Gold in the Sun, 1900-1919

CHAPTER ELEVEN: The Rainmaker – And Who Caused the Big Flood?

For four years the runoff into the local rivers had been below normal and it appeared that another prolonged drought was under way. There still was water in the storage reservoirs but the early settlers had never forgotten the periodic dry spells that had brought disaster to cattle and crops in past years.

From time to time from 1912 to 1914 the town Council had received recommendations, particularly from a real estate agent named F. A. Binney and from the Wide Awake Improvement Club, that Charles M. Hatfield be employed to produce rain, as they insisted he had been doing successfully since 1904 from Los Angeles north through the Central Valleys of California and in the wheat fields of Oregon, Montana and Alberta, Canada.

As 1915 drew to a close the city’s reservoirs, Morena, Upper and Lower Otay, and Chollas held more than ten billion gallons. A dry November sharply reduced the supply. Rain in the first few days of December held out hope that the drought might be over, but only Morena added any appreciable amount of storage.

On December 8 the Common Council received a letter from Hatfield offering to produce at least forty inches of rain in the vicinity of the Morena Reservoir without expense to the city. On instructions of the Council, City Clerk Allen H. Wright sent a telegram to Hatfield, who was then in Eagle Rock, near Los Angeles, asking if he could be present at a meeting of the Council the next day. In reply, Hatfield forwarded the following offer:

“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.”

Accompanying the offer was a photograph of a lake in Stanislaus County which Hatfield said had been filled by his efforts for the first time in its recorded history. He was not without credentials. The Hatfield family was of Quaker stock and had come to California from the Midwest, settling first in Los Angeles County and moving to a ranch in Gopher Canyon, in San Diego County between Bonsall and Vista in 1894. Dry years in Los Angeles County had aroused the interest of Steven Hatfield’s two sons, Charles and Paul, in meteorology and in Gopher Canyon they began experiments with various mixtures of chemicals. In April of 1902 the two boys, with Charles as the leader, placed a batch of their latest chemical mixture atop a windmill platform and performed a rite which to the end they kept secret. A fog drifted in and the slight precipitation which followed was not conclusive as to the experiment’s success. The same circumstance occurred the following month. Testing was put off until July, when fog and rain generally are almost entirely absent, and Charles Hatfield has insisted over the years that a cloudless sky was converted into a stormy one and .65 of an inch of rain resulted.

Though Charles Hatfield was earning his living as a sewing machine salesman, his experiments attracted the attention of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce in 1904 and he was offered $1000 to produce rain. In four months Los Angeles had eighteen inches of rain and the Hatfields were launched on a rainmaking career. They made no claims as to “creating” rain and said they merely persuaded nature to release vast stores of moisture always present in the air even in desert areas. Newspaper clippings saved by the Hatfields over the next dozen years describe rainfalls coincident with their efforts. There were no clippings of failure.

Braving a barrage of ridicule, but figuring they had nothing to lose, a Council majority of Otto M. Schmidt, C. W. Fox, Percy J. Benbough and Walter P. Moore, over the objections of Councilman Herbert R. Fay, who said it was all a lot of nonsense, voted to accept the offer to fill Morena Reservoir and instructed City Attorney T. B. Cosgrove to prepare a contract, which, however, was never signed. As it already was late in the season, Hatfield immediately began moving his equipment by wagon to the area of Morena Reservoir. The lake, sixty miles from San Diego, lies in the lower elevations of the Laguna Mountains at about 3000 feet. A quarter of a mile east of the dam he erected a tower with a platform about twelve feet across. Nothing happened for a while and the name of Hatfield disappeared from the local news.

The exposition began its second year and with money left over from exhibits at San Francisco, the United States Government took over the former Sacramento Counties Building and the Bureau of Fisheries erected its own building in another area. Canada, France, Brazil, Russia and Germany became major participants. A horse racing track opened in Tijuana, at a location just a few hundred feet across the border, on January 1, 1916. The track had been under construction for six months by the Lower California Jockey Club headed by James W. Coffroth.

Out over the Pacific Ocean, the “Pacific High,” a high pressure area extending over a vast area of the sea, began to move southward. As it did it opened a path for storms from the North Pacific to swing down the length of California. In San Diego County the sky had clouded up and some scattered rain had fallen. No one was particularly interested in what the Hatfields were doing up in the dry hills around Morena Reservoir. An estimated crowd of 10,000 persons attended a day of racing which raised the little border town to an important tourist attraction.

