The Klondike Rainmakers Battle

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Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post in the Yukon Environmental History series organized around the 125th anniversary of the creation of the Yukon Territory. You can read other posts on this series here.

Prior to its creation as a separate Territory, Southern Canadians have historically perceived the Yukon as a remote and distant place, disconnected from the rest of the country and continent. In many ways, the onset of the Klondike Gold Rush perpetuated this perception in the flurry of newspaper coverage and personal diaries which emphasized the dramatic and difficult journey North and the extreme conditions Stampeders encountered. Yet the Klondike Gold Rush also revealed the Yukon’s global connections – miners from around the world participated in the gold rush following a string of global gold rushes from Australia to South Africa to the United States to Canada. The many graveyards in Dawson City reminds us how globally connected the Yukon was in the past and the thousands of annual international tourists indicates that it remains so today. The “Rainmakers Battle” of 1906 is another reminder of how connected Dawson City and the Yukon was to the southern Canadian provinces and the United States.

At the turn of the 20th century, rain making was an emerging trend throughout the United States. States across the US West and mid-West experienced bouts of drought persistently within the first three decades of the 20th century, reaching a peak in the Dust Bowl era. Cities in California and Washington frequently employed the services of professional rain makers (travelling showmen) to alleviate droughts which threatened farmers’ livelihoods and the potential development of growing cities. Professional rain making was less common in Canada, though it was practised in the Prairies at times, as Alan MacEachern has written about in his study of Alberta.1

Miners in the Yukon experienced similar struggles of dry spells and drought and they too jumped on the rainmaking bandwagon. As Caitlynn Beckett argued in her post in this series, the Yukon “was created by and for extraction” and while mining is not the only history of the Yukon, the case of the rainmakers’ battle does highlight how pervasive mining was within territorial decision making and the new territory’s urgent desire for high productivity. This post comes from archival files I consulted while doing my PhD research. The files didn’t fit into the dissertation, but they contain documents that tell an entertaining narrative about early 20th century con artistry, water demands and weather patterns, and Indigenous assertion of relevance (and entrepreneurship) in the central Yukon.

When we think of mining, we might not always think of water, but water was an essential lifeblood to gold mining operations. In 1896 miners were entitled to use water naturally flowing past their claim, but in the Klondike, water was frequently in short supply – not helped by the limited summer rainfall in the central Yukon -, and the productivity of a claim depended on the right to access and use water.2 Fairly quickly into the gold rush, the federal government passed new regulations to make accessing water easier for mining operations. In 1898 new regulations ensured the right to divert water through constructing flumes or ditches from any stream or lake for mining. To meet the water demands for sluicing, miners constructed small dams during spring clean up by blocking off a section of a stream above the claim. Where placer mining’s sluicing required water, the scale of water required for hydraulic mining (stripping gravel with high-pressure hoses) drastically increased water demands. For hydraulic operations, miners diverted water courses and built dams to raise water levels. The demand for water supply continued to grow in Dawson as mining became more industrial eventually leading to wide-scale dredging after 1906.

The unprecedented scale of mining operations following the Klondike Gold Rush resulted in an ever increasing demand for water, but a drought in 1903 shut down the goldfields by August and another drought in 1905 left Yukoners desperate for rain. Over a three year span the Yukon did not have one fully operational mining season due to water shortage. News of a rainmaker successfully ending drought in California reached Dawson in July of 1905.3 In desperate need of rain to reinvigorate the water supply and restart mining operations, this news appealed to Yukon residents.

Dawson City miners, raising funds to secure payment, convinced the Yukon government to hire the rainmaker mentioned in the Dawson Daily News article. Charles Hatfield, the most well-known rain maker in the business, had been a travelling sewing machine salesman before venturing into his new career. Hatfield was a student of meteorology, a self-proclaimed “moisture accelerator” – and, to many, a con man. Hatfield claimed that he brought rain by scientific (yet secret) methods, like “puncturing the clouds” and he purported to have concocted a 23-chemical compound that could produce precipitation if correctly employed. His discussions of rainmaking were careful not to make extravagant claims about his abilities and to include matter-of-fact language. For example, in 1904 a San Diego newspaper quoted him saying, “I do not make rain. That would be an absurd claim. I simply attract clouds, and they do the rest.”4 A year later in the Yukon, he explained, “There is always a certain amount of rain material in the air and all we do is to bring it together by artificial means, with the result that it falls on account of its weight.”5

Charles Hatfield in San Diego, 1915. Creative Commons Public Domain.

