John Vonderlin: The Rainmaker

Story by John Vonderlin

Email John: benloudman@sbcglobal.net

Hi June,
In  investigating the Montara photo my analysis was thrown off by the size of the Montara Watershed. How could a flood so severe, as to wash a trestle from underneath the rails, leaving them suspended in the air, spanning the gap, have occurred in such a small watershed? The watershed is only about 1,085 acres, reaching just about 800 feet in altitude, not a height subject to the heaviest rainfall from orographic lifting. It just didn’t seem possible.
John Schmale’s explanation of the clogged culvert during a heavy rainstorm and the subsequent dynamiting answered those questions. It also gave me a date for the event, January 13, 1916. Unfortunately, the newspaper archives all end at 1910, so they can’t provide an article about this. But, I did some other research and it turns out there is an interesting  “Rest of the Story.”
By using the date as part of the Search terms I discovered that it might have been Charles Hatfield and pluviculture that were responsible. Most of us know of pluviculturists under the common name of “Rainmakers,” though Mr. Hatfield, probably the most famous one of all, called himself a “Rain Accelerator.”
Here’s a newspaper headline and article from the October 19th, 1907 issue of the Los Angeles Herald, that give us some insight into his highly successful career that went on for decades, claiming 500 successes.
RAIN MAKER RENEWS HIS
CONTRACTS IN NORTH
Charles Hatfield Guaranteed Three
Thousand Dollars for Twelve
Inches Precipitation In Five Months
“Charles Hatfield, rain producer, is again under contract to bring a downpour in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties. This is the third contract of that nature Mr. Hatfield has undertaken, and each previous time was successful. His agreement is that he will bring twelve inches of rain between November 15 and April 15. If he succeeds this year he will receive $3000, which has been guaranteed by the ranchers.
After operating at Crow’s Landing Hatfield will go to Sherman county, Ore., where he has a second contract. The rainmaker is using a much stronger plant this year and says he has no doubt but that he will be successful.”
Jumping forward a decade to Dec. 1915, Mr. Hatfield sent the following letter to the Common Council in Southern California:
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.”
The Charles Hatfield article at Wikipedia summarizes what happened next in this excerpt:
“In 1915 the San Diego city council, pressured by the San Diego Wide Awake Improvement Club, approached Hatfield to produce rain to fill the Morena Dam reservoir. Hatfield offered to produce rain for free, then charge $1,000 per inch ($393.7 per centimetre) for between forty to fifty inches (1.02 to 1.27 m) and free again over fifty inches (1.27 m). The council voted four to one for a $10,000 fee, payable when the reservoir was filled. Hatfield, with his brother, built a 20-foot (6 m) tower beside Lake Morena and was ready early in the New Year.
On January 5, 1916 heavy rain began – and grew gradually heavier day by day. Dry riverbeds filled to the point of flooding. Worsening floods destroyed bridges, marooned trains and cut phone cables – not to mention flooding homes and farms. Two dams, Sweetwater Dam and one at Lower Otay Lake, overflowed. Rain stopped January 20 but resumed two days later.”
This string of storms produced flooding from Canada to Mexico, including the Great Montara Flood shown in the old photo you shared. Someday I’ll get a chance to read what local papers had to say about the events of that January. But, Richard Pourade, at the San Diego Historical Society website has written a fascinating essay about all the characters and events at the center of this storm. I was especially intrigued by the failure of local authorities to heed the lesson  taught in the Pied Piper of Hamlin story, leading them to stiff Mr. Hatfield for his successfully completed contract, calling it an Act of God.
Whether Mr. Hatfield’s efforts were just coincidental to the peak of California’s rainy season, I can’t say, but being too successful shouldn’t be reason for welching on a deal. Enjoy. John P.S. Recently pluviculture has been getting some press. Hugo Chavez announced plans to employ rainmakers to fight a Venezuelan drought. And I’ve heard in “SuperFreakenomics,” the author, Levitt, mentioned the concept of transporting relatively small amounts of sulphur up a tether to a geosynchronous satellite to be dispersed in the higher reaches of our atmosphere to fight global warming. This seemingly far-fetched idea complements the recent N.A.S.A. prize award for $900,000 given to a team who developed a robot capable of climbing a one kilometer tether in four minutes or so, using laser beams from the ground to power its solar cells. They are interested in transporting mass as far away as possible from Earth’s overwhelming gravity by having robots climb a hundred mile carbon nanotube cable and also being able to send enormous amounts of photovoltaic energy earthward safely from huge solar arrays.
By the way, pluviculture comes from the Latin word, “pluvia,” meaning rain. I wasn’t familiar with the root, but should have guessed, as “lluvia,” is Spanish for rain.
Hi June,
Here’s the background stuff for this posting.
David Starr Jordan, 1926 Science article, “The Art of Pluviculture”

4.

