Water. Without it, it is impossible to separate gold from the gravel it is buried in. Herein is the basis for the story of the battle of the rainmakers.
After the Klondike Gold Rush, miners started operating on a scale never before imagined in the early days of prospecting in the Yukon. Some claim owners brought steam equipment to the Klondike in 1899 and by the following year every miner had it or wanted it to make his claim more profitable.
Water and plenty of it was needed to do this, especially for hydraulic mining, but in some years, Mother Nature didn’t fulfill the needs. In August of 1903, for example, things were so dry in the gold fields that many of the claims had to shut down in the month of August for lack of an adequate supply.
It was dry again in 1905, so an item that appeared in the Dawson Daily News that summer about a rainmaker proclaiming success in California must have had a strong appeal to the miners of Dawson City. Charles Hatfield, a self-proclaimed “moisture accelerator,” claimed he could create the desired precipitation, though he had many detractors, including the U.S. Weather Bureau.
On Aug. 10, 1905, the Yukon government entered into a contract with Hatfield “in order to ensure a prosperous season for the gold mining industry by securing an ample supply of water.” Half of the $10,000 (plus travel expenses) was to be raised by subscription from the mining sector. A committee of seven delegates was selected to determine whether Hatfield fulfilled his promise of rain.
This deal became the target of much criticism in Ottawa, and source of much entertainment in Parliament. George Eulas Foster, a prominent Conservative, led the charge in attacking the Liberal government for the frivolous expenditure. Who, demanded Foster, had authorized this item?
Frank Oliver, the minister of the Interior, insisted that it was a discretionary expenditure decided upon by the duly elected Yukon representatives. In fact, the Yukon could not boast of a wholly representative council until 1909. Before that, the federal government held the majority and called the shots.
Amidst the swirling controversy, Hatfield arrived in Dawson City by steamer June 5, 1906. Bring an umbrella, raincoat and rubber boots, citizens were jokingly advised by the Dawson Daily News. “We want Hatfield to pour down the fluid on French Hill at once,” declared one miner, “we need the goods.”
By mid-June, Hatfield had set up his equipment and was proclaiming that a light sprinkle had fallen the night before, and heavy rain fell in the morning. He claimed that he couldn’t fail. Observers on Bonanza and Eldorado Creeks, however, saw plenty of clouds but no rain to speak of. But the people at Grand Forks reported precipitation – a hail storm had ruined their flower and vegetable gardens.
Three days later, Hatfield reported that he would double the power of his secret rainmaking apparatus, which was enclosed in a six-metre tall tower on top of King Solomon’s Dome in the centre of the goldfields.
On June 20, he proclaimed that it had rained every day since he set up. After two weeks, a total downfall of 1.6 centimetres had been reported. Hatfield proclaimed that rain was seen to be heavy on Sulphur, Gold Bottom and Hunker creeks.
The miners differed on the amount of rain that had fallen. All who subscribed to the Hatfield fund stood by helplessly, their mines idle for lack of sufficient water. The people with vegetable gardens were happy with Hatfield’s efforts, but the miners were not. By the end of June, rumours abounded that his contract was about to be cancelled. “In the words of the heaviest subscribers,” reported the News, “The jig is up.”
By July 2, Hatfield had competition. Chief Isaac, leader of the Moosehide people, proclaimed that they had four medicine men “working hard with spirits, keep Hatfield from make rain.”
Isaac challenged Hatfield to a debate in the rain-making question. “Tell Governor (William) McInnes I make all rain want. Give me $5,000 I make more rain than want. I make river if want ‘em.” The money, he said, would be spent locally, not taken out of the Yukon as Hatfield would do.
By July 6, the Dawson Daily News, with half the mining season gone, proclaimed that Hatfield was a failure. Opposition councillor George Black was demanding in the territorial legislature to know how much money the government had already dished out to Hatfield. By July 9, the big mining operators were laying off men for lack of water.
In Ottawa, George Foster demanded to know what the government was going to do about the lack of rain in the Yukon. Minister Oliver replied that it was up to “home rule” to resolve the problem, and that “Hatfield and Isaac must fight the matter out themselves.”
On July 24, with hardly a drop of precipitation since the beginning of the month, the committee of seven voted unanimously to cancel Hatfield’s contract. “The black magic mystery at top of the Hatfield tower is nothing more than a new form of spiritualist’s black cloth cabinet … a variation of an old trick for lending an air of mystery to common deception,” stated the Dawson Daily News in an editorial.
A shamed Hatfield left the parched Yukon receiving only the travelling expenses for him and his brother, who assisted him, but he claimed success when he reached Seattle. Meanwhile, the rain poured down over Dawson, and Chief Isaac took credit, claiming he could make more at a moment’s notice.
In early August, he placed a medicine man at Moosehide, “hard at work making the showers now blessing the Klondike.” At the same time, Tom Kilpatrick was circulating a petition on behalf of Chief Isaac asking the territorial government to make him official Yukon rainmaker for a salary of $700 per season.
Commissioner McInnes, who even signed the petition under a nickname, refused to authorize any payment as it was too late in the season. So Isaac placed another injunction upon the heavens. By November, no precipitation had yet had fallen in the Yukon, and the winters sleighs could not traverse the winter road between Whitehorse and Dawson City.
So I ask you – who demonstrated more control over the heavens, Hatfield, or Isaac?
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at email@example.com