Hatfield gathered plenty of business across the US through his self-promotion and publicity campaigns, though the US Weather Bureau believed he was a fraud. In the past, the United States federally funded a rainmaker, James Pollard Epsy, whose theories on rainmaking fizzled out in the mid-1840s. By 1906, the US Weather Bureau put more trust into scientific studies of weather patterns and rainfall. In truth, the success that Hatfield did encounter likely had more to do with observation and data collection than secret methods. Christopher Klein noted that, “By working only in the midst of dry spells, Hatfield could improve his odds of timing an impending rainfall. Indeed, Hatfield likely profited from his keen knowledge of meteorology and close examination of weather records. Knowing when storm fronts were imminent, he could target cities in advance of the rain and claim success when moisture fell from the skies.”6

In August of 1905, the Yukon government offered a $10,000 contract plus travel expenses for Hatfield and his assistant to end their drought and ensure a prosperous mining season the following year. The miners raised half the funds where the Yukon Territorial Government provided the rest. According to the contract, payment would be issued after the delivery of rain. A committee of seven delegates from the mining sector and government would determine whether Hatfield succeeded.7

Map of the Klondike Gold Fields indicating King Solomon’s Dome (the Dome on the map) where Hatfield set up his rain tower. Photo from Kestrel Gold Inc.

Hatfield arrived in Dawson on June 5 of 1906 and set up his infrastructure on top of King Solomon’s Dome in the centre of the goldfields. His rainmaking tower consisted of four beams about 7.6 meters high that supported trays with chemicals and a machine that sent electric currents into the air.8 Mid-June he claimed light rainfall every day since setting up his equipment, though miners on the creeks only saw grey clouds and not a drop of rain. By the end of June, a total rainfall of 1.6 centimeters had accumulated. Those miners who invested in this contract fund were frustrated with these resulted. On June 12, the Yukon World reported on this frustration noting, “the sluice boxes [remained] as dry as a wagon tongue.”9 This is where the rainmakers’ battle began.

Article from the Evansville Press (Evansville, Indiana) of July 24, 1906 displaying Hatfield’s “Rain Factory”

After these expressions of frustration with Hatfield in local newspapers, Chief Isaac, leader of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in in the Klondike Valley, stated that he could make it rain – more, faster, and for a cheaper cost.10 Further, he revealed he had four medicine men working with spirits to prevent Hatfield’s attempts at producing rain. Isaac challenged Hatfield stating that he and his medicine men would make more rain than the miners could ever use for $5,000 – half of what they had contracted Hatfield for. He also argued that hiring him instead would ensure the money would stay within the Yukon and not leave the territory as it would being paid to Hatfield.

Chief Isaac. Photo from Chief Isaac’s People of the River Photo Album.

Chief Isaac was a prominent figure in the Klondike. He was the longest serving chief of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation who guided his people through the upheaval of the gold rush era. He was well respected by other First Nations, local Dawson residents, and tourists alike. He maintained diplomatic relations with settlers in Dawson but he never backed down from asserting the presence of his people and working in their best interests. The rain makers battle is one of many examples where Isaac saw opportunity to engage – and financially benefit – from the needs of outsiders in the region.

Isaac’s offer for more cost-effective rain appealed to local residents. After all, they had already tried one rain maker and Chief Isaac had positive relationships with those non-Indigenous folks in Dawson. However, as David Neufeld explains, the Territorial Council was sold on the “scientific method” believed Hatfield’s failure to produce rain was due to an “imperfect understanding of the principles of scientific rainmaking” and not what they perceived as superstition, so they dismissed Isaac’s proposal.11 Dawsonite Tom Kilpatrick circulated a petition on behalf of Chief Isaac to have the territorial government designate Isaac the official Yukon rainmaker for a $700 salary each season employed. Even the Yukon Governor William McInnes signed the petition, under a nickname, but refused to issue payment that year as the season was almost over and the government had already taken money from the general revenue to pay Hatfield’s travel expenses. With this news, Isaac reported that he placed an injunction on the sky to withhold rain.

