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THE VALLEY | L.A. THEN AND NOW

'Cloud Coaxer' Had a Stormy Career in Parched Deserts

May 06, 2001|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

A starchy Quaker sewing machine salesman who billed himself as a "Moisture Accelerator" owns a unique place in Southern California history, somewhere between meteorology and jurisprudence.

Before the Los Angeles and Colorado River aqueducts brought reliable water supplies to the Southland, there was the rainmaker: Charles Mallory Hatfield.

Throughout the first three decades of the 20th century, Hatfield--known as a "cloud coaxer" and "water magician"--was hired to make rain in almost every parched desert town in Southern California.

Some cities swore by him, but other clients, from Texas to the Klondike, came to view him as a fraud who worked his "moisture acceleration" techniques only when rain was already in the offing.

Using secret chemicals--a formula he never revealed--he was paid thousands of dollars to "precipitate moisture." But it was the downpour that he took credit for in San Diego in 1916--11.4 inches of rain that killed 20 people in floods and precipitated $3.5 million in lawsuits--that drowned his rainmaking career in more than 20 years of ridicule and litigation.

His small-town career of big claims was captured in a Broadway play that became the 1956 movie "The Rainmaker," starring Burt Lancaster. Just like Bill Starbuck in the movie, the self-proclaimed miracle worker had towns from Canada to Honduras buying what he was selling: science, magic--or hope.

Weather modification began as a science during the Civil War, when observers noted that it rained after heavy artillery barrages. Scientists concluded that noise could induce rain.

Hatfield grew up on his father's ranch, east of Oceanside. In the 1890s, after reading the 1871 book "The Science of Pluviculture," a word coined for the craft of rainmaking, Hatfield began to dabble in a witch's brew of chemicals. From atop a windmill on the ranch, he conducted his first experiments. Surprising even himself, it drizzled.

In 1904, at age 27, he made his professional debut. He was living in Glendale and working as a sewing machine salesman. He had been "discovered" by a promoter named Fred Binney, who never earned a dime but who spouted off about Hatfield like a fire and brimstone preacher, making outlandish promises.

In response to Binney's newspaper ads up and down the state, several Los Angeles ranchers hired Hatfield for $50 to "lend nature just a little assistance," said a newspaper of the day.

With the help of his brother, Paul, Hatfield built a 30-foot tower on the slopes of Mt. Lowe. There they brewed a special recipe of chemicals to vaporize into the air. After five days, an inch of rain fell. Hatfield was rewarded with $100, twice his fee.

In the first four months of 1905--which is of course the region's natural rainy season--his weather tampering was said to produce 18 inches of rainfall around Los Angeles.

He became known as the "Wizard of Esperanza," the Spanish word meaning hope. But he couldn't turn it off; the downpour sent the Los Angeles River on a rampage, killing two people, tearing out the 7th Street bridge and overflowing the 4th Street sewer.

Over the next 10 years, Hatfield traveled throughout the West, building his reputation as a rainmaker and taking on jobs like the one that paid him $4,000 for bringing 11 inches of rain to Hemet in 1912.

Three years later, San Diego was desperate for a downpour, having been in the grip of a drought that left lawns brown and the Lake Morena reservoir little more than a wet spot. The City Council agreed to pay Hatfield $10,000 to work his self-professed rainmaking magic.

On New Year's Day 1916, Hatfield and his brother built a few 24-foot towers near the Lake Morena reservoir. Soon, puffs of chemical smoke from the caldrons in the towers dotted the cloudless sky.

Scanning the Skies for Rain

Nearby farmers heard explosions. Then flames were seen leaping from the caldrons, and vast billows of foul smoke rose skyward. The chemical stench was dreadful.

From then on, in screaming headlines, newspapers counted off the days left for Hatfield to meet his deadline. As thousands scanned the skies, speculating on whether Hatfield would succeed, bookies took bets.

What happened next is the stuff of legend.

Rain began to fall Jan. 5. A succession of storms inundated not just San Diego, but all of Southern California, climaxing with the collapse of the Lower Otay Lake dam Jan. 27. In the devastation, at least 20 people were killed. The burst dam washed out homes, farms and roads.

"When we started, there were 112 bridges in San Diego, and when we got through, there were only two left; imagine that! There wasn't a train into San Diego from Los Angeles for 32 days. Everything had to go by boat," Hatfield recounted during a 1965 radio interview.

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