The Rainmaker (Part Two)

Continued from Part One

With the stories that were rapidly spreading about his success as a rainmaker, er, I mean, "cloud coaxer," Charles Mallory Hatfield was riding high in 1915 when he was approached by a group of businessmen operating out of San Diego.  Since San Diego and the surrounding areas were primarily agricultural back then, the frequent droughts often meant economic disaster for farms and businesses alike.   For that reason, the city had built the Morena reservoir  in the 1890s although it had never come close to being filled, something they were hoping Hatfield could correct.   

Ever the entrepreneur, Hatfield extended his usual offer:  that the city would owe him nothing if he failed but, if the rain came, then the city would pay him $1000 for every inch of rainfall between forty and fifty inches (any rainfall exceeding fifty inches would be free).   With a handshake deal in place, he and his brother Paul went through their usual routine of setting up evaporating tanks on high platforms near San Diego's Morena Dam and everyone waited to see what would happen.  By all accounts, the smell of the chemical smoke from his cauldrons was dreadful and many nearby farmers reported seeing flames leaping skyward (no EPA back then).   A t the same time, newspapers began a countdown on the days left for Hatfield to complete his contract.

Unfortunately for the Hatfields, not to mention most of southern California and Arizona, one of the worst storms in that area's history struck in early January,  just days after Hatfield released his chemical brew into the atmosphere.   A week of torrential rain led to San Diego being completely isolated from the rest of the state.  Homes and farms were destroyed, dozens of people lost their lives, and many San Diego residents were left destitute.   Not only did flooding wipe out highways and telephone lines, but airplanes represented the only way that emergency aid could be brought into the city.   And even worse was to come.

Though the storm clouds let up on January 20 briefly, the storms began again immediately.  Most of the dams and reservoirs became dangerously overfilled until, finally, on January 27, the Lower Otay and Sweetwater Dams partially collapsed allowing billions of gallons of water to flood the valley. Damaging floods spread along the entire river system with flood waters destroying highways and leaving thousands more homeless.    All in all, it was one of the worst floods California had ever seen.

Which made things very awkward for Charles and Paul Hatfield....   From the vantage point near the Morena reservoir, their rainmaking appeared to be a complete success and they were too isolated to hear about what was happening further downstream.  Only while the Hatfield brothers were dismantling their equipment did they learn about the disaster for which they were supposedly responsible.   Concealing their identity to avoid 220px-The_rainmaker_film_poster[1] being lynched by angry farmers, the brothers decided to tempt fate by asking to be paid for their work.   

Acting on advice from the city's attorney,who warned that paying Hatfield might leave them open to claims for flood damage, the city council announced that no money would be forthcoming.  Despite the lack of a written contract,Hatfield threatened to sue.   At was then that the city made him a new offer:  in return for the $10,000 originally promised, he would accept full responsibility for the estimated $3.5 million dollars in damages from the flood as well as the sixty or so deaths that had occurred.   Not being a fool, Hatfield turned down this offer but continued with his lawsuit.  The case would drag through the  courts for twenty-two years before it was eventually ruled that the flooding was an Act of God and Hatfield wasn't eligible to receive his money.

  Even with this setback, the veteran rainmaker was still flooded (sorry) with requests from potential clients around the world.   While he rarely left California, some of his rainmaking contracts took him as far as Honduras.   Critics continued to insist that he was a humbug however.   According to one scathing article published in 1925 in the journal Science, Hatfield's success was solely because he offered his services at the end of a dry season and, when the inevitable change in the weather occurred, he would then claim the credit.   This article did little to stem business however.   Not until the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the resulting Depression did Hatfield's career as a rainmaker finally came to an end.  

Along with potential clients being less able to afford his fees, the opening of Boulder Dam in 1928 meant that California farmers had a new supply of water courtesy of the Colorado River.   This meant less demand for Hatfield's unique services and greater financial hardship for the one-time rainmaking champion.   To make ends meet, he went back to being a sewing machine salesman and, to make things worse, his wife decided to divorce him.   Stories about his rainmaking skills still lingered though.  At one point during the divorce proceedings, raindrops could be heard against the courthouse windows though weather reports had predicted clear skies.  The judge reportedly looked nervous and said, "I hope this isn't an expression of the defendant's displeasure."   

Ever the showman,  Hatfield continued to drum up publicity for his services and even insisted that his weather-making skills might have prevented the dust storms that gave the Dirty Thirties their name.  But advances in weather prediction, not to mention improved agricultural techniques such as cloud-seeding, made rain-making obsolete.  

Not that he was completely forgotten.  When the  movie, The Rainmaker, starring Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn came out in 1956, Hatfield was invited to the premiere.  He died two years later on January 12, 1958  although, as per his instructions, no formal notice of his death  came out until months after his burial   As he had long vowed, he took his rainmaking secrets with him to the grave.   Over his long career, he personally took credit for more than 500 rainstorms, whether or not meteorologists agreed. 

While hucksters, crackpots, and snake oil salesmen continue to offer their services to the gullible and the desperate, Charles Mallory Hatfield was definitely in a class by himself.   Was he a wholehearted confidence man or did he genuinely believw in his rain-making abilities?  You be the judge.



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