More on San Diego’s Great Flood of 1916 and Charles Hatfield – ‘the Rainmaker’

by on January 23, 2020 · 0 comments

in History, San Diego

Sweetwater Dam and Reservoir (Photo by Barbara Zaragoza)Editordude: The following is a reposting of a two-part series we published in 2016 by Patricia Maxwell on San Diego’s Great Flood of 1916 and on Charles Hatfield, the “Rainmaker.”

Part 1

Originally posted Jan. 21, 2016

By Patricia Maxwell

Today’s residents of Chula Vista have much in common with citizens of a hundred years ago. Make that a thousand years or more. Southern California has always been an arid land, with cycles of drought, interspersed with wet years every now and again.

In December of 1915, San Diego’s city fathers tackled the issue from a completely different angle. They hired a rainmaker!

The impetus for their decision was the unfilled Morena Reservoir in the mountains sixty miles east of San Diego. A rock-filled dam had been completed in 1912, but the reservoir had yet to be filled beyond a third of its capacity. Other reservoirs in the area shared the same problem. None were filled and the city was growing.

The rainmaker, Mr. Charles Hatfield, said “I will fill the Morena Reservoir to overflowing between now and next December 20, 1916, for the sum of $10,000, in default of which I ask no compensation.”

The Council voted 4 to 1 in favor of Hatfield, though a formal agreement was never drawn up.

On January 1, 1916, Charles and his brother, Joel, set up a tower beside Morena Reservoir and began work which they labeled as “moisture enhancement.” Using secret formulas that Charles never disclosed, he mixed and released various chemicals into the air. Four days later, he reported rain at Morena.

On January 10th rain fell heavily for twenty-four hours, ceased for a couple of days, then fell in torrents from January 14th to 18th. The San Diego River overflowed, flooding Old Town and Mission Valley. Roads, railroads and bridges were swept away. From Balboa Park, water streamed down the hill into downtown streets. At one point, four feet of water rushed down Broadway.

By January 27th the deluge reached epic proportions. In the South Bay area, the water level in the Sweetwater reservoir rose until it overflowed the dam, tearing out a fifty-foot chunk on one end. The Bonita valley became a swirling mass of muddy water taking out farms, houses, roads, railroads and telegraph lines.

The Sweetwater Dam had been a tourist attraction. First built in 1888, it was raised and retrofitted a few times, until by 1915, it was the highest dam in the United States. A rail line brought sightseers to this concrete engineering wonder.

Otay Dam

Sweetwater Dam and Reservoir (Photo by Barbara Zaragoza)

A little farther South, the water level in Otay Reservoir crept closer and closer to the top of the dam. Construction on the Otay Reservoir dam had begun in 1888 spearheaded by Elisha S. Babcock who built the Hotel del Coronado. As early as 1897, James D. Schuyler, the engineer who had designed the Sweetwater Dam, warned that the rock-filled Lower Otay Dam might not survive a severe storm. His prophecy came true.

A report prepared for the Department of the Interior entitled “Southern California Floods of January, 1916” describes what happened at the Otay Dam that Thursday:

“The rain on January 27th was extremely heavy, and by noon the water had risen so high that Mr. Wueste, in charge at the dam, deemed it advisable to open the outlet gate. This failed to check the rise, and it was realized that the dam would probably be overtopped before evening. Men were accordingly dispatched to warn residents in the valley to move to higher ground. Word to this effect was also sent out from the telephone exchange at National City. Most of the inhabitants took advantage of this warning. At 4:45 p. m. the water had reached the top of the dam and had seeped through and filled the boxes that were sunk in the top to allow an examination of the steel core. Water began running down the lower face on the east side of the dam at approximately 4:50 p. m. About this time several spouts or small streams of water appeared on the lower face of the dam, in one instance loosening a large boulder, which rolled down to the bottom. From this time on, the destruction was very rapid. The lower face of the fill quickly melted away, thus removing the support from the core wall. At 5:05 p. m. the tension was so great that the steel diaphragm tore from the top at the center, and the dam opened outward like a pair of gates. The released water rushed through and filled the canyon to a point approximately 20 feet below the top of the dam. It required 24 hours for the reservoir to empty. A huge wall of water, variously described as from 6 to 20 feet high, rushed down the valley, covering the distance from the dam site to Palm City, about 10 miles, in 48 minutes, carrying all before it.” (

Japanese Memorial No one knows for sure how many lives were lost in the Flood of 1916. Some say twenty; others, sixty. Many of the victims were Japanese farmers who lived in the valleys. In the days following the disaster, several Japanese people could be seen in boats searching the South Bay for lost loved ones. A monument to the Japanese victims of the flood can be seen in Mount Hope Cemetery.

The entire San Diego area was isolated from the world, highways and railroads washed away, telephone lines destroyed. The only way in and out of Chula Vista was by boat from the yacht club dock at the end of F Street.

Out near Otay Lakes is a road named after the dam’s first caretaker, Wueste Road; and in the campground at Morena Lake a plaque has been erected describing Mr. Hatfield’s rainmaking work in January 1916.

When my husband and I moved to Chula Vista in 1997 and I learned about the hired rainmaker, I laughed; but the story stuck in my head. I began thinking of all sides of it—the tragedy of lives and livelihoods lost, the comedy of people trusting in a rainmaker. So my first novel was born, When Rain Comes:

Carrie, a school teacher, does her best to discourage Nate’s interest in her. Then the Otay Dam breaks and she learns that Nate is missing. She desperately wants him to know that she loves him, but it might be too late. Nate could be dead.