Newspapers in Montreal, Spokane, and Seattle followed and reported on “the Yukon Rainmakers’ Battle.”12 I came across no evidence that Isaac and Hatfield ever had personal confrontation about rainmaking, though Dawson is a small place and it seems likely they could have encountered one another. Instead, the battle is more contained within Territorial Government decision making power. It was a unique and entertaining news story coming out of Dawson City, but halfway through the mining season the council of seven delegates declared Hatfield’s attempt a failure and the Yukon government cancelled his contract. He departed Dawson with his tail between his legs, receiving only the promised travel expenses for him and his assistant (~$1153 CAD). Almost immediately the skies opened and showered Dawson City with rain – Chief Isaac taking the credit.

On August 14th, the Dawson Daily News reported that Isaac was made official rainmaker of the Yukon with over 700 signatures of support from Dawson residents and miners.13 Isaac positioned a medicine man at Moosehide Village, the reserve downstream of Dawson City, to work on bringing more rain and according to news reports, this was met with great success.14

Despite Hatfield’s failure in the Yukon, he found varying degrees of success for the next several years travelling around the US and Canada making rain. In fact in 1916, Hatfield was so successful in San Diego that the city experienced a flood with widespread devastation – the San Diego City Council did not pay him for his services because he made it rain too much.15

Cases like the rainmakers’ battle indicates the persistent connection northern places like the Yukon had with the “outside” world. It was informed of events and trends happening south, it followed similar intellectual and structural beliefs like the scientific method and extractive colonialism. This story also suggests elements of Yukon First Nations people, like Chief Isaac, identifying financial, social, and diplomatic opportunities to assert themselves as relevant in these settler spaces.


[1] Alan MacEachern, “The Rainmaker,” Canada’s History Aug/Sept 2021.
[2] David Neufeld, ““Running Water”: Supplying the Klondike Mines 1903 – 1906,” Parks Canada Report (Whitehorse: Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 2003), 1.
[3] “How Hatfield flooded California,” Dawson Daily News, July 4, 1905.
[4] Christopher Klein, “When San Diego Hired a Rainmaker a Century Ago, It Poured,” JSTOR Daily, December 12, 2015.
[5] McBride Museum, “Con Man, Magician, or Scientist: Hatfield was called to make rain in the Klondike,” in Yukon News, March 2010.
[6] Christopher Klein, “When San Diego Hired a Rainmaker a Century Ago, It Poured,” JSTOR Daily, December 12, 2015
[7] Michael Gates, “The Battle of the Klondike Rainmakers,” Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Archives – Rainmakers Battle.
[8] Dawson Daily News, August 18, 1906.
[9] Yukon World, June 12, 1906.
[10] Yukon World, July 2, 2906.
[11] David Neufeld, “A Cultural Cartography of the Tr’ondëk-Klondike: Mapping plural Knowledges,” Zeitschrift für Kanada-Studien Sonderheft (2018) 117-118.
[12] For example, “Rival Rainmakers,” Montreal Gazette, July 7, 1906, and “Indian Wants to Make It Rain,” The Evening Chronicle, August 14, 2906.
[13] Dawson Daily News, August 14, 1906.
[14] “Chief Isaac Is Now Giving the Goods,” Fairbanks Daily News, August 13, 1906.
[15] Christopher Klein, “When San Diego Hired a Rainmaker a Century Ago, It Poured,” JSTOR Daily, December 12, 2015.
Featured Image: “Rain Study 3” by amandabhslater is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
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Heather Green is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Saint Mary's University. She is interested in the intersections of environmental and Indigenous histories, histories of Indigenous and Settler Relations, and mining history, particularly in the Canadian North. You can connect with her on twitter @heathergreen21.