“In low places, consequences collect.” — William deBuys
Back in the early 1980s, San Diego had a storm so severe they called it a "100-year flood." The county was drenched and Mission Valley, even with a system of drains, looked like a brown lake. A 100-year flood plane is the maximum a creek or river will ever reach in a century. I wondered if storms ever hit San Diego that went beyond the max. I also had been fascinated by Charles Hatfield, the (in)famous "Rainmaker," who said he could shoot chemicals into the clouds and bring rain. And apparently may have in 1916. Along the way I learned about when the Colorado River broke its banks, flooded the Imperial Valley, and made the Salton Sea — and about the amazing battle to stop it from erasing two towns on the border.
The Flash Flood of 1821
1821 was the year settlers at San Diego’s Presidio began moving down the hill to Old Town. Several had small tracts of cultivated land near the San Diego River. In September, usually in the region’s dry season, a wall of water cascaded down the steep mountain slopes of the east county — overnight — and filled Mission Valley.
Orange objects bobbed up and down like corks on fast-moving current: ripe pumpkins, hundreds of them, snatched from the fields of El Cajon Valley.
The torrent was so strong it forged a levee of silt along its southern shore. It closed the channel to San Diego Bay and changed the river’s course to False (now Mission) Bay. Since the day before had been clear, no one expected such a sudden, overwhelming deluge. Juan Bandini and Don Blas Aguilar — born at San Diego in 1811 — couldn’t recall anything like it.
The strangest part of all: no rain fell on Presidio Hill that night.
The Noachian Deluge of 1861-1862
Called a flood “of biblical proportions,” it ranged from Oregon to Nevada to all of California. The skies opened in November 1861 and it rained off and on through May 1862. The days were so dark, a reporter for the Los Angeles Star joked, “On Tuesday last the sun made its appearance. The phenomenon lasted several minutes and was witnessed by a great number of persons.”
“Every day and night,” said a Central Valley resident, “we could hear strange noises: homes and corrals falling.”
The Noachian — Noah-like — conditions destroyed one-fourth of the state’s taxable property. The central valley became an inland sea. On the streets of Sacramento water reached the second floor of buildings and, in the worst sections, to the tops of telephone poles. The capital had to take up temporary residence in San Francisco. For the next year and a half the state couldn’t meet a payroll.
In San Diego, rain fell “in tropical proportions” from Christmas of 1861 through January. Roads and dry washes became streams; streams, rivers. One dug a 50-foot deep arroyo at San Luis Rey. Others carried away soil, boulders, trees, livestock, and water-logged adobe houses. Derby’s Dike, which channeled the San Diego River to False Bay, broke, and all the lowlands from Mission Valley to Point Loma were underwater. Throughout Southern California an estimated 200 people and 200,000 head of cattle drowned.
“It seemed as if the clouds had been broken through,” the Los Angeles Star reported, “and the waters over the earth and the waters under the earth were coming in conjunction.”
Drought followed the disaster. For the next three years, almost no rain fell in the county (in 1862–’63, San Diego had 3.87 inches). By 1864, grass stopped growing. Cattle and sheep began to starve. Just as the river had changed its course, it looked as if the land wanted to return to its desert roots.
“There was no moisture,” wrote Juan Forster of Rancho Santa Margarita. Every month was “as dry as August. Our cattle died in great numbers. Before 1864 had passed away, there was perfect devastation — such a thing was never before known in California.”
Horses and cattle looked like skeletons. White bones littered the once-green hills.
In the fall of 1862, a plague of smallpox broke out. Ranchero Cave Couts wrote to a friend, “we are all badly scared.” Fearing infection, he posted an armed sentinel at his front gate, refused to permit strangers on his property, and threatened to shoot trespassers.
“Ysidro Alvarado’s family nearly all have it. His wife gave birth to a child Monday last, and was yesterday…buried at San Luis.” Because so many of his neighbors became ill, Couts wouldn’t let his “vaqueros” leave the ranch. “Many around do the same thing.”
So many died in the pueblo of Los Angeles that church bells ceased tolling. The drought continued until the fall of 1865.
Scientists who study the ArkStorm, the theoretically worst-case scenario for a perfect storm in California, point to the Great Flood of 1862 as a precursor.
