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Photos: When Los Angeles Had A Professional Rainmaker

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We can't help but pray for a little rain these days, during the driest year on record in California. (Last night helped, but probably not enough.)

Back in the early 1900s when Southern Californians needed water, they turned to Charles Hatfield, a sewing machine salesman-turned-rainmaker who grew up in Oceanside and lived in Glendale before he made his professional debut. Valley Center History Museum's historian Bob Lerner says that Hatfield "was a folk hero who claimed that he successfully made it rain more than 500 times in parched towns around the world." His life story inspired a Broadway play that was later turned into the 1956 film, The Rainmaker, starring Burt Lancaster.

Was Hatfield a true "cloud coaxer" or just an advanced meteorologist? Some cities swore by him and actually hired him during dry spells. But Stanford's first president David Starr Jordan argued in Science magazine in 1925 that Hatfield was a fraud who knew enough about weather patterns to step in and offer his services right before a storm would hit.

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Hatfield used a special brew of 23 chemicals that he claimed would induce rainfall. He claims to have learned about this method of rainmakingnear his father's farm in Oceanside when he read the 1871 rainmaking classic, "The Science of Pluviculture." ("Pluviculture" was a very official-sounding term for rainmaker.) Hatfield would mix his brew in a cauldron (sounds witchy, yes?) that sat atop a 20-foot tower. The chemicals would vaporize in the air, and Hatfield claimed it caused moisture to precipitate in the clouds.

"I do not make rain," Hatfield wrote. "That would be an absurd claim. I merely attract the clouds and they do the rest."

His services did not come at a cheap price. Records showed he was charging $3,000 to $10,000 per shower he created, U-T San Diego reported. (Just to give some perspective, if he charged that in 1915, that would amount to $68,480 to $231,600 today.)

Ironically, it wasn't drought that did Hatfield in but too much rain.

There had been problems early in his career. During the first four months of 1905, he claimed his weather-tampering caused 18 inches in Los Angeles (the Times points out that the first four months of the year tend to be our rainy season). However, this was a little too much rain: the Los Angeles River flooded and killed two people.

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But much of the controversy Hatfield later faced involved a 1915 job he was hired on to do by the city of San Diego. That year, San Diego was facing a horrible drought, and local officials were worried the shortage would hurt attendance at the upcoming Panama-California Exposition. San Diego officials brought on Hatfield and promised to pay him $10,000 if over the next year he could bring on consistent showers that would fill the Lake Morena Reservoir in Eastern San Diego County, where residents got their water supply.

Hatfield and his brother set off their chemical mix on Jan. 1, 1916 at two towers they built near the reservoir. Within five days, a number of storms hit all of Southern California and they continued for days. The rain kept falling until the Otay Lake Dam, just East of Chula Vista collapsed on Jan. 27, flooding settlements and killing at least 20 people in nearby Japanese settlements.

The City Council never paid Hatfield for making it rain because it rained too much, Lerner said. The city didn't want to be on the hook for damage caused by the storms. Hatfield claimed that his techniques had only brought in 4 billion of the 10 billion gallons that filled the Morena reservoir. Hatfield sued the city, yet 22 years later, the court dismissed his case and said the flood was caused by nature, not Hatfield. (A century later, we're still not totally sure just how effective it is to release chemicals into the sky to induce rain or snow.)

The rainmaker died in 1958 when he was 82 years old. He passed during rainy season, and he took his chemical recipe with him to his grave.