The bloody Fourth that ended do-it-yourself fireworks in Detroit

The year 1926 saw Detroit’s most explosive Fourth and brought an end to the pyrotechnical age in the city. In the celebrating that year, 7 died and 461 were hurt. Whether it was an excess of World War I gunpowder or patriotism that caused it, normally sane and prudent people overdid it on that July 4th.

There is debate over whether fireworks originated in China or Greece. One legend has a cook in ancient China supposedly noticing that drippings of saltpeter, used for curing meat, made the fire burn brighter; Chinese writings indicate that fireworks were in use there between 1040 and 1175 AD. But 500 years earlier the Greeks had a kind of “liquid fire”, used by the engineer Kallinokos in Byzantium. In both cultures, “black powder” was used to frighten military opponents. Fireworks were also used in elaborate combinations for celebrations. During the Middle Ages they spread westward into Europe first for military use, then for victory celebrations. In the nineteenth century, the addition of magnesium along with potassium chlorate, and special salts for color, greatly heightened the brilliance of the display.

Here in the United States John Adams, in a 1776 letter to his wife, described the celebration of Independence Day as “pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations.” July 2 was the date that the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to approve the formal motion to sever ties with Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence was actually formally accepted on July 4.

The nation’s capital, Philadelphia, celebrated the first anniversary of Independence on July 2, 1777 with tolling bells, bonfires, and fireworks at night. Revolutionary soldiers still in service were given an extra portion of rum. By 1788, the holiday was being celebrated on the official date of July 4. Houses were decorated, flags were flown, morning parades and afternoon picnics were held and in the evening all looked forward to a pyrotechnic display.

ImageAn early American Fourth of July celebration.

      In Detroit and Michigan, fireworks were popular with the citizens, but not so popular with the fire department and the legislators.

In 1923, the Council passed a law prohibiting the use of heavier weapons in the celebration. Dynamite, small cannon, pistols, Roman candles containing more than ten balls and firecrackers more than 2 inches long were outlawed.Despite those restrictions, two persons were killed and 17 injured by the smaller, so called “harmless” fireworks on July 4, 1925. Because of the incendiary nature of the fireworks and the eagerness of the celebrant to part with them once they were lit, numerous garage and house tops were set ablaze. The total of fires extinguished by the fire department on the holiday rose from 21 in 1917 to 69 in 1926.

It was not until 1926 that the city’s patriotic fervor was dampened. The fourth fell on a Sunday that year, resulting in a three day holiday.The city was in a festive mood. The skies were clear, the sun bright, and the temperature settled in the eighties.

ImageThere was no escape from the noise of early Independence Day celebrations.

      Excursion boats leaving Detroit for Cedar Point, Put-in-Bay, Chatham, Boblo and other cool spots were jammed. More than 15,000 cars crossed the river on Detroit & Windsor ferries. (The bridge and tunnel were not yet built.) Two more boats were put into service to handle the rush.

There were moonlight excursions on the Tashmoo and Put-in-Bay steamers with music provided by live orchestras. Sophie Tucker and band leader Ted Lewis were starring in a new review, featuring “a cast of 150, mostly girls,” at the New Detroit theater.

Retailers said that jubilant celebrators had spent $200,000 on fireworks. The latest thing, touted as special because it would explode under water, was a new Chinese firecracker called the “Yut Shing” or “Atta boy.” The Atta Boy went off with a “yet, then a shing, emitting a red glare that looks like a slice of sunset.” Thousands were sold.

On Saturday, Dr. Henry Vaughn, city health commissioner, gave his annual warning to avoid sunstroke, polluted waters, ice-cold drinks and dangerous fireworks.

ImageDetroiters gather in front of the Detroit Tribune and Advertiser building decorated for an 1866 Fourth of July celebration.

      Police warned parents not to allow children to toss firecrackers and “torpedoes” under passing cars because someone might get killed or injured. Set ’em off on the lawn instead, was the admonition.

Safety and first aid stations were set up in hospitals, as well as in police and fire stations throughout the city to give quick treatment to fireworks victims.

Several public events were scheduled for the three day holiday in an attempt to divert the public’s mind from home fireworks displays: A huge Pageant of ’76 was presented in the University of Detroit stadium and was climaxed by professional fireworks and 15 acts of vaudeville. Another pageant, “Freedom Unbound” was performed at the Belle Isle Casino; a parade moved down Woodward, a councilman read the Declaration of Independence on the radio and a patriotic lecture was given in Highland Park’s Ford Field.

The Tigers played four games in Navin field and lost, in succession, to the White Sox, Indians and the St.Louis Browns.

ImageMarching elephants were a highlight of Detroit’s 1898 July Fourth parade down Gratiot.

      The crackling of fireworks began slowly in the streets, gaining momentum like a fiery pinwheel by Monday. The streets were littered with fragmented firecrackers. Three doctors and nurses on duty at Receiving Hospital’s admitting room reported they could not keep up with the injuries.

The first death occurred Sunday. A 2 1/2 year old boy burned to death. Among the injured that day was a family of six, seriously burned when a firecracker ignited in a pan of gasoline. On Monday the first aid stations were as busy as those on a battlefield. Among the injuries reported were two boys, burned when a group of youths fired Roman candles at them, and six children, burned when a table of fireworks went off accidentally at Kennedy School.

