away from the lip. Instead the pressure had forced the debris under and against the guard rails, forming a semi-effective water seal.
Cromwell walked nine miles through mud to Campo where he obtained dynamite and recruited men from an immobilized railroad construction crew. Two sticks of dynamite broke the jam, and the crew was put to work building a road to the dam, the old one having been covered by the risen lake.
Wueste and Cromwell and other engineers agreed that Swenson’s judgment and action, contrary to instructions, saved the dam.
It took Charley and Joel two days to cover the 60 miles to San Diego, walking all the way, fording fast streams and climbing in and out of new gullies. They stayed overnight at Jamul.
Charley held a press conference in Fred Binney’s office on the afternoon of February 4, explaining that he and Joel had arrived tired the day before and had taken a night’s rest and cleaned up. In the group photo taken at the conference all three seemed well rested, well scrubbed and happy as larks.
Charley may have felt out the state of the public mind before he made a public appearance. He was surprised at the devastation and did not entirely discount the lynch threat. By the time of the press conference, however, he was aware that his chief enemies were those who proposed to deny payment of his fee on the ground that he had nothing to do with the rain.
VI. SAN DIEGO’S DILEMMA
For a man of Cosgrove’s shrewdness and combative instinct, Charley Hatfield was a sitting duck. Charley’s contracts would have distressed any attorney who tried to have them enforced at law. They were designed, if the word applies at all, principally for selling, as indicated by the contract title at Hemet: “Four Inches of Rain for $4,000; No Rain, No pay.”
Perhaps a lawyer might have designed one with fewer holes. It might have been stipulated that performance was established if a specific amount of rain fell while Charley was functioning, without qualification as to cause. With dry farmers he probably got more contracts and more fees by his own way of putting it. They understood that he would do his work, whatever it was, and that if the agreed amount of rail fell they would pay. That was enough for most of them, and those who dodged paying did not have to hire lawyers to shoot holes in the contracts. He never sued anyone except the City of San Diego, and that half-heartedly.
In the February 4 press conference Charley reviewed his career and as much concerning his ideas and methods as he was willing to disclose. Again he said he would be willing to give his secret to the U.S. government. When Fred Binney tried to enter the conversation, he firmly kept on talking.
How much time had he spent on the job at Morena?
Charley would not tell, but he pointed out that he had spent his own money and added that he would have continued to do so for the full year of the contract if filling Morena had taken that long. Now he expected the city to pay as agreed.
There were reports that the council did not intend to pay. Would Charley sue?
He said he did not want to cross that bridge before he reached it. He assumed the council would pay according to the agreement.
If Hatfield had caused the rain, then why had it also rained all along the coast, beyond the claimed limits of his influence?
Charley said it usually rains more in Los Angeles than in San Diego. This time it was the other way around. He did not claim to be a rainmaker, but only that he could increase the amount.
The questioners were primed with the city’s tactical line:
If Hatfield were to get credit for the rain, would he accept liability for the damage?
Charley said the benefits would exceed the damages, and that the benefits included not only the water but the employment in repairing roads and bridges, which would put money into circulation and stimulate business. He was an economist ahead of his time!
How about the deaths?
Charley said the deaths were deplorable, but he did not feel responsible.
From the press conference Charley proceeded not to the city treasurer but to the man everybody said he had to see—City Attorney Cosgrove. That gentleman was cordial, businesslike, and disarming. He advised Charley to file a written statement setting forth in detail what he claimed to have accomplished, in how much time. In short, what exactly did he expect to be paid for?
Charley had always been willing, for simplicity’s sake and good salesmanship, to allow clients to think he had caused the entire rain by himself. If challenged with the observation that rain had been general and that rains had been known to fall without his help, he was quick to deflate the challenge, not to counter it.
The payoff point in Hatfield contracts was usually set above normal expectancy, and this was especially true of all three propositions offered to the San Diego city council. His pay was conditional on an extraordinary amount of rain. Oddly, it appeared that the council had accepted the alternative that involved least rainfall. During that eventful January, according to city water department records, 28.01 inches fell at Morena and that amount caused a tremendous overflow. If 50 inches had fallen, as provided by either of the alternative propositions, the theoretical results are too horrifying to contemplate.
Charley’s claim was seven pages long and consisted largely of sales talk. He argued that while he was operating the city had only three days of sunshine. Since he stopped, the sun had been shining daily. He said the council would be dishonorable to evade payment by reason of the city attorney’s failure to draw up a written contract as he had been instructed.
