The Star-News


He never said the rain would stop

Sat, Apr 26 2014 12:00 PM Posted By: Richard Peña

The trouble with most would-be gardeners in the South Bay is they don’t know when to water. We have the late rains of winter and early spring and we see every little seed coming busting through. But then things dry up a bit and we take to the hoses.  Excepting those optimistic weather guys on the television tell us that we can expect showers so we hold back on the water. The showers never come. For that matter the drizzle never comes. And there goes our green gardens. 

As I write this tome on a Sunday morning, I see nothing but gray skies. It seems that all one needs is a catalyst of some sort to burst those gray clouds and let them emit their moisture on our midst. Such a phenomenon would certainly be welcome and I am sure our plants, lawn, and, yes, even weeds, would appreciate it. Ah, if we just had a fellow like Charlie Hatfield in our midst. Then the problem would be solved.

Hatfield, some of you might recall, is that rainmaker who came to town early in 1916.  He had a reputation of sorts and the city of San Diego, relying on that reputation, had hired him to bring the area some moisture.  He was to be paid $10,000, a tidy sum in those days, to make it rain and to fill the Morena Reservoir. He was to work on a “no rain, no pay” basis. 

Hatfield’s first task was to build four rain towers, out of rough wood, atop the Laguna Mountains, and then went about weaving his magic. We say magic because that is what most people thought it was. He had potions he would mix and then burn and most observers thought it was voodoo, something similar to the witches of yore. Alas, there was nothing magical to it at all. It was simply chemicals that, when burned, would emit a cloud of sorts that would mix with the already semi-disturbed clouds and form a chemical chain reaction, the end result being rain. The towers were high enough so that the gases had just a short distance to rise into the clouds.

The formula, according to Hatfield, was secret. Some of the scientists of the time thought it was a mixture of zinc and hydrogen to produce the clouds of vapor.  This was like fumes from a volcano.

Whatever it was it seemed to work. The vapor rose and turned to rain clouds. The rain began to fall, at first, in small amounts. There were many onlookers at the Laguna site of the operation and when they felt the drizzle they began to cheer.  There were probably cries of, “Atta boy, Charlie,” or “Hooray for Charlie,” in the beginning, all remarks positive. But the vapors that were the catalyst soon got out of control. The rains got heavier and heavier and the cries from the reporters and others was more like, “That’s enough, Charlie, stop the rain.” It is not known what Charlie’s reply was but it probably was something like, “Hey, I’m a rainmaker, not a rain stopper,” and the deluge continued.

The end result was that almost all dams in the South Bay failed.  Most notable in this area was, of course, the Sweetwater Dam.  Built a scant 18 years earlier it was the epitome of dams.  It was the model for future dams built around the country. But it was no match for Hatfield’s rain.  Though the dam itself held back the water the angry flood washed away the abutments at each end of the dam down to 45 feet below the parapet. It continued flooding at each end, leaving the dam itself, standing there like some monument, and not doing what it was designed to do. 

Other dams fared worse, as did the city of San Diego. Bridges, roads and buildings were washed away like so many toys. Knowing there would be law suits from all quarters the city refused to pay Hatfield because they would then be admitting liability for the damage. So Charlie Hatfield left town, his reputation as a rainmaker intact, but his coffers as empty as when he had arrived.

And so we look up at the idle skies and wish we had another Charlie Hatfield to come into our midst. But since there is no such person around I wonder where we could find some zinc and hydrogen.


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