A look back: Fourth of July in old Juneau

Note on the photo reads, "Street scene, Douglas Alaska, July 4th 1912. - Case & Draper photo

Note: This story was originally published in the Juneau Empire on July 3, 2004.


Juneau is a town spawned by gold and gold moons. When the miners had one of their two days off a year — Christmas or Fourth of July — both pageantry and liquor consumption rose to a fever pitch. As Trevor M. Davis writer in “Looking Back on Juneau - the First Hundred Years” (1979), “Alaska was not allowed to import any liquor in the 1880s and the early 1890s, but it came in anyway. A unique system was devised by the saloons in Juneau. After a steamship was tied up to the wharf, a side door on the boat would open and barrels of beer and whiskey would be pushed overboard. Several rowboats, with men waiting, were under the dock and would happen to ‘find’ them and tow them ashore. The barrels found their way to the rightful owners.”

To partake of the Fourth, celebrants came by boat from a dozen nearby canneries, including the two Carlson salmon canneries at Auke Bay. A local band played lively marches, and lighted firecrackers were often “mistakenly” dropped through the cracks in the boards of the sidewalk — sometimes igniting trash fires. In 1898 the highlight of the Fourth was a hot air balloon ascension from Main Street. Some spectators climbed onto the roof of the fire hall and other nearby buildings to see the balloon rise.

Oratory by the most august personages in town was usually first on the program for the Fourth, followed by a parade with decorated floats, athletic events such as tug-o-war, rock drilling competitions, a fire department hosecart race, canoe races on Gastineau Channel and a baseball game. Some men stripped down to their “long-handled” underwear for the foot races.

Juneau’s first ball park was located where the Bill Ray building stands today. The only difficulty was that at high tide, seawater covered half the field, often leaving driftwood behind– which would have to be removed before the next game. Teams came to compete from Douglas, Ketchikan, and Skagway and as far away as Whitehorse. A prize of about $300 went to the winning team.

(Eventually the ball field was moved from its soggy site to the area where the Federal Building now stands.)

The hotly contested Tlingit canoe races were very exciting to the spectators, according to Trevor Davis:

“Two or three large canoes were involved in the race with twelve or fourteen men in each canoe. Each man worked his paddle from each side of the canoe. The canoes were from Chilkat, Kake, Juneau and other villages. The starting point of the race was near the Juneau docks.” The contestants then paddled across Gastineau Channel to Treadwell and back — most wearing their best shirts, but minus the detachable dress collar. There was a cash prize for this race as well.

Many of the sources about the early history of Southeast Alaska are limited edition publications, such as Charlotte L. Price Mahaffly’s “I Remember Treadwell” (1983).

Born in Juneau on June 29, 1902, Mahaffly was raised in Treadwell. Her father, Charles Dewitt Price, was one of those men who embraced the romance of gold. He manufactured portable Klondike stoves during the gold rush of 1898-1900, and served as the marshal of Juneau in the early 1900s. He began working for the Treadwell Mining Company in 1907 after a general strike. The Price family then lived in Treadwell until the cave-in of 1917, following which they moved to Portland, Oregon.

In her formative years, then, Mahaffly observed and participated in a string of Fourth of July celebrations on Douglas. These celebrations — as elaborate as possible — were held on the Plaza, “the only level ground in the camp,” she writes. “This small area was centrally located, and it nestled between a sloping hill — where spectators stood to watch exciting events on July Fourth — and the narrow railroad track.” (Rusted stretches of this track can still be seen today in the underbrush along the shore-side of the Treadwell Historic Trail.)

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“The Plaza was like a bee hive on July Fourth, for then, Practically everyone congregated (in an atmosphere of red, white and blue bunting) to participate in races of all kinds, the winners receiving substantial cash prizes — July 4, 1908, the machine shop hose team won the thousand dollar purse. There was competition between the different mills, each mill with its own hose team (contestants were not necessarily employees of the mill they represented),” she writes, indicating that brawny “ringers” were used.

Watermelons were imported for the day, and housewives tried to outdo one another in putting together lavish and delicious picnic lunches of fried chicken, biscuits or homemade braes, pickles, jam, lemonade in canning jars and coconut layer cake. Single men, dressed in their Sunday suits, usually attended a banquet at the large mess hall at Treadwell. After dinner was an occasion for a big cigar.

One amusing detail Mahaffly preserves is that on rainy Fourths, the colors of the bunting often ran together. But rain could not diminish the high spirits of the day — especially for the children.

Music for these Douglas Island celebrations was provided by the Treadwell Club Band, an amateur group of 28 musicians, dressed in tailored uniforms with matching billed caps. They were proud to say that their instruments were made by one of the country’s best manufacturers, in Elkhart, Indiana. The band set on a grandstand at the Douglas baseball field, breaking into music with each home run. Tug of war competitions were also held on the baseball field, often between groups of Tlingits, Mahaffly writes.

The Treadwell celebration always concluded with a dance in Douglas or at the Treadwell Clubhouse. When darkness came on, families allowed their children to light Roman candles or sky rockets in the backyard. Occasionally there was a public display of fireworks above the Plaza. Everybody enjoyed the day.


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