Possibly Charley was disarmed by Cosgrove’s gentle approach. Indeed Cosgrove even appeared to be completely understanding about Charley’s right to the secrecy of his method. In any case Charley made the mistake of attempting to put on paper what he had always managed to keep conveniently indistinct, probably in his own mind as well as in the minds of his clients. He claimed to have been directly responsible for four billion gallons of what ran into Morena.
The climax came when Charley appeared before a council conference February 17. Mayor Edwin Capps asked him to state his business. He said: “The essence of my contract was to fill Morena Reservoir. That has been done. I have fulfilled my contract and I desire that the city should fulfill its contract to pay me $10, 000.”
“How much,” asked Cosgrove, “do you claim to have put into Morena?”
Charley had already put his foot into it in writing, and he repeated verbally: “Four billion gallons, if not more.”
“But you agreed to put in 10 billion gallons,” said Cosgrove. Charley was indeed bound up in a contradiction of his own making. He answered:
“There were five billion gallons when I started work and it required 15 billions to fill the reservoir. I claim that through the instrumentality of my work four billion gallons were put into the reservoir and the other was the indirect result of my work.”
This was too easy. Charley was already in a bad position and Cosgrove pushed him harder: “You want the city to pay you only for what you yourself did? You do not want the city to pay you for what nature did, do you?”
“Well, why do you ask the city to pay you for 10 billion gallons when you put in only four billion gallons?”
The inept opponent was vanquished as the attorney turned in triumph to the council:
“According to his own statements, this man has admitted that he put only four billion gallons of water into the reservoir. He offered to deliver 10 billion gallons. Therefore he had not fulfilled his contract, and there is no liability on the part of the city. He should have waited until he fulfilled his contract.”
Councilman Moore did not like to argue with a man so sharp and so emphatic as young Cosgrove, but he had a dogged sense of honesty.
“If Morena overflowed,” he said, “I think he should be paid his money.”
Cosgrove fixed Moore, and through him any other vacillator, with a stern look and proceeded:
“If I give a ruling it will be based solely upon the facts as shown by the records, and not upon any understanding or upon anybody’s sympathy. The records all show that Hatfield made three propositions to the city. The first was to fill Morena for $10,000; the second was to produce 40 inches of rain gratis and to receive $1,000 an inch for every inch between 40 and 50 inches and the third was to produce 30 inches of rain gratis and to receive $500 an inch for every inch between 30 and 50 inches. The resolution which was passed by the council simply said that Hatfield’s offer was accepted, but it did not say which of the propositions was accepted.
“This gentleman, according to my opinion, cannot collect his money in the courts. Under the constitution and the statutes of the state and the charter of the city, a claim that is unenforceable is invalid.”
So the council voted to refer the matter to the city attorney, which meant to deny payment. Moore said nothing further, but Benbough spoke in the simpler language of the council’s discussions with Charley. He said: “Four councilmen voted to accept the man’s proposition and told him to go ahead. He ought to be paid.”
For such disputations Charley had neither ability nor stomach. He was best when he held forth in his own terms on his own claims. Most of those who talked to him for any reasonable length of time were convinced that he had convinced himself.
Of course the reasons for refusing to pay Charley, as every San Diegan knows, was that if Charley really caused the rain then the city presumably could be held responsible for the damage it caused.
It might have been interesting if Charley had retained an equally bellicose lawyer to insist as Councilmen Moore and Benbough insisted that a contract was in force regardless of the absence of a written version. Ultimately Cosgrove and Higgins did draft one in writing, although probably only for display purposes. It was never presented to the council or Hatfield for approval. Higgins wrote, years later, that it was based on the alternative of filling Morena Reservoir rather than on the fall of 50 inches of rain. Despite Cosgrove’s quibble, they too understood as Charley and the newspapers and the council understood, which proposition had been accepted.
If Charley’s verbal deal with the council was a deal at all, it is hard to imagine what evidence of performance could have been given other than the simple fact of Morena’s overflow. If Charley had made a fuzzy contract, so had the city council. It is doubtful that any of them reasoned in the four-to-one vote as Cosgrove reasoned after the fact. Who wanted Morena to overflow more than it had already?
Charley got an attorney to file suit, but the suit appeared to be merely an effort to urge settlement. He had already offered to compromise for $4,000. Later the attorney implied a willingness to settle for even less.