The Storm of 1891
During the summer of 1891, a thunderstorm inundated Campo: 11.5 inches of rain in 80 minutes. For most of the 20th Century, this was the world record for rain measured at an accredited weather station.
Back in February, 1891, San Diego County experienced what many call the most violent tempest in its history. It started to rain on February 19 and continued for a solid week: 30 inches in 37 hours in Escondido to the north; 18 inches in 48 at Cuyamaca to the east. By the 23rd, every road in the county had been damaged; a flash flood twisted the railroad line from Temecula station to Fallbrook so far beyond recognition it had to be abandoned.
Towns throughout the county became cut off.
Rowboats became the only means of transportation. Food grew scarce. A storm at sea prevented ships from dropping off much needed supplies.
San Diegans flocked to a pavilion near today’s Serra Museum and gazed down on what was, in effect, Lake Mission Valley.
Typical of Southern California runoff, which can happen as fast as the onslaught, the river was almost back to normal a week later.
San Diego, writes Richard Pourade, became “isolated from the world. Everything along the alluvial plains was gone or reduced to wreckage…the town was to experience very little growth in the next decade.”
Hatfield’s Flood of 1916
- “Ye gods of snow, of storm and shower
- Behind what Hatfield doth this hour;
- His ‘lectro chemic vapors rise,
- To wet the world and ease the skies.”
- — San Francisco Examiner
Charles M. Hatfield called himself “The Rainmaker.” Some believe he just might have been.
As technology advanced in the last decades of the 19th Century, the number of flim-flam artists grew as well. They blurred the line between science and sham. Hucksters promised elixirs for what ails you. Some even boasted they could bring rain. They became so prevalent that, in 1925, David Starr Jordan coined the term “pluviculture” to describe the schemers and their methods.
The four most popular: the “boom-boom,” or concussion model. Throughout history, especially the previous 150 years, soldiers noted that it often rained after a battle. Could explosions on the ground, or in the air, jostle fluids from the heavens? Of course, said Robert St. George Dryenforth. The skies are unstable, he claimed, and vulnerable to shocks. His calling card read: “I am Cloud-compelling Dryenforth a mighty able wight./ I can call the clouds together with a load of dynamite.” He even swore he could “outdo Moses.”
In May, 1893, Texas had such a severe drought that the government paid him over $13,000 to “compel the clouds” with high explosives. But after several failures in San Antonio, payment ceased. Local wags labeled him “Dry-hence-forth.”
The second method: adding electricity to the atmosphere (some said subtracting) could be a “drought-buster.” The notion came from a popular theory that civilization and the Industrial Age had altered the natural order. Factory smoke disrupted the air; electricity made natural currents zig where they used to zag.
Clark C. Spence: “The intense vibrations of modern life render inert natural vibrations…vital to production of rain… Some Americans were convinced that railroads acted as electrical conductors”; others that radio waves created the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
The third method, the “Salt-Shaking School,” grew with the rise of airplanes. Sprinkle clouds with chemicals or electrified sand — rain ensues.
The fourth method, “Smell-makers,” was a version of #3: milk the atmosphere with combinations of chemicals, either sent up in balloons or released from high towers.
Charles Mallory Hatfield was a smell-maker.
Born in Kansas in 1876, he left school after the ninth grade. At his family’s ranch in Gopher Canyon, between Bonsall and Vista in San Diego County, he experimented in the kitchen. He found that when he released a combination of chemicals into the air, he could literally bend steam from a teakettle. The steam rose, then made a lateral slide toward the rising chemicals. Something in the concoction altered its course. And if steam, why not clouds?
Hatfield moved the lab to an old windmill tower and continued research. From these humble — some say mythical — beginnings, the part-time sewing-machine salesman became “Hatfield the Rainmaker.”
By 1905, he was so famous the citizens of Glendale begged him not to “invoke moisture” on the Rose Parade. In 1907 he promised Hemet four inches of rain and produced seven.
“You can laugh all you like,” said a rancher in the San Joaquin Valley, “but I figure I have made $50,000 by Hatfield’s operation.”
