Charles Hatfield was a celebrated rainmaker, but when one of his rainmaking schemes worked too well, he became a notorious rainmaker. Here's how a flooded city refused to pay the man who claimed to have flooded it.
San Diego created Charley Hatfield, and it had cause to regret doing so. Hatfield was born in Kansas in 1875, but had grown up and prospered in San Diego as a typewriter salesman. In that profession he learned the art of making a pitch and of disregarding naysayers. During his free evenings, he read meteorology tracts on the art of pluviculture, a.k.a. making rain. His studies intensified as droughts in the 1890s convinced him that anyone who could induce a rainstorm could strike it rich. By 1904 he convinced himself he could produce at least a few showers by building sufficiently high towers and blasting the sky with dynamite, nitroglycerin, and 33 other proprietary rainmaking ingredients.
Hatfield started by charging local farmers $50 a shower, and promising no one would pay a dime if there wasn't any rain between three hours and five days after his sky blasting. It rained, and it continued to rain most of the places he visited. By 1905, he was charging up to $1000 \ for rain. In 1906, he charged goldpanners in the Yukon $10,000 for rain. The rain didn't happen, and Hatfield left town with $1,100 in his pocket which he had claimed for his expenses before blasting started.
People facing a drought will try anything, so Hatfield kept getting work. When the city of San Diego ended the winter of 1915 with hills as dry as they had been the past summer, Charley Hatfield came back to town. In a characteristic pitch, he promised San Diego one of three things. Either he would fill the Morena reservoir for $10,000, or he would provide 30 inches of rain for free and charge $500 dollars for every inch between 30 and 50 inches, or he would provide 40 inches of rain for free and charge $1,000 dollars for every inch between 40 and 50 inches. All the options add up to $10,000 dollars; perhaps it would be best for Hatfield if he had picked only one.
Hatfield started on January 1st of 1916. On January 5th, it began to rain. On January 20th, it stopped raining. It rained again from January 22nd through January 27th. In February, Hatfield made his way to the center of a San Diego that was not at all pleased with his efforts. The rains had overflowed the reservoir, created floods on major streets, washed out bridges, taken down phone lines, changed the geography of some of the canyons, and, when a dam burst, killed at least 20 people. Hatfield had had to pick his way through a disaster zone to ask for his money.
He wasn't going to get it, mostly due to the efforts of City Attorney Terence Byrne Cosgrove. Cosgrove had never believed that Hatfield could make rain, and in any case wasn't going to pay him for a flood. He took Hatfield's agreement, written like a sales pitch insead of a contract, and metaphorically ripped it to shreds. He pointed out that, first, Hatfield couldn't prove which part of the rain he had "provided" and which had simply happened, reminding Hatfield that he couldn't be paid for what nature had done. Then he asked Hatfield to prove that he had provided rains solely to San Diego, since much of the surrounding country was flooded.
And,when one member of the city council said he believed that Hatfield had fulfilled their agreement and should be paid, Cosgrove turned on him, saying:
"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."
Hatfield didn't get a dime. Later, when he sued the city, Cosgrove offered to pay him his money if Hatfield agree to compensate everyone for the damages from the storm that, by signing the check, Hatfield would be admitting he alone created. No more was heard from Hatfield.
At least not in San Diego. When the Depression hit, and the Dust Bowl set in, Hatfield popped up again. He charged a group of farmers in Texas $500 to make it rain. It didn't. Hatfield quietly left town before anyone held him to account.
Top Image: NOAA Photo Library.