Those who visited the site of the Hatfield experiments saw little to impress them and their curiosity was not encouraged. There were no sounds of explosions nor clouds of fumes from the square basin atop the platform into which the Hatfields poured their chemicals and dissipated them into the sky. On Friday, January 14, a steady rain began to fall and continued for the following two days, and on Sunday, January 16, began to reach torrential proportions. The town suddenly remembered the Hatfields. Cosgrove was quoted as saying that while it obviously was raining and runoff was pouring into Morena Reservoir no money should be paid until it was ascertained that this was the direct result of Hatfield’s efforts.

A half century later Dr. Don I. Eidemiller of San Diego State College made a study of weather maps compiled by the United States Army during the World War to aid in predicting battle conditions. The Army’s data included weather studies of January, 1916. They indicated that at that time the low pressure area over Southern California sucked in four separate air masses. As these masses were pulled together, air of different temperatures was brought together along their edges, or fronts, creating a “pinwheel” figure on weather maps, a condition which causes heavy rains.

By morning, the 17th, the situation was serious. The San Diego River was rising rapidly and there were reports of bridges being washed out in interior valleys, of the drowning of cattle, of delays in Santa Fe trains, of wires that were down and roads made impassable. One resident of Mission Valley who was rescued by row boat wiped the rain from his brow and said “let’s pay Hatfield $100,000 to quit.” At Morena, where the Hatfields were working their mysteries, the rainfall in four days was 12.73 inches. Using the telephone line from Morena Reservoir, Charles Hatfield called the City Hall and was quoted as saying:

“I just wanted to tell you that it is only sprinkling now. So far we have encountered only a couple of showers. Within the next few days I expect to make it rain right…just hold your horses until I show you a real rain.”

United States Weatherman E. H. Nimmo was unimpressed and said the storm was very widely distributed. “It may rain some more,” he said, “and then it may not. Lack of telegraphic reports from the north makes it impossible for this office to issue a report.” Each day the headlines in the newspapers got blacker. The race track at Tijuana closed down. By January 20 it was still raining and the Sweetwater Reservoir was filled to overflowing. A Santa Fe train was stalled near Oceanside for forty hours and attempts were made to get provisions to the passengers by oceangoing launch. The railroad bridge across the San Dieguito River near Del Mar was carried away. Much of the Little Landers Colony in the Tia Juana River Valley where the river crosses into the United States before reaching the sea, disappeared, leaving 100 families homeless.

The bridge at Old Town was bolstered with a sand bag jetty. Then the storm began to let up. Though intermittent rain continued, San Diegans consoled themselves that the worst was over. Communications were gradually restored, a relief fund of several thousand dollars was collected for the Little Landers people. Though the city’s reservoirs had impounded about twenty-one billion gallons of water, there was an estimated loss of $300,000 in bridges alone.

The rainfall in the lower areas, for example at Lower Otay Reservoir at an elevation of 500 feet, was 5.60 inches from January 15 to 20. In the higher elevations, it was much greater. Cuyamaca Reservoir at 4766 feet recorded 17.96 inches from January 14 to January 19. By then the ground was thoroughly saturated. The Hatfields were trying to make good on their promise and could present no claim for payment until the rainfall or the storage in Morena Reservoir met the stipulated conditions. There had been nothing like thirty inches of rain even in the wettest mountain areas. They remained at their tower and as far as anybody knew were sending their chemical vapors into the atmosphere. Most of the rainy season was still ahead of them.

Meteorological conditions similar to those of January 17 reappeared on January 24 and heavy rain began to fall again in an area extending from the sea edge of San Diego County north to the Canadian border and in another interior area covering most of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado.

The ground could hold no more water. The rainfall swept down the sides of the mountains and hills, was gathered up in swollen streams and poured down the canyons into the river beds which snaked through the wide coastal valleys. The rivers again jumped their banks and spread from bank to bank. The coast road to Los Angeles was impassable though the inland route by way of Escondido was kept open. Teams were on hand to pull autos out of the roaring waters in Bernardo Valley. The San Diego River reached a crest six feet higher than in the previous storm. The city’s concrete bridge across the river at Old Town was the first to go. Then the Santa Fe Railroad bridge was washed away, even though it had been weighed down with loaded freight cars. High winds swept boats from their moorings and whipped water onto bay front streets. Telephone communications with Point Loma went out. The forecaster Nimmo predicted still more rain.

On January 26 the city dynamited the dam in Switzer Canyon in the south portion of Balboa Park, as it had been cracked and weakened over the years, and two houses were overturned on Sixteenth Street as the water rushed down to the bay. The San Diego Union reported on the morning of January 27:

“The memory of the famous storm of 1884 was put to shame yesterday and last night by the presence of the most serious weather conditions which have been felt in this part of the country for half a century…San Diego’s wind records were shattered at 4:30 yesterday morning when a velocity of fifty-four miles an hour was recorded for a period of five minutes. For one minute the wind blew at the rate of sixty-two miles an hour.”

