Events | Life

It's the Fourth of July - launch the anvil!

Detroit’s 19th century celebrations were proud, explosive and dangerous

By Bill Loomis / Special to The Detroit News

After voting for independence in 1776, the Continental Congress debated and revised the formal Declaration of Independence, finally approving it on July 4.

John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail:

“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. … It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

Of course, he was two days early, but this famous letter was commonly known and often repeated in 19th century newspapers and by civic festivity planning committees that formed every year in Detroit and other cities. The only activities early Detroiters would enjoy that Adams didn’t mention were boat rides on the Detroit River, anvil launching and fireworks.

An old-fashioned Fourth

From the very start the Fourth was honored with parades and bonfires. One city historian, George Caitlin, wrote in his book “The Story of Detroit” that early Fourth of July celebrations in 1818 took place behind Lewis Cass’s house on the farm fields. The day included prayers, military marches, a reading of the Declaration of Independence, bonfires, dinners and an oration. For many years respected lawyer and mayor of Detroit James Van Dyke gave the oration, referred to as the “spread eagle” speech.

Frequently there was an ox roast and all joined in. But sometimes, it could be simple fare: “We were presented with green peas and new potatoes on the fourth of July, which were raised by our worthy and industrious farmer, John Brown, Esq.,” read a report in 1837 in the Detroit Free Press.

Dinners were later held at hotels or saloons with honored guests, such as Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. These affairs included big dinners with toast after toast that went on all night, with each one reported in the newspapers.

Detroit didn’t start celebrating the Fourth of July until early in the 19th century; prior to that it was not an American city, or at least not American enough to take an interest. The French settlement remained neutral during the American Revolutionary War. It was controlled by the British from 1783 until 1805, and was not populated by Americans, by and large, until after the War of 1812.

It was at that time that Fourth of July celebrations began to appear. Many French Detroiters were praised for playing an eager part in the festivities. By 1839 the parade broadened to include the mayor, common council, the fire department, judiciary and members of the bar, and frequently veterans of the Revolutionary War riding in a coach.

An 1844 parade included “a volunteer fire department with their hand engines all polished up, and the men in red shirts and black trousers, and big helmets,” the Free Press described. “All the butchers with linen coats and straw hats were in line on horseback … then came the Odd Fellows and Free Mason lodges, and the Turnvereins of the German Clubs …”

The parade route for July 4th, 1839 kept the groups moving and suggests how small Detroit was at the time: “Proceed down Fort Street to Cass Street, thence down Cass Street to Jefferson Avenue, then up Jefferson Avenue to Woodward Avenue, then up Woodward Avenue to Larned Street, then up Larned Street to St. Antoine Street, then through St. Antoine Street to Jefferson Avenue, thence down Jefferson Avenue to Woodward Avenue, thence up Woodward Avenue to the Presbyterian Church.”

Tossing flaming cotton balls

Early celebrations did not have brass bands but they did have fife and drum. A tradition from New England that carried over to Detroit included the Fourth of July “Parade of Horribles.”

One Detroiter recalled the parade in Northville in 1836: “Men and boys rigged up in ridiculous costumes, some in ox hides, horns and all participated. We used to make masks of ordinary brown paper, painted.” In the evening the Callithumpians (sometimes spelled Kalathumpians) made the scene. They were local men and boys dressed in grotesque and comic costumes in charge of making noise and who “attracted more attention and caused more undiluted joy to well up in youthful heart than all the fireworks of today.”

Bonfires were everywhere and when firecrackers were not available, boys threw flaming balls of cotton wicking soaked in turpentine. As one Detroiter, Frederic Carlyle, recalled 50 years later, “We would throw the flaming balls from one side of the street to the other. Of course, we often found the next day we had been too self forgetful in our display of patriotic sentiment, for our hands were sometimes severely burned by holding the burning balls too long before tossing them in the air.”

Bonfires were also the domain of boys. They would go store to store seeking wooden junk to pile in the street and burn.

“With John Bull grit, they insisted upon the ‘right of search’ into the rear of stores … for old boxes, barrels and other combustibles, which were speedily stacked upon the open squares and made to contribute to the festivities of the occasion.” – Detroit Free Press, July 7, 1858.