As if purposely designed to climax this stupendous holiday, a blaze leveled one of the city’s largest lumber yards at the end of the day, causing $500,000 worth of damage.

On Tuesday, an exhausted city sat down to total its fireworks casualties – seven dead and 46 injured. All of the dead were children. Five died of burns; two were poisoned when they ate firecrackers.

The city was shocked.

ImageMembers of the Army’s 339th Infantry march on Belle Isle on July 4, 1919, the day after their arrival back in Detroit after participating in an allied expedition on the Russian front.

      On July 8 a measure was introduced in Council that would prohibit the sale of fireworks to the general public. The ordinance was strongly supported by police, fire and health officials. There were few objections from the council.Though the law was successfully challenged in the courts two years later, the city’s memory of its most explosive Fourth of July brought quick passage of a new and foolproof law.

It was not long before similar legislation was passed by the State Legislature. Of course the law didn’t stop everyone. Detroiters drove to Ohio to buy bootleg fireworks. Even sparklers were illegal in Detroit, though legal in the rest of the state, but the heavy handed law saved lives if it dampened some enthusiasm.

ImageThe Fourth has always been a popular day for naturalizing new citizens. Here a crowd of new Americans on Belle Isle in 1915 listens to an address by Judge Frank Murphy, who swore them in.

      Over the course of years, in attempts to steer the people’s enthusiasm into safer channels, various groups had fireworks displays such as those in Patton Park in Southwest Detroit, Rackham golf course, Grosse Pointe, Jefferson Beach.In 1954, the City Council, in a precursor to the Freedom Festival, approved a $1500 appropriation to stage a June fireworks display on Belle Isle, in full view of the Canadian shore, to help Windsor to celebrate its centennial.

By 1958, the space age was influencing the names of fireworks: former “flying snakes” were now known as “whizzing satellites.” “Rain of Blood” was rechristened (perhaps prophetically, said a news article) Sputnik. One new set of fireworks resembled the launching at Cape Canaveral.

In late 1958, the idea for the International Freedom Festival was born. Conceived as a joint celebration of our Independence Day and Canada’s Dominion Day, July 1 (now known as Canada Day), the inaugural 1959 Festival marked the first use of the Civic Center for a public occasion. It was the biggest Fourth of July celebration in the nation that year. The Queen of England and Prince Philip were in Windsor that afternoon, before departing on their yacht, the Britannia, for a cruise through Lake St. Clair to Sarnia.

A new flag, a gift from the governor of the new state of Alaska, with 49 stars (Hawaii would not enter the Union officially until August) was presented to Mayor Miriani. And children from every state and each of Canada’s 10 provinces and two territories participated in the flag raising.

Shipping traffic was stopped on the Detroit River from Belle Isle to the Ambassador Bridge and waiting freighters had a front-row view of the fireworks. Fireworks were loaded onto barges at the foot of Third, then towed into the middle of the river. Three barges were spaced 1,200 feet apart to minimize accidents. Hudson’s department store paid for the extravaganza.

ImageToshio Ogatsu, president of Japan’s largest fireworks company, puts the finishing touches on the fireworks preparations for Detroit’s first International Freedom Festival in 1959.

      Japanese fireworks impresario and president of Japan’s largest fireworks factory, Toshio Ogatsu, wearing a ceremonial smock and track shoes (to ignite and depart with haste) presided over the pyrotechnics.

The presentation opened with a 21 gun salute, and continued 1,500 feet above the river. Two 25 feet by 40 feet “spectaculars” were rigged on the end barges: “Salute to the Queen” had a fiery outline of the North American Continent flanked by a symbol of the American Eagle and Queen Elizabeth’s royal insignia. The second was “Independence Day Then and Now,” portraying three figures of the Spirit of ’76 bearing a flag of the period of the 13 colonies, which would change to the 49 star flag, with a 50th star representing Hawaii circling in the background.

In all, 2 1/2 tons of fireworks blazed in the sky. A senior Detroit police inspector commented “There hasn’t been a crowd like this since Armistice Day in 1918.” An estimated half a million people watched from the Civic Center. Another 225,000, including many Detroiters, watched from Windsor. Belle Isle was also wall to wall with people. There were so many boats on the river, you could have walked across the decks from Detroit to Windsor, according to a Coast Guard official. Thousands more lined the river banks.

Downtown buildings with a view of the river were filled with office workers and their families. Attendants at the City County building estimated 10,000 spectators saw the fireworks from that building. Even the old Norton Hotel, officially closed and being torn down, was filled with spectators.

There was no rowdiness: only one pocket was picked and only one pickpocket was arrested.

For most of the million spectators, the evening ended near midnight as their cars cleared the traffic jams and cruised homeward. For police, it ended at 2:15 a.m. when 12-year-old Jimmy Woods, the last of thirty lost children, was claimed by his parents.

ImageA feature of 1931 celebrations was this fireworks portrait of George Washington, formed by blazing fireworks and framed in a fiery setting of greetings to the throngs.

By Jenny Nolan / The Detroit News