Wild Weather Wednesday: Rainmaking (Part Four) – The Moisture Accelerator

CharlesHatfieldFrank Melbourne mysteriously disappeared, although he had long since been found to be a fraud.  (In case you missed previous articles, check out Part One, Part Two and Part Three of this series.)  Yet, that didn’t stop other so-called rainmakers from attempting to make a buck.  The early twentieth century’s most famous rainmaker was called the “Moisture Accelerator”.

Charles Mallory Hatfield, aka the “Moisture Accelerator”, was born on July 15, 1875 in Fort Scott, Kansas and sometime in the 1880’s his family moved to southern California.  In 1894 they moved to San Diego County where his father bought a ranch.  As a young boy, Charles sold newspapers on the streets of the city.

Although Hatfield was later employed as a sewing machine salesman, he also studied “pluviculture” – rainmaking – in an attempt to create his own secret formula.  By 1902 he had a formula of twenty-three chemicals which actually produced a bit of drizzle at his father’s farm located in the San Diego area.

In 1904, and still selling sewing machines, Hatfield moved to Glendale, California.  Fred Binney decided to promote Hatfield by promising his “client” could produce rain for parched communities.  Hatfield appeared to have been a bit more modest about his abilities to make it rain, instead claiming he merely assisted nature – “I only persuade the rain to come down.”1

In fact, Hatfield was “willing to share the honors with the preachers, the weather guessers and even with Providence”2 after he constructed his “evaporative tanks” in the Big Tujunga Canyon of Los Angeles in early 1904.  All he asked in return was credit for more rain than would have occurred had he not intervened by pumping his “noxious fumes into the heavens.”3

He would not take full credit for the significant downpour, only that he was responsible “for holding the storm in southern California as long as it stayed.”4  Hatfield had been honing his rainmaking skills for some time and his tests had all been successful, save for one in December of 1903 in Inglewood, California.  There was no rain, but he claimed to have created a fog so heavy that it dripped steadily from trees and produced one-hundredths of an inch in a rain gauge.

His apparatus, a tower approximately thirty-five feet high, was topped by two tanks.  One tank, about four or five inches deep, was continuously filled with water.  The adjacent tank was filled with his secret chemicals, and when vapor from the water mixed with the chemical fumes air humidity changed and cirrus clouds began to form.  He claimed these clouds gradually grew larger, blocking the sun’s rays, and eventually nimbus or cumulus would form and produce rain.

After making it rain, the “hero of southern California” collected his fifty dollar fee and “returned to selling sewing machines until called upon to break another dry spell.”5  Later that year in December Hatfield again set up his apparatus in the mountains above Pasadena in an attempt to coax the skies to open up and rain.  Even though the weather bureau wasn’t anticipating rain at the time, Hatfield claimed credit for the light showers which fell over Los Angeles.

Afterwards he packed up his devices, satisfied the storm which he developed in the five days previous was over, even declaring “You need not expect any more rain in Pasadena or Los Angeles today.”6  He returned to his home promising to “induce, by his rainmaking manipulations, a fall of moisture in Los Angeles of eighteen inches by May 1st next.”7  Los Angelenos apparently had nothing to lose because he would receive his one thousand dollar fee only if he successfully produced the promised amount.  Eighteen inches of rain falling within that particular time frame had only occurred three times since 1872, however.

He began rainmaking on December 15, 1904 and by May 1, 1905 collected a significant portion of his thousand dollar fee from several Los Angeles merchants.  The rainfall during this time period (18.96 inches) was significantly above normal and far exceeded the previous year’s rainfall during the same time period.  Hatfield had set up his “rainmaking plant” in Altadena in the foothills above Los Angeles and at the location over twenty-six inches of rain had fallen there.  On May 2 a heavy rain and wind storm had swept through parts of central and southern California, causing crop damage.  No one claimed, however, those conditions were attributable to Hatfield’s experiments.

Professor Willis L. Moore, chief of the Weather Bureau, disagreed with Hatfield’s assertions, however.  Moore penned a letter denouncing Hatfield’s claims, beginning with: “Permit me to say that the liberation of chemicals on Mount Wilson had nothing to do with the rainfall in Southern California.”  He considered the rain “good luck” and explained, in meteorological terms, how the season’s rain had been produced.  He cautioned the residents of southern California:

It is therefore apparent that the rainfall which was supposed to have been caused by the liberation of a few chemicals of infinitesimal power was simply the result of general atmospheric conditions that prevailed over a large area.  It is hoped that the people of Southern California will not be misled in this matter and give undue importance to experiments that doubtless have no value.  The processes which operate to produce rain over large areas are of such magnitude that the effects upon them of the puny efforts of man are inappreciable.8

Curiously, no one had much interest the following year in contracting Hatfield’s rainmaking services, despite drought conditions.  In lieu, all priests of the Catholic diocese of Los Angeles and Monterey were ordered by Bishop Conaty to pray for rain.  Hatfield, however, would travel to Arizona in July of 1906, “with a view to drawing the reluctant moisture from the heavens.”9  One Arizona newspaper claimed it was the “first time in the world’s history a government [had] employed a mere man to make rain.”10

Business was picking up and Hatfield’s experiments were beginning to garner international attention.  The British government agreed to pay him ten thousand dollars if his efforts were successful in producing enough rain in Dawson, Alaska to make the mines profitable again.  Four hundred central California farmers entered into a five-month contract with him in November of 1906.  The farmers had wanted a five-year contract, but Hatfield declined stating he didn’t know where he would be in five years.