Detroiters celebrate the Fourth of July downtown in this photo from the 19th century. (Detroit News archives)

Detroiters celebrate the Fourth of July downtown in this photo from the 19th century. (Detroit News archives)

Boys making noise

Detroit boys fired blanks from “rusty old horse pistols” or granddad’s “thunder stick” musket. They also “fired” blacksmith anvils. Anvil firing (also known as “anvil launching” or “anvil shooting”) was the practice of blasting an anvil into the air with gunpowder. Typically, two anvils were used: one as a base (placed upside down), and another one (also known as the “flier”) as the projectile (placed right-side up, atop the base). Sometimes, a single anvil was fired from a stone base. The space formed by the anvil’s concave base was filled with black powder. A fuse was lit, and the resulting explosion sent the anvil projectile several feet into the air.

Needless to say, all of this was incredibly dangerous. However, as one old timer reminisced: “Of course a few of the more patriotic ones had their fingers blown off now and then … but that was only considered an evidence of the patriotic feeling that ran rife in those times.”

Adult boys had their fun as well. While most of the cannon firings were officially sanctioned and professionally executed, a few were impromptu ideas hatched in saloons. George Caitlin reports that in 1835 the wealthy ship builder Oliver Newberry had two old relic cannons in his shipyard from Oliver Perry’s victory on Lake Erie in the War of 1812. Mechanics and ship carpenters asked Newberry if they could clean up the cannons and fire them a few times in celebration of the Fourth.

He consented, so the men went to the street to collect donations for gun powder. Here they accosted a N. Prouty, who owned a grocery and restaurant in a frame building which stood on the pier over the river. He was stingy with his donation, angering the men.

They managed to buy a keg of powder and used four pounds for the first firing, which gave a grand boom. For the second firing they directed the gun toward Prouty’s grocery and rammed in 14½ pounds of powder. When they fired this off at Prouty’s, all the windows in the building blew out in a shower and the structure rocked so violently it nearly tipped off the pier.

Newberry ended the celebration.

The day began early and noisily with cannon salutes at daybreak, according to this 1863 Free Press account: “At sunrise in the morning a salute of one hundred guns was fired at the Campus Martius by the Scott Guard. At the same time all the bells of the city rang a merry peal…. Flags were displayed upon all the blocks along the public streets.”

The Fourth during the Civil War

The Civil War years saw changes in the Fourth of July celebrations in Detroit; first and obvious was there were many fewer young men in Detroit to celebrate since most were Union soldiers. The city had grown so the crowds were bigger. People feared losing the country and the celebrating on the Fourth of July became intense and emotional.

On July 4, 1863 the Union won the Siege of Vicksburg, a major victory essentially splitting the Confederacy in two. This was learned from dispatches during Fourth of July celebrations in the city, and it resulted in a spontaneous, manic like celebration, as reported at that time.

“No event was ever celebrated in the city with more hearty joy…. Real heartfelt gratification and relief which everyman felt as he repeated to himself over and over again with an effort to realize it, ‘Vicksburg is ours.’ …

“At 8 o’clock (p.m.) a one hundred gun salute was fired at Campus Martius and soon the whole city was illuminated by bonfires blazing in every direction. Thousands of people … were upon the streets and the greatest excitement prevailed … cannons thundered, fireworks were let off, bands played, buildings were illuminated. On the roof of the building the Detroit City Band was playing and rockets were sent up, Roman candles blazed. On the street beneath a huge bonfire was burning, and the streets in all directions were thronged with people.” – Detroit Free Press, July 7, 1863.

Terrifying firecrackers

On July 4, 1866, the first Fourth after the Civil War, the nation was stunned to hear that fireworks set off a great fire in Portland, Maine, killing two and leaving 10,000 homeless. It was the worst fire of its kind in the U.S. up to that date. The Boston Globe said it was started with an “Indian Cracker.”

The Portland catastrophe was well known and the potential repeat of it caused some cities to ban firecrackers. Not Detroit. After the Civil War the Fourth of July became a day and night of real terror.

The 19th century firecrackers were enormous; these were not just noise makers but real explosives. Small children were firing off Navy signaling ordnance, “torpedo cannons” filled with dynamite and gravel, guns loaded with dynamite, and “dynamite crackers” placed on street car rails with enough explosive power to bounce a car or terrify the dray horses, not to mention the passengers. Cracker cannons were nearly a foot long with tiny fuses.