The level of Lower Otay Reservoir rose more than twentyseven feet in ten days. Morena rose seventeen and a half feet in the same period. Upper Otay filled in three days. Water was going over the top of the Sweetwater Dam more than three and a half feet deep. The north abutment wing dam washed away, leaving a gap ninety feet wide, as did the auxiliary dam on the south rim. A deputy United States marshall, W. C. Carse, rode out to warn Otay Valley ranchers that the Lower Otay Dam might be in danger. As he dashed across the Sweetwater River, the bridge went out behind him. In a telephone call to The San Diego Union he said conditions were beyond description. Then the telephone line was severed.

Lower Otay Lake was one of two reservoirs lying at the foot of the junction of the Jamul and San Ysidro Mountains. The two ranges swing near the coast at this point, not far from the international border, and the waters of the several creeks come together to form the Otay River which cuts along the edge of Otay mesa and empties into the southern portion of San Diego Bay. The dam had been started as a masonry structure in 1887, but work had been stopped until 1894, when the Southern California Mountain Water Company resumed construction and changed it to an earth and rock fill dam with a central wall of steel plates. It was 134 feet high and 565 feet wide along its crest and held 42,000 acre feet of water. There were many engineers who were aware that its spillway was entirely inadequate. When the water went over the top of the dam itself it washed away supporting fill at the base of the structure.

Soon after 6 o’clock on the evening of Thursday, January 27, the steel diaphram tore from top to bottom as if it were a piece of paper and the dam opened like a gate. A wall of water slammed against the side of a mountain just below the dam, where the canyon swings sharply to the right, and then plunged down Salt Canyon for a mile and spread out across the valley floor and rushed for the sea. Emanuelle Daneri was ascending the steps of his wine cellar in his winery and through a window saw a wave of water. He cried out to his wife and they ran for their lives. In a few minutes an aged couple who had lived and worked on that location for thirty-seven years were homeless and penniless.

It required two and a half hours for the dam to empty itself of thirteen billion gallons of water, and the water on its seven-mile course to the bay swept nearly everything before it. Nothing remained of the neat ranches, the citrus groves and chicken farms. The land was left “like a gravel bed.” Of twenty-four houses, only one was left standing. Near the mouth of the valley the San Diego & Arizona Railway had built an embankment for its tracks 3000 feet long. Over the main river channel was a bridge. The channel was choked with debris trapped by bridge supports and in a few seconds or minutes the entire embankment gave way under the pressure of the mounting waters. An express car was carried a mile down stream to the edge of the bay. C. Killingsworth of Palm City who watched from a few feet away described the destruction of the railroad embankment:

“The terrible wave came almost without warning. I heard a great roar that cannot be described in words. There was a crash, a boom, a mighty swish and before I could realize what was happening, the water was upon me. The seething wave, bearing before it spars of wood, roofs of houses, trees and rubbish, hit the railroad embankment with a smash. The waters towered what seemed to me a hundred feet in the air. Folks living in the valley were running for their lives…The water couldn’t have paused more than a few seconds for the embankment. It just seemed to me that it hesitated there, that was all.”

It was never determined for certain how many persons lost their lives; probably not more than fourteen or fifteen. Some of them had ignored warnings or had failed to receive them. The loss of human life in the entire county reached perhaps eighteen or twenty. Property losses in the Lakeside-Foster area, from flooding waters of the San Diego River emerging from narrow mountain gorges, were almost as great as in the Otay Valley. J.A. Pierce, an auto dealer, came into town and said refugees were living in the few remaining homes or in the Lakeside Inn and as for the topsoil, “you might as well try to farm on a cement sidewalk as on what is left.”

Pipe lines from reservoirs were broken and some sections swept out to sea. Mail was being sent north on naval vessels. Mail and supplies were being taken by boat between San Diego and Chula Vista. The Tia Juana River Valley was swept clear of the last of the bottom land homes and farms of the Little Landers. United States Marines were detailed to prevent looting.

In the five days from January 25 to 30 at Lower Otay there had been 5.60 inches of rain upon an already soaked earth. At Cuyamaca Lake the rainfall was reported as 14.38 inches from January 23rd to the 29th. At Morena the two-storm total was more than thirty-five inches. Hatfield let it be known he was going to stay on the job. Water had risen to within eighteen inches of the top of the parapet wall, or eighteen inches above the crest of the dam, but debris accumulating behind trash racks had choked the expected flow through the spillway to a trickle and, incidentally, created a dangerous situation.

