Fourth of July celebration was a high time in old Alaska towns

Posted: Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Fourth of July in the early days of Alaska was celebrated with earthy gusto.

In Juneau, it was a particularly high time because it was one of two or three days off miners were given each year - a rare opportunity to enjoy a full day of leisure. For many, this was the most important holiday of the year - a time for exuberance and energy, with few religious overtones or constraints.

The entire town would be decked out in bunting and flags. Women sported their frilliest spring bonnets. Alcohol consumption soared. Speakers gave stirring patriotic addresses, followed usually by a parade, relays, obstacle races, springs and other track events. Muscular miners stripped down to their summer longjohns (white one-piece "combinations," or two pieces, with short sleeves and knee-length trousers) to compete. Hose teams (the 19th-century equivalent of fire trucks) pulled equipment down the street to show how quickly they could respond to actual blazes. There were 21-gun salutes. And if there were enough horses in town, there might be a race.

Douglas and Juneau competed in the early days. Each had its own parade and festivities, trying to outdo each other. Remnants of this competition exist to this day.

Fourth of July also was celebrated in Canadian boomtowns such as Dawson City, because, during the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, the population of the area was 75 to 80 percent Americans. The American prospectors joined the Canadians on May 24 for the celebration of Queen Victoria's Birthday (today celebrated on a different date), and then the Canadians would return the favor six weeks later.

Mont Hawthorne of Oregon headed North early in 1898 and wound up in Dawson in June. He was relieved to hear that "the boys" were going to show the Canadians a real American Independence Day, he says in his niece-ghosted autobiography "The Trail Led North," because "it wasn't often the boys had any fun in Dawson without having to pay for it."

Hawthorne, a teetotaler, had some reservations about the celebration, however.

"The town needed outhouses a dang sight more than it did that big platform they was planning on building. ..." And he perceived that Dawson's criminal element had ulterior motives: "The sporting crowd figgered that the more they talked the celebration up ahead of time, the sooner the word of it would spread up the creeks (where half the area's population was working claims). All that bunch wanted was to get the suckers in town, where they could take their gold away from them."

Mont and his friend Jack McGuire spent the day together, watching others "make fools of themselves." They observed, for example, as entertainer Cad Wilson danced to "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," while prospectors tossed nuggets onto the stage - and she picked them up in her skirt, lifting it higher and higher.

The celebration in Dawson in 1899 began one minute after midnight, taking advantage of the midnight sun, with the most racket that could be generated: 5,000 pistols, rifles and shotguns firing repeatedly. One sport of the day was to see if you could shoot down your neighbor's chimney. Dogs went crazy and were often missing for days.

Another first-hand impression of Fourth of July comes from a professional tourist, Charles Maus Taylor, who took a trip in 1900 that began in Montreal, passed through Banff and the Rockies, and included Ketchikan.

He wrote in "Touring Alaska and the Yellowstone (1901)," that he arrived in Ketchikan just before the Fourth, and took the opportunity to copy out the program for the day. It included orations, a reading of the Declaration of Independence, music and fireworks. Sporting events featured an Indian canoe race, a Klutchman's Canoe race, a rock-drilling contest, a yacht race, rifle practice, tug of war "Whites vs. Indians," a rowing race, "catching greased siwash dog," and "general field sports." (A "kloochman" or klutchman is a Caucasian wed to a Native American; a "siwash" is someone who follows Native American ways. The terms were derogatory.)

Taylor proceeded to Juneau where the Fourth's celebration here featured a national salute at sunrise, a parade, orations, sports, fireworks and a grand ball at the Fireman's Hall. He visited the Treadwell Mine, where he noted that the miners worked 10 hours a day for $2 a day - implying a day off was well-deserved.

Hotly contested, one-mile dugout canoe races were a highlight of the celebration. In 1888, there were six canoes in the race - two each manned by rowers from Metlakatla, Taku and Auk clans. In 1892, four canoes entered. In 1893, Taku Johnson's canoe won. Unfortunately, as sawmills and plank boats became more common, the number of Tlingits who knew how to make dugouts declined.

One particularly memorable Juneau Fourth was 1889. During the firing of the salute, an old Russian cannon exploded after it had been inadvisably charged with five sticks of dynamite. A chunk of cannon pierced the roof of Young's carpenter shop, while a 40-pound chunk sailed through Strickland's carpenter shop. No one was killed.

Photographers Winter and Pond annually photographed the events. Their images include boys and girls carrying flags, a float carrying the Goddess of Liberty (c. 1917), Women of the Mooseheart Legion marching, Jack Hayes leading the Juneau Band (1924) and a Filipino Community Float (1931).

For those who wish to view more period portraits of Fourth of July in Juneau, take a gander at the W.H. Case and H.H. Draper photograph exhibit at the Alaska State Museum. Case and Draper came to Alaska at the height of the stampede to the Klondike, and for 10 years had a studio in Skagway. Later they maintained a studio in Juneau. Their images of Fourth of July include a man dressed as Uncle Sam and various athletic groups assembled to compete.

More photos can be seen in the permanent exhibit at the city museum.

Ann Chandonnet is a writer and former Juneau Empire reporter living in Juneau.

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