Montara Creek watershed is approximately 1,085 acres. Montara Creek is fed by

several springs at its headwaters with a flow of about 70 GPM. The headwater streams

are in a steep and rugged portion of a canyon; it is estimated that these streams are at

an elevation of 800 feet. The upper portion of Montara Creek has two branches. The

North fork has a watershed area of 290 acres and consists of a small stream. Montara

Creek has discontinuous summer flows through a swale or very shallow alluvial channel

with relatively undifferentiated banks for about 1,000 feet on the valley bottom. The

valley bottom of the north canyon of Montara creek is farmed, except for a spring fed 1.5

acre wetland, directly west of Montara Creek at 350 feet elevation, and riparian corridor

along the Creek. Downstream from the wetland, Montara Creek channel becomes

increasingly evident and articulated, eventually incising about 10 feet into the floor of the

valley. From this point downstream, the creek flows continuously during summers and

winter dry spells, likely gaining flow from alluvial seepage as it descends (about 50

vertical feet over a distance of 900 lateral feet) to where the north fork joins the south

fork of Montara Creek. Downstream of this confluence, the channel is well defined.

About 2800 feet downstream of the confluence, a florist operates an on-line permanent

dam and small reservoir (agricultural pond) (Balance 2005).
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Charles Mallory Hatfield (c. 1875 – 12 January 1958) was an Americanrainmaker“. He was born in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1875 or 1876. His family moved to southern California in the 1880s. As an adult, he became a salesman for the New Home Sewing Machine Company. In 1904 he moved to Glendale, California.
In his free time he read about “pluviculture” and began to develop his own methods for producing rain. By 1902 he had created a secret mixture of 23 chemicals in large galvanized evaporating tanks that, he claimed, attracted rain. Hatfield called himself a “moisture accelerator”.
In 1904, promoter Fred Binney began a public relations campaign for Hatfield. A number of Los Angeles ranchers saw his ads in newspapers and promised Hatfield $50 to produce rain. In April, Hatfield and his brother Paul climbed to Mount Lowe and built a tower where Hatfield stood and released his mixture into the air. Hatfield’s apparent attempt was successful, so the ranchers paid him $100.
Contemporary Weather Bureau reports stated that the rain had been a small part of a storm that was already coming but Hatfield’s supporters disregarded this. He began to receive more job offers. He promised Los Angeles 18 inches (46 centimetres) of rain, apparently succeeded, and collected a fee of $1000. For this effort, Hatfield had built his tower on the grounds of the Esperanza Sanitarium in Altadena, near Rubio Canyon.
In 1906 Hatfield was invited to Alaska, where he agreed to provide rain for $10,000. This attempt was unsuccessful and Hatfield slipped out after he had collected $1100 for his expenses. This failure did not deter his supporters.
In 1915 the San Diego city council, pressured by the San Diego Wide Awake Improvement Club, approached Hatfield to produce rain to fill the Morena Dam reservoir. Hatfield offered to produce rain for free, then charge $1,000 per inch ($393.7 per centimetre) for between forty to fifty inches (1.02 to 1.27 m) and free again over fifty inches (1.27 m). The council voted four to one for a $10,000 fee, payable when the reservoir was filled. Hatfield, with his brother, built a 20-foot (6 m) tower beside Lake Morena and was ready early in the New Year.
On January 5, 1916 heavy rain began – and grew gradually heavier day by day. Dry riverbeds filled to the point of flooding. Worsening floods destroyed bridges, marooned trains and cut phone cables – not to mention flooding homes and farms. Two dams, Sweetwater Dam and one at Lower Otay Lake, overflowed. Rain stopped January 20 but resumed two days later. On January 27 Lower Otay Dam broke, increasing the devastation and reportedly causing about 20 deaths (accounts vary on the exact number).
Hatfield talked to the press on February 4 and said that the damage was not his fault and that the city should have taken adequate precautions. Hatfield had fulfilled the requirements of his contract – filling the reservoir – but the city council refused to pay the money unless Hatfield would accept liability for damages; there were already claims worth $3.5 million. Besides, there was no written contract. Hatfield tried to settle for $4000 and then sued the council. In two trials, the rain was ruled an act of God but Hatfield continued the suit until 1938 when the court threw the case out.
Hatfield’s fame only grew and he received more contracts for rainmaking. Among other things, in 1929 he tried to stop a forest fire in Honduras. Later the Bear Valley Mutual Water Company wanted to fill Big Bear Lake. However, during the Great Depression he had to return to his work as a sewing machine salesman. His wife divorced him.
Charles Hatfield died January 12, 1958 and took his chemical formula with him to his grave in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Hatfield claimed at least 500 successes. According to later commentators, Hatfield’s successes were mainly due to his meteorological skill and sense of timing, selecting periods where there was a high probability of rain anyway.
1916: January 13, Lakeside lost 21 houses besides barns, silos, water tanks and out-buildings.  Railroad tracks from Santee to Lakeside were washed out, and the railroad and wagon road were gone from Lakeside to Foster.  The Cuyamaca Flume lost about six miles of flume.  Mr. Gay of the Lakeside Inn opened doors to homeless flood victims.  The second storm hit January 26.  The rainfall total from January 13 through January 27 was 16 inches;
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About June Morrall

1947 - 2010
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