Then, said Higgins, he and Cosgrove offered to recommend that the city pay all of the $10,000 if Charley would sign a statement assuming responsibility for the flood, absolving the city. One might wonder what would have been the outcome if Charley had solemnly signed such a statement and accepted the $10,000. If a damage suit had prevailed and if Hatfield had been without assets to cover, would the city have been liable anyway? It is a matter for speculation only. Charley refused to sign.
Perhaps on examining the performance of legal counsel it is fair only to ask if the client was victorious. San Diego and most of Cosgrove’s clients were. Three years later he resigned as city attorney and entered private practice in Los Angeles. As Southern California’s best known water specialist, he served many clients in a long and distinguished career. Among his greater victories was the triumph for his client and former employer, the City of San Diego, in the Paramount Rights Case completed in 1926.
Ultimately two damage suits against San Diego in the matter of the Hatfield flood reached trial, under change of venue. Courts in Orange and San Bernardino Counties ruled that the rain was an act of God, not of Hatfield. However, the city made cash settlements to some claimants who were willing to settle out of court. Altogether, it was not Cosgrove’s most brilliant undertaking, but who would have expected it to rain like that?
He himself was soon removed from the Hatfield problem by affairs of greater moment. Shelley Higgins continued as assistant city attorney through the Hatfield flood cases. It was Higgins who had to defend the city and it was Higgins who had to explain and find dignity in the Cosgrove-Higgins role, where there was really no dignity to be found. He worked very hard at it.
Charley’ s suit against the city lingered on the court calendar nearly twenty-two years and finally was dismissed in 1938 for lack of prosecution.
For most modern San Diegans, the refusal to pay was justified in view of the damage suits against the city, of which there could have been many more. Still it does seem a pity to some that Charley could not have been paid, since he did seem to make good on the kind of deal the council made with him.
Possibly it is this touch of bad conscience that accounts for a verbal tradition in San Diego that Charley was paid $5,000 from an under-the-table fund the city fathers maintained for confidential purposes best understood by practicing politicians. But Charley was scrupulous. Higgins himself had testified to the refusal of one back door payment proposition. If Charley had taken any payment he probably would not have continued to say, as he did, that the city had not paid him.
“To this day,” he told a newspaper reporter 30 years later, “I’ve never felt right about that San Diego city council.” For him it was a strongly worded complaint.
The San Diego City Council discussions with and about Hatfield, including the direct quotations, are based principally on contemporary news stories from the San Diego Union. The Union of January 21, 1951, is the source of Al Wueste’s recollection of the failure of Lower Otay Dam.
Paul Hatfield of Pearblossom, Calif., brother of the rainmaker, supplied dates, locations and routine details on all the Hatfield rainmaking engagements. At most of them, but not at Morena Reservoir, he was his brother’s helper.
Three eye witnesses to the 1916 floods were especially helpful through personal interviews. Don Stewart, former San Diego city councilman, city treasurer and postmaster, was interviewed on August 20, 1958, in Riverside. He was the most informative of a delegation from the San Diego History Center, the other members of which were Edgar F. Hastings, Joe Silvers and Wilmer B. Shields. Stewart especially recalled Fred A. Binney. The other two key recollections came from Seth and Maggie Swenson, who tended the dam at Morena Reservoir. They were interviewed, probably no later than 1959, at their home in San Diego.
Rainfall figures were obtained from or checked against Climatological Data, published by the Department of Commerce.
The following books were consulted with particular reference to the Hatfield story: McGrew, Clarence A., San Diego and San Diego County, American Historical Society, N.Y., 1922; Hopkins, Harry C., History of San Diego, City Printing Co., San Diego; Higgins, Shelley, This Fantastic City; Hensley, H. C., Early San Diego, Vol III (in ms. form, San Diego Public Library).
|Thomas W. Patterson’s article on Charles M. Hatfield’s activities relating to San Diego and the disasterous floods of 1916 is part of a 43,000-word manuscript in which Patterson analyzes the myths and legends, and evaluates the facts in Hatfield’s interesting career as rainmaker.Mr. Patterson is a newspaper reporter. In 1945 he worked for the San Diego Journal, and since 1946 he has been a reporter for the Riverside Press Enterprise. He was born on April 1, 1909, in Yuma, Arizona.
Mr. Patterson is also the author of Landmarks of Riverside and co-author of Riverman, Desertman (on Palo Alto Valley), both of which have been published by the Press Enterprise Company.
Mr. Patterson was recently honored by the San Diego History Center at their Second Annual Institute of History for his contributions to San Diego history through the Hatfield article.