Lower Otay Reservoir – Chula Vista, California - Atlas Obscura
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Chula Vista, California

Lower Otay Reservoir

The American rainmaker and a burst dam. 

Most reservoirs have relatively mundane histories, filled with the steady accumulation and dispersal of water. Lower Otay Reservoir, an artificial lake in San Diego County California, however, bears a much more interesting history, one filled with death, intrigue and intimately tied to a curious man named Charles Hatfield.

The reservoir was originally filled after the completion of the Lower Otay Dam in 1897. Constructed by the California Mountain Water Company, the dam stood over one hundred feet high and was built of rock. In 1916, following several months of very heavy rains, the dam gave way, flooding the Otay Valley and killing fourteen people. While most would see this as an act of god, San Diego placed the blame for the burst dam was squarely at the feet of Charles Hatfield, also known as the “American Rainmaker.”

Charles Mallory Hatfield was a salesman by trade, but in 1902 he came across a very curious item he could sell: rain. Having created a secret mixture of 23 chemicals he called a “Moisture Accelerator.” Hatfield and his brother would burn this mixture and shortly after rains would come.

In reality Hatfield was likely just a very keen observer of weather patterns and he would come into towns, suffering from droughts to offer his services, when he knew a storm front was already on its way a few days away. But in 1915 this strategy backfired badly.

Commissioned by the County of San Diego to increase the average yearly rainfall. Hatfield, who was a known “rainmaker” and held contracts across the country, charged the city of San Diego roughly $1000 for every inch of rain he provided. Normally if no rain came, Hatfield would slip out of town, and everyone would forget about it. However in the case of San Diego the rains came, and came until the water flooded the area, burst two dams, and killed at least 18 people. Hatfield was never formally charged with any crimes, and he went on to work as a “rainmaker” for many more years until the depression when he was forced to return to selling sewing machines.

After the original dam blew out, a newer, arch-gravity dam was built to take its place. Recently, a local fisherman found an old WWII fighter-bomber on the bed underneath the water of the reservoir.

Know Before You Go

Located in San Diego County just outside the city of San Diego