He didn’t look like the guru of all things liquidic: no florid cape or pointed hat. A man from Hemet described him as “a small man, clean shaven and with an office pallor on his face, the student look throughout.” Another saw straight shoulders, “thick light hair, and lots of little wrinkles around his mouth.”
And he always set himself apart from the competition. “I do not make rain,” he wrote, “that would be an absurd claim. I merely attract the clouds and they do the rest. The conditions that produce rain are drawn by my system as a magnet draws steel.” He used 23 different chemicals and electricity, he said, but never “bombs, dynamite, or explosives of any kind.”
Hatfield claimed his chemicals had no odor. An unnamed critic disagreed: “The gasses smell so bad it rains in self-defense.”
By 1915, Hatfield was a folk hero. He’d surpassed the likes of Dryenforth, Frank Melbourne (an early “smell-maker”), and George Ambrosius Immanuel Sykes, who believed the sun was only 3300 miles away and the earth flat, and who could bring rain or hold the clouds at bay and “keep the sun shined like a penny.”
The first year of San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park, 1915, had been dry. Worried the drought would affect attendance, the Wide Awake Improvement Club urged city officials to hire Hatfield. On December 8, he promised that, for $10,000, he would “fill the Morena Reservoir to overflowing between now and next December 20, 1916.” If he didn’t, he’d refuse payment. Hatfield attached other proposals: “30 inches of rain free, then $500 per inch from the 31st to 50th; or 40 inches free, then $1000 for each one after that.”
Before they cloud-coaxed a new region, Hatfield and his brothers Paul and Joel studied its climatological history (Paul, some say, was never far from local weather data). When he accepted the assignment, Hatfield must have known that San Diego County had a major flood every eleven years — the last in 1905.
On New Year’s Day, 1916, he and Joel went to work at Morena Reservoir, 60 miles east of San Diego. They built two towers on a hillock near the water. The largest had a 12-foot square platform. Hatfield mixed a “specially potent brew” of chemicals in a large tank. Soon vapors, like thick black smoke, rose skyward. A reporter from the San Diego Union: “While engaged in this experiment, Hatfield is not altogether sociable” — he always carried shotguns and pistols to ward off trespassers — “[and] seems on the job at all hours of the day.”
Five days later, the cloudy skies began to mist. Downtown San Diego had, at most, intermittent trickles. No one was impressed. Some said Hatfield’s true skill was creating hot air.
He phoned city hall: “just wanted to tell you…so far we have encountered only a couple of showers. Within the next few days I expect it to rain here.”
Asked if he was joking, Hatfield replied, “Never more serious in my life. Just hold your horses and I’ll show you a real rain.”
On January 14, dark clouds began forming in the mountains. Then it began to pour. Over the next four days, 12.73 inches fell at the reservoir. Seth Swenson had to open the floodgates. An instant river swept down Hauser Canyon. It wiped out the aqueduct and stampeded all the way to Sweetwater Dam.
Hatfield phoned Water Superintendent Fay at City Hall. “There’s 17 inches of water up here already,” he said. “Looks like you’re gonna have to pay me my money.”
“You’re not getting’ any!” Fay shot back. “There’s only 13! We measured it.”
“Well, if that’s the attitude you’re taking,” Hatfield replied, “I’ll put double strength into the elements!”
Ranchers who watched him work said Hatfield busied himself at the tank, measuring various chemicals and elixirs and pouring them into the brew. An even blacker smoke puffed upwards. But nothing happened. When asked why, he replied, “the longer my demonstrations are in force, the more potent and powerful the atmosphere becomes surcharged. The 27th is the day!”
On the 26th, the Union ran a front page cartoon of a rancher chasing Hatfield into San Diego Bay. Raindrops began to fall on the morning editions on lawns throughout the city. The next day, as predicted, the skies turned oceanic, or at least seemed that way. Dams and reservoirs filled beyond capacity and burst. Flash floods barraged every canyon and arroyo. They carried off barns and houses, some rolling head over heels on the rapids. The concrete bridge at Old Town collapsed.
