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Charles Hatfield: Rainmaker or Con Man?

Charles Hatfield: Rainmaker or Con Man?

What would you do if you were facing the worst drought in history? As you watch crops wither, food become scarce, and even drinking water starting to dry up, you might be tempted to go to extreme lengths to bring in the rain. That’s what the city of San Diego did during the drought of 1915. In desperation, they hired a man named Charles Hatfield who claimed he could make it rain and they got more than they bargained for.

Who Was Charles Hatfield?

Charles Hatfield was a man of many pursuits but he made a name for himself as a rainmaker. His career started around the beginning of the 20th century with a secret recipe of 23 chemicals that he claimed could attract water — an early example of the pseudoscience of cloud seeding, which has been tested but never proven to work.

By 1904, Hatfield started to make a name for himself. Ranchers in the West paid him to call in the rains with his secret chemical concoction. In many cases, it appeared that Hatfield was successful. Wherever he went, the rains followed, and he soon had a following that believed he truly was a rainmaker.

This led to a $10,000 contract in the Yukon Territory in 1906. Hatfield was supposed to bring rain to the Klondike Goldfields. Instead, Hatfield took the money and ran, leaving the Klondike high and dry, literally.

The 1915 San Diego Drought

In 1915, the city of San Diego was in the midst of a drought, and it was willing to do just about anything to bring back the rains. They’d heard tales of this “rain man,” Charles Hatfield, so they enlisted his help to fill the reservoir with rainwater.

Hatfield was so confident he could bring rain to the parched city that he secured a deal but agreed only to accept money for each inch of rain that he produced: $1,000 per inch, to be exact, up to 50 inches. For the council, this was a perfect deal. If Hatfield was a charlatan and produced no rain, they didn’t have to pay. And if he did produce all the rain that he claimed he could, it would be a small price to pay compared to the devastation the drought was causing. The deal was sealed verbally. Hatfield never put ink to paper.

Charles Hatfield in 1922 mixing up his chemicals. Photo courtesy of San Diego Public Library Special Collections

Hatfield sprang into action and on January 1, 1916, he and his brother Joel built a tower for their concoction at the Morena Reservoir and allowed the mysterious chemicals to evaporate into the air. Much to the delight of everyone involved, the rains started five days later.

From Drought To Flood

And they didn’t stop. By January 10, severe rains moved in that drenched the San Diego area. More rain fell between January 14 and 18, causing river flooding that washed away bridges and railroads. By January 27, dams overflowed, taking homes, roads, and everything else in their path, with them. Then the Lower Otay Dam broke, causing a massive flood that claimed roughly 20 lives.

The Aftermath

Despite epic destruction, Hatfield considered the deluge of water a success. The City Council, however, was furious. Flood damages had risen to about $3.5 million and they were refusing to pay Hatfield. Unfortunately, since Hatfield never signed a contract, there was little that anyone could do. Hatfield fought to collect his money in an ordeal that lasted until 1938, with two courts deciding that the rains were an act of God. Hatfield nor the City ever received a penny in the matter.

Charles Hatfield

Flooding that occurred in January 1916. / photo courtesy of San Diego Historical Society

Charles Hatfield: The Ultimate Con Man?

Was Hatfield on to something? Did he have the secret formula to make it rain? The general consensus is no, there is no possible way that Hatfield could have made it rain with his vats of unknown chemicals, no matter what his most fervent followers believed. Even during his time, meteorologists noticed that Hatfield tended to only show up when rains were already in the forecast. Hatfield himself claimed that he made it rain more than 500 times, which leads most experts to believe that the man was a fraud—one who just so happened to be really good at forecasting the weather.

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