In 1873 100 million “torpedoes” were sold in the U.S. It wasn’t just that the firecrackers were dangerous but that many children of the day had a wicked sense of practical jokes. They tossed them into open street cars, threw them at dogs and horses, shot Roman candles into crowds, and dropped them into people’s boots.

A doctor on Michigan Avenue was cranking his automobile in 1902 when “a small boy touched off a cannon cracker behind him” which made him jump up and smash his face and shoulder into the grill of his car. A young woman walking around a corner was struck by shrapnel: “The boys, it was said, were firing cannon crackers and the young woman, passing the corner just at the time of the explosion of a big cracker, was hit in the ear by one of the flying pieces,” according to the Free Press.

Every July 5th the newspapers listed entire pages of horrific injuries from children age 2 on up to adults. Tetanus and lockjaw were common consequences from exposed burns and wounds. Across the country the New York Times reported in 1906 that 38 people died from firecracker explosions and 2,389 were injured.

A Dr. MacDonald wrote an open letter to Detroit Mayor William C. Maybury in 1903, demanding a “safe and sane” Fourth of July by banning the most dangerous firecrackers “that are a torture to the sick and those afflicted with weak nerves.”

Maybury agreed, joined MacDonald and began a crusade. By 1910 Detroit, like many other cities in the U.S., had eliminated cracker cannons, dynamite caps and exploding torpedoes.

Baseball, picnics and pink lemonade

In 1876 the Fourth of July “Grand Parade” included everybody from the Knights of Pythias to Michigan’s governor, the entire state militia, Sons of Temperance, the Italian Benevolent Society, Father Mathew Society 1 and 2, county auditors and assistant city attorneys. The press estimated the parade stretched five miles long down Woodward Avenue, ending at the Campus Marius grandstand. The city and suburban fire departments alone were one unbroken mile in length.

In 1878 a new addition was the 350 strong Velocipedists (bicyclists). By the turn of the century automobile races at the State Fairgrounds and elsewhere began to appear, and by 1900 the parade included floats with patriotic themes, Mother Goose characters and more.

On Brush Street at Alexandrine the Gentry Brothers animal show went on with trained ponies, elephants, camels, and dogs “trained to do everything but talk.” Highland Park offered balloon ascensions and air trapeze performers.

In 1895, before there was a bridge to Belle Isle, five ferries carried celebrants to the island on the Fourth. By 1908 100,000 headed to Belle Isle and other spots along the river. Here one could find the peanut man, the pink lemonade man, and the omnipresent firecracker man.

Baseball was everywhere, all day. If you wanted professional baseball in 1895 you might catch Detroit versus Toledo at a park at 10 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. “Both contests will be for blood,” the Detroit Free Press declared, “as the nines are intense rivals and both are playing great ball.”

In 1906 the Detroit Tigers were away at Cleveland on the Fourth of July but the papers listed 22 amateur games scheduled for that day with such teams as the Detroit Brewers versus J.L. Hudson. On Belle Isle you might catch Kirby Athletic Club versus Owana.

And at night everyone came out to see the fireworks. Although Detroit held a city-wide “Grand Parade,” neighborhoods created their own fireworks displays. In 1906 20,000 people watched a show from the North Woodward Residents Association that lasted two hours with a circle of 30-foot illuminated balloons, maroon colored showers of Roman candles, and what the Free Press called a display of “bewildering set pieces that included an Eiffel Tower, a battery of whistling Dervishes, a floral bouquet of bombshells, Mt. Pelee, ‘Devil Among the Tailors’ whistling battery, Japanese Garden, and Niagara of golden flame.”

When completed “the entire crowd moved up Rosedale Court where a whole block of the asphalt pavement had been waxed for dancing purposes and those who so desired joined in old fashioned terpsichorean numbers to the music of Pingree and Smith’s band.”

An editorial on the Fourth of July in 1843 captured the spirit of the day, when the Free Press wrote: “None that witnessed the scene, and attended where the refreshments were dispensed could fail to feel delighted in beholding such a large group of children whose eyes sparkled with joy and whose countenances betrayed the peace and happiness that pervade their gentle spirits… Not a jar or accident or circumstance of unpleasant nature occurred to interrupt the harmony and delight of the occasion. Long may the Fourth of July prove the occasion of such an enjoyment.”

Bill Loomis is the author of the book “Detroit’s Delectable Past,” available throughout the Metro Detroit area, and the forthcoming book “Detroit Food” to be released in early 2014.