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The Rain Maker and The 1916 Flood

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Being a native of San Diego County, CA, particularly a native of the arid cow country of East County, I know the rigors of dry weather, Santa Ana winds and the erratic rainy seasons. I grew up during the early forties and fifties not far from Moreno Lake, near Campo. That is just a stone's throw from the Mexican border town of Tecate, Mexico.

It's funny how a single weather event can define your whole life, even if you did not personally experience it. Maybe one grows up only seeing evidence of the devastating aftermath. Like the floods of hurricanes or, the Great Flood of Noah's day. Those folks never forget so they never quit telling the tale of the great flood to the next generation.

Drought 10.700wSo it is that all my life I had heard of the 1916 flood that followed a severe period of drought. Nothing has changed since then, there have been other notable periods of drought and very wet winters. As I grew up, each one of those rainy seasons were measured and defined by one historical benchmark—the 1916 flood. The old timers told many tales of that memorable year of severe drought followed by catastrophic flooding in San Diego County.

Long before the so called "greenhouse effect," southern California, and the west in general, suffered extended periods of, "bone dry," global warming followed by periods of unusual cooling and "soaking wet" winters. History records that the western pioneers and cattle ranchers coped with the erratic wet/dry cycles as a way of life.

For example, the drought of 1862-65 was a major devastation to the state of California—as the 'ol timers put it, "it was so dry you'd have to prime yourself to spit." Fueled by hot Santa Ana winds, all the range and pasture grasses dried up to a crisp during that four-year drought. It was that one extended period of drought that ruined the cattle industry in southern California. After that, cattle ranching never really recovered.

When the drought eased up in November of 1864, it was followed by unusually heavy rains and flooding of biblical proportions. Rain fell for almost a month inundating rivers, valleys, farmlands and communities. Nearly 18 inches of rain fell in just over three months! Compare that with an average of 12 inches for a whole year, It washed away soil, timberlands, hillsides and grassy pastures. It is said that an estimated 200,000 head of cattle were lost in California during the torrential rains of 1864-65. However, that was back then.

During the 1940's when I was a kid, the drought that I heard so much about was the one preceding 1916 flood. That was about thirty years before my time. So, that was also back then, but it was still fresh in the minds of the old timers who lived through that memorable weather event. This fascinating weather tale also ends with a flood... but it ends with whole different twist.

Who was responsible for the great San Diego flood of 1916 anyway—Mother Nature or Charles Hatfield, "The Rainmaker?" Those who remembered that inundation had their own opinion. The question prompted a lot of discussion, even when I was a kid—it is a question that has never really been answered. Here is the historical tale of why...

During the period of 1913-15, the severe drought hit San Diego County was much the same as had happened some sixty years earlier. In 1915 San Diego County was "drier than a popcorn fart", as the saying was. Water for the city was becoming critically short.

During that time the City of San Diego was solely dependent on water pumped from wells and from runoff of winter rains collected in a few county reservoirs like Moreno Lake, Otay Lake and Old Mission Dam. Moreno Lake was a main water storage reservoir. A flume system carried water from the mountainous back country to thirsty San Diego. (During the 1940's my Dad was employed as "flume walker" on the Barrett-Dulzura flume.)

At issue was the fact that from the time Moreno reservoir was built in 1897 it had never been full. Many critics said that it was overbuilt and thus a wasted investment by the City of San Diego. Now, it was fast drying up to little more than a cattle pond. Everyone was getting extremely nervous and talked a lot about the critical water shortage but could do little about it. Then, one very dry morning in early December, a gentleman of slight build visited the City Council. He stood up and announced his profession as a "moisture accelerator." For a fee, Charles Hatfield boldly offered to fill the big Moreno Reservoir to the brim, using his method of "moisture acceleration."

Desperate, half-hopeful and skeptical, the city council listened to his pitch and examined newspaper clippings of his rainmaking triumphs from Los Angeles to Alaska and Texas, from 1904 to the present.

After a lengthy negotiation the city council voted four to one to pay Hatfield $10,000.00 if he could fill Moreno reservoir to overflowing by December 20, 1916—or they would pay him nothing at all. That's like $100,000.00 in today's money! It was agreed that he would not have to reveal his trade secrets if he was successful. After the deal was made, the city council boasted, "it's heads we win, tails he loses!" Hatfield responded by saying, "be careful what you're asking for."

So, forthwith, he took his rainmaking apparatus and his trade secrets out to the mountains of Moreno reservoir, sixty miles to the east of San Diego. He built a 40-foot tower on top of which he assembled large galvanized vats on a platform. Then in a tent below he began mixing and preparing his secret concoction of some twenty-three different chemicals for causing rain, or "moisture acceleration" as he preferred to call it. (Some say it was of hydrogen and powdered zinc.)

The locals came to see his unique operation. He told them "this was no Indian rain dance, so scat or you'll 'git no rain." And so they scatted. He mixed his chemicals and stirred his brew and the vaporous fumes went wafting into a cloudless sky. His detractors and believers alike were abuzz with wisecracks, bets, hopes, doubts and snickers.

