The Story of Kansas

Ad Astra: Kansas ‘Rainmaker’ linked to one of nation’s most historic floods

Charles Hatfield was never able to collect his $10,000 rainmaking fee from the city of San Diego.
Charles Hatfield was never able to collect his $10,000 rainmaking fee from the city of San Diego. Courtesy photo

Charley Hatfield called himself the “Moisture Accelerator.”

He promised to wring water from the sky.

Nearly a century after a historic flood in San Diego, Hatfield’s name still resonates among some historians.

Was he a flimflam man – as some 19th-century rainmakers were called – or a scientist who could, indeed, entice clouds to give up their rain?

According to Bourbon County records, Charles Mallory Hatfield was born on July 15, 1875, in Fort Scott. He and his family moved to California during the 1880s. His occupation was a sewing machine salesman. But his hobby and passion was weather, specifically pluviculture, the art of rainmaking.

In the winter of 1915, California was in a severe drought.

Twenty years earlier, Kansas had been in a similar position. The summer of 1897 was so hot that the Garden City Herald described one July day as “warm enough to melt tin roofs, render lard out of living hogs and to boil steak.”

Rainmakers promised to tame the clouds into rain.

Men like Frank Melbourne and Clayton B. Jewell promised they were rainmakers but eventually became known as flimflam men.

Melbourne promised Goodland he could make it rain for $500.

The Dodge City Globe reported that Jewell made nine attempts at rainmaking in Kansas in the spring of 1893 and each time reportedly produced at least 1 inch of rain within 48 hours.

Hatfield reportedly studied those efforts as well as the works of Harvard professor William Morris Davis, author of “Elementary Meteorology,” according to “Hatfield the Rainmaker,” written by Thomas Patterson in the Journal of San Diego History during the summer of 1970.

On Dec. 14, 1915, the San Diego Union reported that the City Council had agreed to pay $10,000 to Hatfield to fill Moreno reservoir to overflowing by Dec. 20, 1916.

One of the nation’s most devastating floods followed a month later.

Twenty-nine inches of rain fell in a two-week period, filling ravines and reservoirs, collapsing railroads and bridges, flooding houses and businesses and killing people and livestock in the floodwaters’ path.

“Washouts tore out miles of tracks and trains were stopped for 32 days. Highways and the telephone and telegraph were cut off, leaving only the sea for transportation and Marconi’s wireless for direct communication,” Patterson wrote.

When Hatfield presented City Hall with a bill for $10,000, a city attorney declared Hatfield’s rainmaking an “act of God,” according to Rick Crawford in the article “1916: The year a rainmaker says he ended city’s drought,” published by the San Diego Union-Tribune on Jan. 20, 2008.

Hatfield filed suit, and the San Diego city attorney offered to settle if the Kansas rainmaker would accept responsibility for $3.5 million in damages.

Hatfield would not settle, and the lawsuit continued for more than 20 years before it was dismissed by the San Diego Superior Court in 1938.

In 1956, Burt Lancaster starred in the movie “The Rainmaker,” which was largely inspired by Hatfield’s story.

The Kansas rainmaker died in 1958. He is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, Calif.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series' name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.

To watch a video about Charley Hatfield, “The Rainmaker,” go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6FDqmhQxMI.

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