Other areas of California also suffered heavily. The Southern Pacific lines were severely damaged and train service to Southern California was discontinued. Flat lands in the San Pedro area were flooded and Long Beach was reported to be an island. The Los Angeles River caused considerable damage in low-lying areas. As the storms subsided relief and repair work got under way. Emergency water lines were installed. A goal of $150,000 to aid sufferers was set by the Chamber of Commerce.

On February 4 The San Diego Union reported that Charles Hatfield had come out of the hills and in later years his brother Paul acknowledged that they had denied their identity to angry persons they met on the trail down from their abandoned tower. They used the name of Benson. Their friend Binney was quoted as saying that anyone who had in mind shooting the rainmaker had better be quick on the draw, as Hatfield had been practicing slipping a gun from his hip pocket ever since he had “turned on the water and thrown away the key.”

The next morning reporters cornered Hatfield in Binney’s real estate office and reported that his demeanor was “that of the proverbial conquering hero, home from the fray and awaiting the laurel wreath.” He disclaimed all responsibility for the damage and loss of lives. Later that same day he appeared at the city attorney’s office to begin proceedings to collect the $10,000 he said was due him. He said that while there would have been considerable rainfall at Morena anyway he had doubled it and that he could produce still more rain if desired but he didn’t believe the Council would want any more at the moment. He was asked how he accounted for the heavy rains all over the state, and he replied:

“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.”

His claim for $10,000 was based upon filling Morena Reservoir. Water had gone over the spillway. Two days later he filed a formal demand with the Council, contending that he was responsible for twelve inches of rainfall and until he was paid he was the owner of four billion gallons of water in Morena Reservoir which at ten cents a thousand gallons were worth $400,000. His demand was referred to the city attorney but as far as Cosgrove was concerned there had been no contract and the city owned him nothing. Hatfield was not easily turned away and at the same time was prophetic in warning:

“I wish to draw to your attention that during my operations throughout January you had only three days of sunshine…as soon as I ceased you have had continual bright sunshine, with your usual morning fog…the time is coming, at no great distance when drought will overtake this portion of the state…your population has increased to such a size that with a series of two, three or four dry years, you would suffer, especially in the backcountry. It will be then that you will call for my services again.”

The city had more to contend with than Hatfield at the moment. Roads had to be opened, temporary bridges constructed, and emergency lines laid down to bring water to the townspeople. It wasn’t until February 18 that the first Santa Fe train was able to reach San Diego.

In San Diego City the January rain total was 7.56 inches, about three times the normal of 2.2. But the records of time showed that the storms were widespread. Oregon had the heaviest snowfall in many years; Arizona had the wettest month of records going back to 1892; Nevada had its stormiest month in twenty-six years; and Idaho reported the heaviest snowfall it had ever recorded.

When the city failed to respond to his claim for payment, Hatfield filed suit on December 2, 1916. Six months later he offered to settle for $1800, a sum which he said was less than the expenses he incurred in setting up his operation at Morena. The city offered to settle if he assumed responsibility for settling law suits amounting to $3,500,000 which had been filed against the city for the failure of Lower Otay Dam and the hiring of a rainmaker. No more was heard from him. In time, most of the suits were settled by the city and the two that went to trial in August, 1919, resulted in a verdict that the flood and collapse of the dam had been an “act of God.” The Hatfield suit remained in court files until 1938, when it was dismissed as a dead issue. Meanwhile the Hatfields went about their trade of rainmaking up and down California and even to Central America, and of amassing newspaper clippings of successful rainfall.

The floods had been severe blows to the community and attendance at the exposition in the first two months of 1916 was discouraging. In March a rededication ceremony was conducted at noon in Plaza de Panama and all records for attendance were broken, with 22,741 persons entering the grounds before 3 o’clock in the afternoon. President Wilson was represented by Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane and in Washington Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels pressed an electric button which set exposition bells ringing. By May 4 it appeared that the decision to maintain the exposition for a second year had been a wise one. The attendance had passed 400,000, which was 9564 more than in the same period of the previous year.

The year of 1915 had been a good one, agriculturally and industrially. The Escondido area shipped about 100 carloads of grapes and raisins, 238 of oranges, 182 of lemons and twenty of honey, and 2500 head of cattle. El Cajon Valley shipped fifty carloads of grapes and Chula Vista 800 carloads of lemons. In the South Bay the Western Salt Company shipped 30,000 tons of salt from its beds in the lower bay.