1916flood2Night fell. Lo and behold (unbelievably) the next morning it was raining! The ranchers and cowmen were delighted as the water began to flow into the creeks and valleys and into Moreno Lake. The heavy rains came and kept coming and coming—heavier and heavier. Mission Valley, which to this day, still floods with just a couple inches of rain, began to run bank to bank as the San Diego River received all the mountain runoff. Downtown San Diego was quickly awash in slosh. Hatfield called city hall and bragged that he was only just beginning and that he was doubling his "moisture acceleration" formula. He said: "You better start building an Ark!"

In a few days an irate rancher contacted city hall and told them to "Stop the damn Rainmaker, and pay him off—it's raining like a cow on a flat rock—my ranch is floating downstream!" But Hatfield was ecstatic with his success and was not about to let up on his "moisture accelerator." He put the pedal to the metal and fumed the clouds like a madman! It is said that he worked all night and the next day without letup, and kept pumping out his witch's brew for more than a week.

No question about it, in a dramatic way the drought was suddenly over and Moreno Lake was soon full to the brim and so was Otay Lake. The Sweetwater Dam and Lower Otay Lake filled to overflowing. But the Otay Dam was old and feeble and on January 27th, it burst and dumped a forty-foot wall of water down the canyon, sweeping away cattle, horses, farms, bridges, homes and some people.

Located just north of Old Town, the bridge that crossed the normally dry San Diego River bed was wiped out and that cut San Diego off from the north for more than a week. The same happened at the San Luis Rey River crossing in Oceanside. So, the Coast Highway was washed out and impassable in numerous places. The Santa Fe and San Diego Arizona trains were marooned both north and east and all the main roads were closed. They were impassable or washed out. All telegraph cable service was cut off. South of San Diego on the Mexican border, the Tijuana River Valley was inundated and the river overflowed its banks and carved a new channel, one that is present to this day. The county saw more than 200 bridges washed out. The 1916 flood was truly of monumental proportions—a deluge like nothing ever experienced!

Where I grew up as a kid on the Dulzura summit, old timers would point out various topographical effects of the flood that changed the landscape forever. Such evidence as ancient scars of landslides where huge sections of the mountains had gotten waterlogged and slid away, leaving the mountain with a new shape or a new canyon. Piles of humungous boulders the size of houses that tumbled down the mountainsides still remain as a witness to Hatfield's 1916 flood. In the lingo of the locals, it was "a real gully-washer", "a pine-knot-floater!"

The main thing though was this: at long last big Moreno Dam, which sat nearly empty for about 20 years, was full to the brim for the first time ever. Charles Hatfield unquestionably fulfilled his end of the bargain—or was it an act of nature? Hatfield took credit for soaking the City for $10,000.00 and claimed that the downpour was the direct result of his "moisture acceleration" efforts.

A posse of ranchers madder than a wet hen, with rain in their faces and blood in their eyes, headed for his tower. But Hatfield was nowhere to be found. He had dismantled his tower and high-tailed it for San Diego to collect on his contract.

MV floodBut as soon as the rains subsided the fair-weather skeptics swamped City Hall. They rose up like the floodwaters to discredit him as a snake oil salesman! The city attorney denied his claim on the grounds that "the whole thing was an act of God!" They refused to pay the money unless Hatfield would accept liability for flood damages to the city. By using that argument, in essence the city council acknowledged his success while denying him payment. Lawsuits against the city soon totaled more than 3.5 million dollars!

Interestingly, Hatfield never claimed that he was a "rainmaker" or that he caused it to rain. Even though he took credit for filling Moreno reservoir to the brim by the date agreed, he could not enforce his poorly written contract that claimed he was only a "moisture accelerator." Hatfield had dug himself a watery mud hole. Refusing to pay for his San Diego flood of 1916, the city left him high and dry.

It is likely that he finally did get some remuneration and personal satisfaction forty years later, when he became the subject of a movie— "The Rainmaker." In the 1956 movie, The Rainmaker, Burt Lancaster played a character resembling Charles Hatfield's exploits. On the bone-dry evening of the movie premiere, Charles Hatfield showed up, conspicuously holding up an umbrella. Shortly thereafter, his secret brew for rainmaking and/or "moisture acceleration" died with him in 1958. He was 82. Yes, during my day, Charles Hatfield was a notable character.

Nugget  231 Hatfield Plaque
But, was the 1916 flood "an act of God" or Hatfield? His strange achievement prompted many country arguments and tales of the 1916 flood. Ask the country folks in eastern San Diego County around Dulzura, Campo and Moreno Lake. It's still a question open to debate. Some say, "Give the devil his due." Others say, "Let the devil take the hindmost." As for me, I grew up my whole life believing that Hatfield caused the flood of 1916—or else it would not have been called the Hatfield flood—right? Greenhouse effect or not, why should I change my opinion now? Then again, I've heard it said: "Timing has a lot to do with rain at a rain dance."

Funny how a single weather event can define a part of your life, maybe even your whole life. How about the Flood of Noah's day?

© Ed Keenan

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  • Guest
    patrick whan Sunday, 06 November 2016

    love it

    Ed, you still tellin stories? I was hearing them ol yarns growin up. You've touched my thinkin so touch me with a E lightning bolt ..OK?

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