The Mother of All Floods

Ed Keenan, a 75-year-old East County native, still remembers growing up and listening to his elders jawbone about the flood of the century — and the man who might have caused it.

“There was always this discussion going on among the old folks,” Keenan recalled. “‘Nah, he didn’t do it.’ And, ‘Yeah, he did!’”

Was rainmaker Charles Hatfield responsible for the killer floods that burst a dam, sent houses floating out to sea and cut off San Diego from the outside world?

The city of San Diego was in a tough spot in late 1915. A drought had left the county parched and the rapidly growing city — which expanded from 39,578 residents in 1910 to 74,361 in 1920 — in need of a reliable water supply.

San Diego relied on reservoirs, including what is now Lake Morena in East County near Campo. So municipal leaders hired Hatfield, a cloud-seeding rainmaker who had gained a reputation by supposedly coaxing the skies to open in places from Los Angeles to the North County community of Bonsall.

Hatfield’s job: Fill the Morena Reservoir.

“The city officials just bought into it and figured they couldn’t lose anything the way he was proposing it,” said Keenan, whose father worked on the 12-mile concrete flume that brought water out of Barrett Reservoir near Dulzura.

Hatfield went to work. Rains came in early January 1916, causing some flooding. And then all hell broke loose across the county in the last week of the month.

Historian Thomas W. Patterson described the scene in a 1970 issue of the Journal of San Diego History:

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. …

The San Diego River was a mile-wide torrent covering Mission Valley from the Kearny Mesa to the mesa of the city and sending back-waters between the jutting fingers of both. Great trees tumbled root over branch. Sticks of lumber, railroad ties and parts of houses floated crazily. Out of the gullies from the east and south came droves of cattle, horses, sheep and goats. …

Debris of all kinds including broken parts of buildings, piled up 20 feet high at obstructions on the beaches at the mouths of canyons.

The adobe bell tower at the Pala mission outpost in the valley of the San Luis Rey River, a relic of Spanish times, was undermined and toppled. More than 200 bridges were washed out. Roads were severed in places where no noticeable water channel existed.

In the worst flood-related disaster of all, the dam at Lower Otay Lake in South Bay gave way, flooding a settlement of Japanese people and reportedly killing 20, although some reports put the number at as many as 50 or 60.

Keenan, a cowboy poet who now lives in Vista, said the effects of the 1916 deluge can still be seen around Dulzura, where floodwaters dislodged boulders from hills and carved new canyons.

Hatfield returned to San Diego from East County after walking dozens of miles because roads were washed out. There was talk he might be lynched, but Hatfield still asked for his money — $10,000 to be exact.

He didn’t get it. As Patterson put it, “Of course the reasons for refusing to pay Charley, as every San Diegan knows, was that if Charley really caused the rain then the city presumably could be held responsible for the damage it caused.”

The city got socked with damage claims and apparently paid some of them while successfully fighting others in court.

The debate over Hatfield’s responsibility has never ended. Keenan, for his part, isn’t convinced that the rainmaker had anything to do with the floods.

After all, the rain socked other parts of Southern California, not just San Diego. “I don’t believe that any man or group of men could seed the clouds in Campo and affect the weather in Los Angeles,” Keenan said.

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia puts it this way:

According to later commentators, Hatfield’s successes were mainly due to his meteorological skill and sense of timing, selecting periods where there was a high probability of rain anyway.

Whatever the case, Hatfield went on to more fame, inspiring both “The Rainmaker,” a 1956 Burt Lancaster movie, and “Hatfield,” a song written by the rock band Widespread Panic about the San Diego disaster.

Hatfield died in 1958, possibly never forgiving the city he may have drowned. “To this day,” he told a reporter in the 1940s, “I’ve never felt right about that San Diego City Council.”

At least it was even: they weren’t too thrilled about him either.

— RANDY DOTINGA

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