Richard Riehl 2 a.m., March 4
Charles M. Hatfield: Rain or Shine (on)?
The Reader will convert some of my history columns into eBooks. This gives me something few who write on deadline ever have: a second chance. I can buff and vacuum stuff I wrote long ago.
And change my mind.
I'm redoing a 2003 series about San Diego's worst floods. The one in 1916 has been controversial ever since. Unlike most of the county's major deluges, which happened in sudden, unexpected bursts and turned Mission Valley into a lake, the one in 1916 was the work - so he claimed - of Charles Mallory Hatfield, the "Rainmaker."
As a boy, Hatfield said he experimented with chemicals. Somehow they could lure steam, rising from a teakettle on a stove, sideways. And if he could bend steam, why not clouds?
"I do not make rain," he wrote, "that would be an absurd claim. I merely attract the clouds and they do the rest."
San Diego's Panama-California Exposition opened in 1915. That year was so dry the Chamber of Commerce feared if the drought continued it would hurt attendance. So they hired the "cloud-coaxer." If he could produce steady results over the next year, they' pay him $10,000.
On January 1, 1916, Hatfield and brother Joel built two towers on a hillock near Morena Reservoir. They shot "chemical vapors" into the air. A few days later sprinkles arrived. On January 14, and for the next four days, 12.73 inches fell at the reservoir. The overflow swept down Hauser Canyon, ruptured Sweetwater Dam, and washed livestock, houses, and at least 50 people to the sea.
Was Hatfield responsible? Most sources said no. He was just a showman who knew a great deal about the weather, including El Nino and La Nina events long before they had names. And he surely knew that San Diego had a major flood every eleven years, the most recent in 1905.
So he chose wisely. Or so I thought when I wrote the column.
Now I'm not so sure. Military studies of the weather for 1916 indicate that four different air masses created a vast low pressure system over Southern California, in particular San Diego's east county. They spun in a "pinwheel" pattern.
I recently tracked down an eyewitness. In Memories of the Early Settlements: Dulzura, Potrero, and Campo (1955), Ella McCain remembers seeing "a bright light' between cloudbursts, "like the sun was going to shine, but if one stepped out of the house...they could not get their breath for the water running down their faces."
The Chamber of Commerce never paid Hatfield. McCain remembers him coming back years later demanding remuneration. "No one could make [me] believe that Mr. Hatfield had nothing to do with the storm," she writes. "When the clouds began to form, there were black, round rolls of clouds over Morena, which seemed to be drawn from different directions and center there."