He again demurred when referred to as a “rainmaker”, saying that was a name which newspapers had applied to him, although he had come to accept it.  He further stated that no one can make rain.  His “scheme” was to “produce atmospheric disturbances that will induce the precipitation of the rain.”11

Hatfield described his process as “a sort of flirtation with the elusive rain cloud of commerce that will bring down the rain when the cloud is around.”12   He even claimed to be a sort of “cloud charmer”, able to “induce clouds to come to him from a distance away by the peculiar conditions that his chemicals produce[d].”13  If he produced rain, despite the fact the two previous years had been wet and history showed that three wet years in succession had never occurred, he would prove once and for all he wasn’t merely “lucky”.

He may have eschewed titles, but he was sometimes referred to as “Professor Hatfield”.  In 1907, “Professor Charles Hatfield” agreed to furnish “six inches of rain from May 25 to July 25 for $1,500″ to Wasco County, Oregon.   Typically, it only rained around a half an inch during that time period each year, yet Hatfield claimed to have produced an increase of two hundred and fifty percent above normal.

Despite the national weather bureau’s doubts as to his claims of success, Hatfield’s main objective appeared to have been government recognition of his processes, more desirable than the growing number of financial contracts he undertook.  Up and down the West Coast, folks were either in awe of his processes or remained wary.

In 1908 the San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram taunted the “Rain Wizard” a bit, wondering if he would lose his reputation that year.  However, his track record (or his string of “luck”) was still making news and eventually he took to offering guarantees – even publishing his contracts in local newspapers.

To the residents of his boyhood home he was a hero of sorts, and by late 1915 San Diego city and county officials realized they too were in dire need of their favorite son’s services.  For several years Hatfield had attempted to convince officials he could produce rain in the county.  Finally, they agreed and received Hatfield’s offer on December 8:

I will fill the Morena Reservoir to overflowing between now and next December 20th, 1916, for the sum of ten thousand dollars, in default of which I ask no compensation; or I will deliver at the Morena Reservoir thirty inches of rain free of charge, you to pay me $500 per inch from the thirtieth to the fiftieth inch–all above fifty inches to be free, on or before the 1st of June, 1916. Or I will forty inches (sic) during the next twelve months, free of charge, provided you pay me $1000 per inch for all between forty and fifty inches, all above fifty inches free.14

Charles, assisted by his brother Paul, set up shop in an area near Morena Reservoir, one of San Diego’s water resources.  Nothing happened for awhile, but in early January of 1917 it began to rain . . . and rain and rain and rain.  By mid-January, massive flooding was overwhelming rescue efforts throughout the city and county.  Police and emergency personnel were rescuing stranded residents from second-story windows, while some homes were abandoned altogether.

“Billions of gallons of water” were being impounded, mountain streams had overflowed their banks, ranches were flooded and livestock drowned.15   City officials were skeptical as to whether Hatfield was actually responsible, yet hoping “that it continues to rain so hard that Hatfield will have to build an ark.”16  Meanwhile, Hatfield was at Morena “levelling his attention on every passing cloud, with the announced intention of milking it dry.”  City officials, though skeptical, were at this point still planning to pay up.

As the heavy rains continued, one resident suggested they pay Hatfield $100,000 to quit.  The over-saturated ground could hold no more water.  On January 26, a Balboa Park dam was dynamited after being cracked and weakened over time – the current strain was too much.  The following evening another dam burst and in two and a half hours was emptied of thirteen billion gallons of water.  As you can imagine, almost everything in its path to the bay was swept away.

On February 4, Charles and Paul came down out of the hills to San Diego to receive their fees.  Years later they would relate how they had disguised their true identities along the trail back to San Diego, using the name Benson.  Promoter Binney advised that anyone having a mind to shoot the brothers had better be quick, “as Hatfield has been practicing whipping a gun from his hip pocket ever since he turned on the water and threw away the key.”17

Hatfield prepared his rain report and on the morning of February 5 visited the office of the city attorney, ready to collect his $10,000 fee, all the while taking no personal responsibility for flood damages and loss of life.  In an attempt to collect the fee he claimed rainfall would have been considerable anyway but that he had doubled it – even offering to make it rain more!