At 5:30 p.m., the rock-fill dam on Otay Lake disintegrated. Backed by 50-mile-an-hour winds from the east, an estimated three billion gallons of water made a gigantic spillway down through Cottonwood Creek, the Tia Juana River, and finally out to sea. “The wave of water rolled across the bay,” wrote Don M. Stewart, “over the sand dunes, and sent a sort of tidal wave up San Diego Bay. For a week after the break, the water… was fresh up beyond 28th Street.”
Stewart also noted several Japanese American boats on the South Bay. The inland tsunami destroyed their truck farms at Otay Mesa. Stewart realized they sought lost loved ones in the churned up waters.
Sweetwater Dam fractured then split down the middle. Mission Valley was “almost beyond imagination,” reports Stewart, who led a rescue team at the riverbank. Amid two-foot-high waves, wild winds, and pelting rain, the team saved several families. They found a young man “hanging on the last tree; it was about ready to give way. His arms and body showed numerous deep scratches.”
As a rescue party helped him down, a woman waited on the shore: his employer. When he stepped off the boat, he gave her a package. “And she hugged him,” writes Stewart. ”Years later I heard that this envelope contained $6000 worth of jewelry, which he had gone back to save.”
The region had already taken too much, and could take no more when someone shouted, “Let’s pay Hatfield $100,000 to quit.”
When flooding subsided, the run-off turned the valley floor into “a field that had been gone over with a mowing machine.” Every manmade object had been swept away.
The official version on a historical marker estimates that 15 people died in “Hatfield’s Flood.” Stewart and others disagree. The Union reported at least 17, and didn’t include the Japanese American truck-farmers. “I do not believe [they] were even counted. For several days Japanese fishing vessels were in the upper end of the bay looking for bodies.” A more realistic estimate nears 50.
On February 4, at a press conference in San Diego, Hatfield demanded his $10,000 from the City Council. He’d been true to his word, he said. He put four billion gallons of water in Morena Reservoir, and another ten billion indirectly. The city’s lawyers said no; the rain was an “act of God.” If Hatfield took credit, then he was also responsible for the estimated $3.5 million in damages. The city would pay him $10,000 only if he honored all pending claims.
Hatfield refused and left San Diego. He did so in protest — and to save his life, since rumors had vigilantes searching for him in the back country.
Hatfield continued rainmaking through the 1930s. Historian Carey McWilliams says that irrigation, and the Colorado River diverted to California, finally ended the career of “California’s outstanding water magician.” Hatfield claimed he and his brothers milked the sky 503 times and “never made a failure.” He died in Glendale in 1958.
Was Hatfield in touch with elemental forces? “He was a great showman and recognized the law of averages when he set to work,” writes Clark Spence. “Very likely he believed his chemicals did help bring rain.… It was this element of self-delusion, coupled with glib talk and splendid publicity that made him a professional.”
Most agree that Hatfield’s smell-making couldn’t lure clouds to a 3000-foot mountain in the Lagunas. He was just an eloquent self-promoter who knew a great deal about the weather, including El Nino and La Nina long before they had names. And surely he knew about San Diego’s 11-year flood cycle (the next one came in 1927).
But military studies of the weather for 1916 indicate that four different air masses formed a vast low pressure system over Southern California, most notably over San Diego’s East County. As they came together, writes Dr. Don I. Eidemiller, “air of different temperatures was brought together along their edges, or fronts, creating a ‘pinwheel’ figure on weather maps, a condition that causes heavy rains.”
Ella McCain, an eyewitness who casts an unfriendly eye on myth-making, said she saw 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, and demanding remuneration. “No one could make [me] believe Mr. Hatfield had nothing to do with the storm. When [they] began to form, there were black, round rolls of clouds over Morena, which seemed to be drawn from different directions and centered” over Hatfield’s two towers.
Up next: The worst flood in San Diego history
- Patterson, Thomas W., “Hatfield the Rainmaker,” Journal of San Diego History 16 (winter, 1970)
- Pourade, Richard F., The Glory Years: The Booms and Busts in the Land of the Sundown Sea (San Diego, 1964)
- Pryde, Philip R., ed. San Diego: An Introduction to the Region (San Diego State University, 1976)
- Spence, Clark C., The Rainmakers: American “Pluviculture” to World War II (University of Nebraska, 1980)
- Stewart, Don M., Frontier Port, Los Angeles, 1965)