The population of the county-wide metropolitan area was estimated at 109,195 and had almost doubled in four years. There were 200 factories, twice as many as four years before, employing 2500 persons. The municipal pier and the 2675 feet of bayfront bulkheading were nearing completion and ten steamship lines now were making San Diego their southern terminus.

A change in the management of the Southern Pacific Railroad was bringing new officers closer to Spreckels and the possibility of settling their long financial dispute over the building of the San Diego & Arizona Railway. Spreckels had abandoned plans to erect six more six-story buildings along the south side of D Street, from Third to the waterfront, and he announced that he might close Tent City in Coronado, because of continuing operating losses. He said he had maintained it largely as an advertising measure for the summer climate of San Diego. Hotel del Coronado had made money only in one year, 1915. He also disposed of some of the area of Mission Beach, where he had once planned a little “Venice,” and J. M. Asher put up a small resort of thirty tents.

Then there was the unexpected burden of the flood damage to the San Diego & Arizona. Its tracks were expected to reach Campo by February, and from the east end, tracks had been laid as far as Carrizo Gorge, making a total of ninety-seven miles of which fifty-nine were in use. The final thirty-six miles, however, represented one of the most difficult railroad projects to be undertaken in America, with eleven miles through the gorge itself and four and a half miles of tunneling through solid rock.

Threats of a recall action against Mayor Capps were heard, particularly from a group claiming the support of organized labor, as the result of an incident involving a $5000 check. E. W. Scripps had written the check for the relief fund for the Little Landers, but for an unexplained reason it never was turned over to the fund. When pressed about the matter, Capps produced the check and indignantly tore it up. Scripps refused to write another. Capps withheld comment except to say that he did not fear any recall proceedings.

During the floods the city had relied on water service from the Cuyamaca flume and La Mesa Reservoir owned by the Cuyamaca Water Company. The flume had been repaired and a storage reservoir, later named Murray Dam, was built to serve the steadily growing population of East San Diego, La Mesa, El Cajon and Spring Valley. James A. Murray and Fletcher offered the system to the city at a price to be agreed upon by the State Railroad Commission. At one time the system had been offered to the city for $300,000; the commission now set a value of $778,000. Again, as with the previous offer, according to Fletcher’s memoirs, Spreckels induced the city to reject the purchase.

The war in Europe was on all people’s minds and it was becoming apparent too that the United States would soon be involved. With conditions still unsettled in Mexico, and fearing Germany’s fishing in its troubled waters, the United States Army established Camp Hearn at Imperial Beach. During a Preparedness Day parade in San Francisco, a bomb exploded and killed six persons, fatally wounded four others and injured forty more. Tom Mooney, for ten years an associate of I.W.W.’s, was arrested along with a friend, Warren K. Billings, and accused of murder. Mooney was sentenced to be hanged and Billings to life imprisonment, and their cases became a center of controversy for years.

In the national election that year, with the Progressives now weakened in influence and membership, Gov. Johnson had taken full control of the Republican machinery and became a candidate for the United States Senate. Charles Evans Hughes was the Republican candidate for President against Woodrow Wilson. Johnson gave little support to Hughes’ campaign in California, and ignored the conservatives who were supporting him, and Wilson carried the state, though only by a majority of less than 4000 votes. The loss of California cost Hughes the presidency and altered the course of history at one of the world’s most perilous moments. San Diego County turned Republican again, but only by a small margin, with 16,894 votes for Hughes and 16,784 for Wilson. The Spreckels interests fought the Johnson candidacy with bitterness. He was assailed as “Holy Hiram.” But in the county he was an easy winner over Democrat George S. Patton

The exposition and an era drew to a close. A half century had passed since Father Horton had laid out a town that had thought it could challenge its great rival cities to the north. All of the results from the exposition were not yet in. The attendance in the second year, after a brief period in which it went beyond expectations, slowly dropped off, for a 1916 total of 1,697,886 as compared with 2,050,030 for 1915. The two-year total was 3,747,916. On the formal closing day of the fair the troops of the First Battalion of the Twenty-first Infantry staged a mock battle demonstrating the fighting in the trenches of France and Germany. Later there were fireworks and formal dinners. At 10 o’clock in the evening all of the exhibits were closed. At 11:59, taps were sounded from the balconies of Plaza de Panama. At midnight the organ began Auld Lang Syne and Madame Schumann-Heink began to sing. Tears filled her eyes. As the song ended, the lights went out. Atop the Organ Pavilion San Diego presented in a “moving picture of fire” what was described as a message to the future: “World’s Peace, 1917.” Tommasino’s band played the Star Spangled Banner as fireworks exploded to form the flags of all nations.