Celebrating the fourth in the north

A Gossard Company parade float from Ishpeming in 1926 is shown. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

The Fourth of July is little more than a week away but this year’s public celebration has been canceled. Marquette has a long history of Fourth of July celebrations over the last 165 years. Here are some of the highlights.

As Peter White noted in a speech for the holiday in 1891, “On the Fourth of July, 1849, there was no celebration, chiefly because there was no Marquette…It was but a few days later, namely on the tenth day of July, 1849, when the first blow was stuck commencing the city of Marquette. Its growth was slow from year to year and no one thought of celebrating the Fourth of July until 1855.”

That first celebration in 1855 was organized by Herman B. Ely, developer of the Iron Mountain Railroad, who wanted a joint celebration for the Fourth and the opening of the new locks at Sault Ste. Marie. Ely himself financed all of the festivities which took place at his home on Lake Street near Gaines Rock- he was also the featured speaker, talking about the history of the nation and then stressing the great future of Marquette and the iron country in general. The day included refreshments, cannon firings, music and Peter White reading the Declaration of Independence. Some 1,000-1,500 people attended the festivities.

As early as 1870, committees were formed to collect funds to pay for the festivities and to stage the events. That year, the celebration began with a bang when a barrage of fireworks, dynamite caps, cannons and guns began firing at 6 a.m. Around 7 there was an informal parade featuring loud horns and whistles followed by the official parade at 9. The day included yacht races and a water show featuring twelve hoses that sprayed water into the air, delighting the crowd.

But the real excitement in 1870 occurred with the fireworks exploded prematurely at Ripley’s Rock. One prominent citizen was sitting on a box of skyrockets that were accidentally ignited by a stray spark and blew up all at once. The entire fireworks committee had to jump into the lak

e to avoid the explosion. One prominent citizen had his overcoat burned but luckily no one was hurt and they all attended a grand ball later in the evening given by the firemen.

They may have briefly learned their lesson because in 1875 there were no fireworks, reportedly so that women and children wouldn’t be scared. The organizing committee noted “We would like to see every individual in the city in the park, west end of Washington Street, on that occasion…Let no man leave the city in search of a better time. Stay where people keep sober, and where your little ones can romp with the utmost freedom and safety.”

The year 1891 was a big one as Marquette, Ishpeming and Negaunee combined their celebrations. Nearly 6,000 visitors came to Marquette, most arriving on special trains from Negaunee and Ishpeming but some came from as far afield as Sault Ste. Marie and even Duluth. The day began with a 44 gun salute at sunrise, which shook the city so much that it broke the windows in several houses on Front Street.

The day was fully scheduled with something happening every hour including two parades (including a comic one at 7 a.m.), a Cornish wrestling tournament, and an exhibition by the crew of the newly opened life-saving station. The newspaper reported “The day was ingularly free from accidents, none of a serious nature having been reported. It is not often that a Fourth of July celebration passes off without accidents of some kind or other.”

In 1928, there were no parades but observances took place at Presque Isle Park featuring watersports including outboard motorboat racing and swimming. The first local exhibition of surfboard riding was performed by Louis Vierling. There was also a concert by the Gwinn Band and the day concluded with a fireworks display. It was reported that 15,000 people visited the park, with 5,000 passengers arriving by streetcar and 6,000 automobiles passing through the gate during the day and evening. Although the program ended around 9 p.m., it took until after midnight to get all of the cars off the Island.

In 1949 the Fourth of July was combined with the celebration of Marquette’s Centennial. Activities that year included beard contests and costume parades, pageants and variety shows, street dances, a Centennial picnic, a parade and fireworks.

In more recent decades, lack of funding and volunteer burnout have threatened the annual observances. Bill “Happy” Gray, a local clown is credited with resurrecting the Fourth of July parade in Marquette in 1963 after a several year hiatus for which the Chamber of Commerce honored him as Man of the Year. He spearheaded the planning for more than a decade, continuing to serve as the parade marshal through the 1976 American Bicentennial. Several reorganizations have happened since then. Hopefully this year’s pause will give the planners and the rest of the community a break to come back with an even greater celebration next year.


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