Lake Morena 2Originally posted on Jan. 22, 2016

Part 2

In today’s world where landing a government contract is a labyrinthine process of being vetted, investigated and scrutinized, one wonders how the San Diego council chose Charles Hatfield, a rainmaker, to fill the nearly empty Morena Reservoir with water.

Life was different in 1915, but one thing was similar and that is that it pays to have someone promote you.

Charles had Fred Binney, a man who jumped onto the rainmaking wagon after losing two-thirds of his citrus orchard in Otay to a drought. As early as 1912, Binney had approached the City Council about hiring Hatfield, but was turned down. By 1915, the Council was ready to listen.

Charles Hatfield made his pitch on December 9, 1915, promising to fill the Morena Reservoir within a year for $10,000. The Council voted four to one to hire him. Their decision wasn’t completely without background knowledge of Hatfield. Charles could be called a “local boy,” selling newspapers on the streets of San Diego as a kid; and later, conducting his first experiments in rainmaking at the family ranch in Bonsall.

He’d also been successful in producing rain in Los Angeles, the Central California valley, Texas and other areas known for their dryness.

He was self-educated in rainmaking, reading numerous books and periodicals on the subject, being most influenced by “Elementary Meteorology,” written by Harvard Professor, William Morris Davis.

Charles came from a Quaker background which stressed individuality, honesty and morality. Following in his father’s footsteps, he became a sewing machine salesman, always dressed in a freshly pressed suit, spotless shirt and tie. He was polite as well as diligent. A thin man, with a long nose, he was quiet except when he rhapsodized about weather theories. He was self-educated in rainmaking, reading numerous books and periodicals on the subject, being most influenced by “Elementary Meteorology,” written by Harvard Professor, William Morris Davis. Later in life, Charles stated that his compulsion to make rain stemmed from the severe droughts of the latter part of the nineteenth century and the impact this had on everyone from farmers to bankers.

Charles Hatfield usually wrote his own simple contracts for “moisture enhancement” as he called his work. When he made his presentation to the San Diego Council, he presented three alternative contracts. The council apparently accepted the one where he promised to fill Morena Reservoir within a year. It was a verbal agreement, since he and his youngest brother, Joel, set out for the mountains to begin work before a written contract was drawn up.

Throughout his lifetime, Hatfield never disclosed his secret formulas and discouraged visitors to his work sites. Seth Swenson, the dam keeper at Morena, and his wife, Maggie, lived in a cottage next to the dam and two miles away from where Charles and Joel set up their tower. Whenever the Swenson’s would approach the tower, Charles would come down the ladder or out from his tent and meet them twenty feet away from his work. Maggie recalls one conversation when she said “It’s sure raining now!” Charles replied “You haven’t seen anything yet. Wait two weeks and it will really rain.” The only thing the Swensons learned of Hatfield’s work was that he “was evaporating something from shallow pans.”

Otay Dam

Otay Dam

The Swensons relayed telephone messages to the Hatfield brothers. When unrelenting rain started on January 10 and flooding affected most of San Diego county, the newspaper wanted information from the rainmaker. By this time, roads were impassable. The only way to get a news story was via the Swenson’s telephone.

The story appeared in the next day’s paper. “The mysterious Hatfield, rainmaker, was said to be particularly active in the vicinity of Morena Sunday…While engaged in his experiments, Hatfield is not altogether sociable, but persons watching his work from a distance said he seemed to be on the job at all hours of the day and considers the downpour due to his efforts. Incidentally, it was said that Hatfield himself is getting a good soaking.

Hatfield’s scheme was on almost every tongue yesterday. Many were inclined to jest, but all agreed that things were going his way. (

By January 27, when the Otay Reservoir Dam collapsed, people had more serious reasons for seeing Charles Hatfield. On the 30th, Maggie Swenson delivered a phone message to Charles that contained a threat that some people were on their way up the mountain to lynch the rainmakers.

Charles and Joel dismantled their tower, took down their tents and started walking the sixty miles to San Diego. The devastation must have surprised them. Angry, swollen rivers and streams. Trees, brush, dead animals tossed about in the muddy waters. Valleys completely inundated. Bridges gone. Railroads destroyed. Houses swept away. People lost.

“If Hatfield were to get credit for the rain, would he accept liability for the damage?”

On February 4, 1916, Charles held a press conference in which it became clear that collecting the $10,000 from the city of San Diego might be difficult. Many people claimed that Hatfield’s work didn’t produce rain. It was simply the result of a severe weather system moving through the entire coastline of California. The deal-breaking question, however, was this: “If Hatfield were to get credit for the rain, would he accept liability for the damage?”

The controversy that swirled around Charles Hatfield concerning his rain-making activities, is what caught my attention early on. The San Diego Central Library has a collection of his tools. In the ranger’s station at Morena Reservoir is a model of Hatfield’s tower and tents, along with other artifacts and pictures of the disaster. When I look at these things, my imagination conjures up the arguments of a hundred years ago:

“The man’s a con artist.”

“No, he isn’t. He’s been successful in the past.”

“A nice guy. Doesn’t sound or look like your usual snake-oil salesman.”

“The slick, polished men are the ones you really need to watch out for.”

“There could be some science behind it all.”
When Rain Comes: A Historical Romance

Patricia Maxwell grew up in Oregon and attended Walla Walla College in Washington state, where she started writing poetry which was published in the school literary magazine. She met her husband, Burton, at college. After they married, he became a pastor which led them to pastorates all over the country. In 55 years of marriage, they have moved 25 times! In the mid- 1960’s, in a tiny town in northwest Pennsylvania, with two toddlers, Patricia took a correspondence course in non-fiction writing. Since then, she has authored four inspirational books and many articles, humor pieces, as well as technical articles about her husband’s world-class model railroad. When Rain Comes is her first novel.

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