Editor’s Note: On this day, January 27, 1916 at 5:05pm, the Lower Otay Dam broke, sending torrents of water into Otay, Sweetwater and the Tijuana river valleys. The flood caused the largest devastation in San Diego history.
By Patricia Maxwell / This is Part III of a Series
Little Landers was an idealistic cooperative farming community built in the Otay river valley by a couple of visionaries who advocated that anyone could sustain himself on a “little land.” The flood of January 27, 1916 swept that land into San Diego Bay.
“The raging waters, spreading widely over the flat lands of the valley in the night, rendered twenty-five families homeless and most of them lost everything. Two women were drowned. Boats and improvised rafts were necessary to bring marooned people to safety. Some few of these attempted to resume operations, either where they had been or on higher ground. Most of them simply quit and moved away.” (Chula Vista—The Early Years, Vol. 4, pp. 36,37)
Those who stayed, faced huge financial losses. “An example is afforded by a tract of land in Otay Valley formerly used as a truck garden and valued at $1,000 per acre; after the flood eleven acres of this land were sold at a foreclosure sale for $100. The total damage to farmland was approximately $1,500,000.” (http://pubs.usgs.gov/wsp/0426/report.pdf)
Estimated damages for the county were $3.5 million.
A couple days after the collapse of the Otay Reservoir dam, Charles Hatfield, the rainmaker, left the back country and headed to town to collect $10,000 for his work in filling the Morena Reservoir. After slogging on foot through mud and debris, he and his brother, Joel, limped into the city and took refuge in a house their friend, Fred Binney, provided for them. The next day, slicked up and dressed in a clean suit and fresh tie, Charles smiled confidently for photographers at a press conference in Binney’s office. The questions were blunt, ranging from how did he explain that it rained all along the coast to whether he would accept liability for damages.
Immediately after the press conference, Hatfield scurried to see City Attorney Cosgrove who advised him to file a written statement describing in detail what he claimed to have accomplished and in how much time. In other words, what exactly did he expect to be paid for?
Hatfield’s statement filled seven pages in which he stated that he was directly responsible for four billion gallons of rain water in Morena.
On February 17, 2016, Hatfield appeared before the council. Mayor Edwin Capps asked him to state his business. He said: “My contract was to fill Morena Reservoir. That has been done…I desire the city should fulfill its contract to pay me $10,000.”
“How much do you claim to have put into Morena?” Cosgrove asked.
“There were five billion gallons when I started work and it required 15 billions to fill the reservoir. I claim that through the instrumentality of my work four billion gallons were put into the reservoir and the other was the indirect result of my work.”
Cosgrove drilled harder. “You want the city to pay you only for what you yourself did? You do not want the city to pay you for what nature did, do you?”
“Why do you ask the city to pay you for 10 billion gallons when you put in only four billion gallons?”
Charles Hatfield was no match for Cosgrove, the young, Yale law school graduate. Others on the council urged that the agreement be honored and Charles be paid. They were no match for Cosgrove, either.
Hatfield got an attorney to file a suit which stayed on the court calendar for twenty-two years and was finally dismissed in 1938 for lack of prosecution. The underlying problem has always been the fact that if Charles really caused the rain, then the city could be held responsible for the damage it caused. Of course, the city didn’t want to assume that responsibility, and neither did Hatfield.
The flood caused enormous changes in the land with topsoil washed away and valleys scoured clean of vegetation. J. A. Pierce, an auto dealer in Lakeside, came to town and reported that “you might as well try to farm on a cement sidewalk on what is left.” )
I wonder if the farmers whose lands were devalued by the storm felt any comfort in knowing that the rainmaker himself lost money in the flood of 1916?
Most of them were probably too busy mopping up their homes and businesses, clearing their fields and roads, rebuilding their communities, to give much more thought to a rainmaker.
There was talk of what could be done to prevent such a tragedy from ever recurring, culminating in the Dam Safety Act of 1917, which gave the State Engineer authority over all dams more than ten feet high or which impounded three million gallons of water.
Charles Hatfield never divulged his formulas and continued to live a secretive life. When he died, his brother, Paul, didn’t announce his death until after he was buried. Paul donated tools, notes, and pictures to the Central Library, but no chemical formulas. It will never be known what Hatfield concocted to throw into the sky in January of 1916.
What piqued my imagination about this historical event are the human emotions that so many people must have had—a combination of disbelief, fear, courage, cowardice, blame and hope.
Patricia Maxwell grew up in Oregon and attended Walla Walla College in Washington state, where she started writing poetry which was published in the school literary magazine. She met her husband, Burton, at college. After they married, he became a pastor which led them to pastorates all over the country. In 55 years of marriage, they have moved 25 times! In the mid- 1960’s, in a tiny town in northwest Pennsylvania, with two toddlers, Patricia took a correspondence course in non-fiction writing. Since then, she has authored four inspirational books and many articles, humor pieces, as well as technical articles about her husband’s world-class model railroad. When Rain Comes is her first novel.