Rain fell in San Diego on Jan. 10, 1916. This did not surprise a slight, talkative man named Charles Hatfield, because he was responsible...

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“The Wizard of Sun City: The Strange True Story of Charles Hatfield, the Rainmaker Who Drowned a City’s Dreams”
by Garry Jenkins
Thunder’s Mouth Press, 272 pp., $24

Rain fell in San Diego on Jan. 10, 1916. This did not surprise a slight, talkative man named Charles Hatfield, because he was responsible for the rain. Hatfield had been promised $10,000 by the City Council if he could fill the recently completed Morena reservoir, and this rain was the first step.

Rain fell on the 11th, too, as well as on the next day. It continued on throughout the month. Flooding began on Jan. 16, and by the 18th, no one could get in or out of San Diego. Telephone and telegraph lines also were down. The rain eventually stopped, but not before a dam burst on the Otay River on Jan. 26, resulting in the death of 20 people. Damages topped $4 million.

In “The Wizard of Sun City,” London-based journalist Garry Jenkins tells the fascinating story of Hatfield and his art of pluviculture. Hatfield was a mixture of conman, zealot and scientist. He truly believed he could conjure rain with a noxious, boiling mixture of chemicals. And he appeared to be successful.

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Hatfield’s first triumph was in 1904 in Los Angeles, where he ended a severe drought. As his fame spread, he got calls from Alaska, Texas and Oregon. He generally succeeded in “making rain.”

No one knows exactly what Hatfield used to “make” his rain, but Jenkins reports that a visitor to the rain station wondered whether “a limberger [sic] cheese factory had broken loose. These gases smell so bad it rains in self-defense.” Odors aside, Jenkins concludes that we never will know exactly what happened during that odd January in San Diego.

Maybe Hatfield was the proverbial “butterfly of chaos.”

Jenkins does a fine job of telling an engaging story about an intriguing man. It makes for a great summertime read, especially in Seattle when our rain vanishes.