July 4, 2009 in City

To party like it’s 1884, you’ll need guts and ample gunpowder

By The Spokesman-Review
 

We imagine, in our self-centered way, that we know how to have more fun than our great-grandparents.

Oh, we are so wrong.

We are especially wrong today, on the Fourth of July. I’ve just been looking through accounts of the big Fourth celebrations in tiny Spokane Falls in the 1880s. I’ve got to tell you, I’m jealous.

Among the things that will, alas, be lacking from my day:

•Cannon fire.

•Gambling on horse races, right downtown.

•An orator who uses phrases like “the lamps of the temples of night.”

•A Grand Ball that causes participants to be “crippled” for days afterward.

•A fireworks display that goes wonderfully and spectacularly awry.

In 1883, the fun commenced at sunup in Spokane Falls with “the concussion of gunpowder” – and that included cannon fire.

As for the fireworks, they were neither safe nor employed by the particularly sane. One year, a guy shot a rocket straight down Post Street just to see what would happen. It whizzed two blocks to Post and Sprague and slammed into the ankle of a certain Miss Cora Benner. Her dress caught fire, but passers-by extinguished it before she was burned too badly.

The 1883 parade featured the Spokane Cornet Band as well as floats filled with “impersonations,” including Old Satan himself, complete with pitchfork. In 1884 the parade was particularly exciting, because somebody tossed a firecracker at “The King of Electric Light” and set his robes on fire.

“It came an ace within cooking the monarch on his throne,” the Review reported.

After the parade came the big Independence Day ceremony. In 1883 it was held in a shady spot on the Spokane River, right below the falls. Somebody read aloud the entire Declaration of Independence. Then the “Orator of the Day,” the distinguished Col. Bradshaw, launched into a speech that included references to the classical pantheon: Apollo, Vesta, Minerva, Neptune, Hercules, Juno and Mercury. He waxed poetic about the destiny of our great nation.

“The nation that has nurtured these principles and developed these thoughts shall never pass away,” he declaimed. “The seas may dry up; mountains dissolve; the sun itself may burn out; and the lamps of the temple of the night may drop from their sockets like autumn’s withered leaves and float away upon the mist of the morning. But this nation shall endure forever and forever.”

Next came the day’s biggest attraction, responsible for luring thousands into town: the horse races. The ponies ran on a quarter-mile track specially prepared near downtown.

Gambling was rife. When Little Joe nosed out Bunchgrass Bill at the wire, the Review reported that “those who shoved up on Little Joe bagged considerable silver.” The sporting crowd found one spot particularly suitable for watching the races: the stoop of the Baptist Church.

And then came nightfall and the public fireworks display on the Big Island (Havermale Island in today’s Riverfront Park). Everybody gathered on the riverfront for a long and spectacular display.

It was spectacular all right, but not exactly long. When the first rocket arced into the sky, the sparks fell down on the other fireworks, spread out on the ground, and ignited the entire shebang.

“In a twinkling, the whole batch was moving in the liveliest possible manner,” said the Review. “Fiery rockets were cutting their way through the overhanging darkness, marking their pathway with bright sparks; the vari-colored globules from the Roman candles shot out in every direction; pin wheels and volcanoes and bouquets and stars fizzed and banged and tore around and painted the surroundings many tints until the last piece let go and the blackness of night once more took hold.”

Sorry, folks. Show over.

Yet the Fourth wasn’t over, not even close. It was time for the Grand Ball, a community dance held in a spacious and specially decorated flour mill on the river.

A stern newspaper editor had tried to warn people off of the Fourth of July ball, noting that the “dance is generally demoralizing in its nature” and that those who hung around the ballroom all night long would be sorry because it “cripples their best energies for succeeding days.”

Didn’t work. The dance floor was so densely packed nobody else could squeeze in. The revelry didn’t end until the “grey dawn of morning.”

All I can say is, our great-grandparents really knew how to celebrate the birth of our nation.

Meanwhile, let’s take some time today to join Col. Bradshaw in wishing for an enduring and happy future for our country, although that part about out-living the sun? Could be a stretch.

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