Monday, January 14, 2008

The Year was 1916 - Chula Vista isolated

In January 1916, people living in Chula Vista were isolated for several weeks as a result of RAIN. Not fire, not earthquake, not wind - just lots of rain.

Contrary to popular belief, it does rain in Southern California - sometimes. Here in San Diego, we get an average of 10.7 inches a year. Sometimes less (about 3 inches last year) and sometimes more (25 inches in 2005). But in 1916, it really rained. It was one of the biggest natural disasters in San Diego history.

In 1915, San Diego was in the middle of a drought - and was running out of water, which was collected behind dams in reservoirs, and flumed or piped to the city. Charles M. Hatfield came to the San Diego City Council and claimed to be a rainmaker. He said that he would make it rain and would fill Lake Morena (about 50 miles southeast of the city, which delivered water into Otay Lake) to overflowing, and would charge the city $10,000 - $1,000 per inch for the 40th to 49th inches added to the lake. The city agreed and Hatfield and his brother, Paul, set up their wooden tower at Lake Morena on 1 January 1916. They sent a chemical mixture designed to "enhance moisture" into the air for several weeks.

It started to rain on 10 January, and didn't stop until after 27 January. More than 29 inches fell in the mountains, the reservoirs filled, the San Diego River in Mission Valley flooded (there are pictures of this - about 1 mile wide bank to bank!). On 27 January, Sweetwater Dam was topped, and the valley between National City and Chula Vista was inundated. The Lower Otay Reservoir Dam was topped and the dam burst, sending a wall of water down the Otay River Valley, sweeping away homes, people, livestock and bridges. At least 14 people died in this valley south of Chula Vista.

The rainmakers walked the 60 miles back to town, and demanded payment for their successful efforts, unaware of the resulting damages. They were refused and threatened with physical violence by townspeople, and quickly left town, with an enhanced reputation. They returned later in 1916, demanded payment again, were refused again, and filed a suit, which lingered for more than 20 years before it was dismissed in 1938.

You can read more about the Hatfields and their rainmaking at the San Diego Historical Society web site, and in Richard Pourade's book "Gold In The Sun" history book.

Nearly every city and county in this country has a historical society or association, and often their web sites have records and stories such as these examples. You can "flesh out" your family histories by reading stories about historical events, and determining how these events might have affected your ancestors living in those places.

In my case, both of my San Diego great-grandparents and their children - Austin and Della Carringer, with their 24-year-old son Lyle, and Charles and Georgianna Auble, with 16-year-old daughter, Emily - lived near downtown San Diego. They weren't affected directly by the floods by all indications, but San Diego rail traffic was cut off from the north and the east. Surely they were without power for some time, outdoor wood must have been wet, and water supplies must have been affected. The dirt roads must have been a mess. Residents of Chula Vista were isolated for some time, with supplies coming down the Bay by boat. Residents in the Sweetwater, Otay and Tijuana River valleys were wiped out.

Yes, it does rain - but only occasionally - in Southern California! This week, the skies are clear, the air is warm (mid-70's for most of the week) and the hills are green (well, except for the burned areas from October!). Go Chargers!

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