Something was up and it was the city council’s skepticism.  During the same time period, heavy rains had occurred all over the state of California.  How could Hatfield account for that fact?  His answer:

I expected that question . . . You will remember that it often rains as hard around Los Angeles as it did this year, but that San Diego gets only a small part of the rainfall . . . my tests at Morena were the most potent I ever made.  I used 300 percent stronger forces than ever before.  Up at Morena they told me that it frequently clouded up like rain, but that the clouds passed away without shedding a drop.  None of them got away while I was there, I can tell you.18

City officials continued to wrangle over terms of the verbal agreement, but the city attorney believed that since no formal contract had been signed the city owed Hatfield nothing.  In an almost prophetic-type utterance, Hatfield responded that sometime in the future another drought would plague San Diego and they would need his services again.  The city turned him away and set about to deal with the most pressing issues at hand – massive recovery efforts, restoring services, opening roads and repairing bridges.

Hatfield filed suit against the city on December 2, 1916 and six months later offered to settle for only a fraction of the fees he had been promised – $1,800.  The city counter-offered – we’ll settle if you agree to assume responsibility for their own lawsuits amounting to three and a half million dollars.  Hatfield withdrew his suit and the city eventually settled all claims against it, the last one settled in 1919 with the verdict “due to an act of God.”

Hatfield’s prophetic pronouncement came to pass two years later when San Diego was again badly in need of rain, but the city council refused to call upon him again, although Hatfield continued to proffer his services.  San Diego may not have wanted his services any longer, but he continued to receive offers and enter into contracts to produce rain.

Several sources report that Charles Hatfield gave up rainmaking and returned to his former profession of sewing machine salesman.  Newspaper accounts, however, indicate that he continued to receive offers.  In 1931, a Dallas Morning News headline read: “Rainmaking Is His Job, So Californians Offer Him $10,000 Contract”.  He was being offered the contract to raise the water level of Big Bear Lake a total of twenty-nine feet in two years.

In 1934 he was offering “rain without fee” in an attempt to bring rain to the drought-stricken Midwest.  In 1936 he turned down “a lot of money” to make rainstorms for movies.  He told movie producer Jesse Lasky:

I could bring rain all right.  Yes, sir, I sure could bring it.  But it’d cause more damage to the crops than I care to do.  So I guess we can’t get together right now.19

Lasky wanted a “roaring, sod-pounding storm” to advertise a movie premier, willing to pay C.O.D.  Hatfield, perhaps with a twinge of conscience, continued to turned him down.  It appears that around this time he began turning down offers and in 1937 married for the first time — to a former classmate and widow, Mrs. Martha McClain.

In 1946 he returned to San Diego for the first time since the “Deluge of ‘16″.   He claimed it was the first time he’d had the courage to come back.  Despite the aftermath of the record-setting rain, he was still proud of producing forty-four inches of rain in twenty-six days for the city.  One of his last major rainmaking jobs occurred in 1930 in Honduras when rain fell to drown out raging forest fires and he still believed he could bring “more rain than ever.”20

Looking back, he estimated the monetary benefits of his rainmaking prowess had exceeded a half billion dollars over the years, admitting there was always some accompanying damage.  Perhaps still wary of possible retribution, he hadn’t made it widely known he and his wife would be visiting San Diego.  Yet, when reminded that San Diego was again experiencing a dry spell, he replied, “So I hear . . . Well, if you want some rain, my system is better than it ever was.”21  It should be noted that San Diego later agreed to more rainmaking experiments, but not without insurance underwritten by Lloyd’s of London against potential damage.

Hatfield, ready to make it rain again in 1957, told a reporter that San Diego only had to pick up the phone and call him, this despite the fact that damp weather made his eighty-one year old bones ache.  He died on January 12, 1958, the details of his funeral kept secret by brother Paul.  To his dying day, Charles Mallory Hatfield never divulged his rainmaking secrets.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

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© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.

Footnotes:

  1. Southern California: an Island on the Land by Carey McWilliams, 1980, p. 197
  2. The Indianapolis News, 21 Mar 1904, p. 16
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. The Minneapolis Journal, 09 Dec 1904, p. 10
  7. San Francisco Chronicle, 12 Dec 1904, p. 9
  8. New York Tribune, 12 May 1905, p. 16
  9. El Paso Herald, 13 Jun 1906, p. 8
  10. Prescott Morning Courier, 07, Jun 1906, p. 2
  11. Fresno Morning Republican, 01 Nov 1906, p. 4
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. The History of San Diego, by Richard F. Pourade, San Diego History Center
  15. Rogue River Courier, 17 Jan 1916, p. 2
  16. San Diego Union, 15 Jan 1916, p. 1
  17. San Diego Union, 04 Feb 1916, p. 1
  18. The History of San Diego, by Richard F. Pourade, San Diego History Center
  19. Springfield Republican (MA), 11 Jun 1936, p. 17
  20. San Diego Union, 26 Sep 1946, p. 2
  21. Ibid.

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