While contemplating the appropriate 4th of July greeting for our Alaska guests and friends, I stumbled upon a small jewel that I just had to share.
Written on Wednesday, July 29th, 2011 by Pat Roppel for the Capital City Weekly newspaper, her look back at historic Alaska July 4th celebrations brings everyone who reads it, back to a much simpler time.
I am re-printing it here for your enjoyment:
Fourth of July celebrations in Southeast history
By Pat Roppel | For the Capital City Weekly
On the Fourth of July, celebrated on the anniversary of the day we were made a nation of free men out of a colony of dependents, the people of pioneer Alaska gathered together and selected an orator to remind them that, although “God is far off and it’s a long way to Washington,” they were nonetheless patriotic. The first event of the day usually took place outdoors in the center of town. From a pole, the flag waved smartly in the wind. Usually a stand was set up, draped in red, white and blue bunting. When “the customary amount of rain was sent as a token of patriotic respect to the day,” the exercises were moved indoors, leaving the bunting colors to run “instead of being the National colors, long strips of blue greeted the eye.” (The blue in the bunting “should never be inverted. It should always be up,” one newspaper editor said.
In 1887 in Juneau, the Alaska Cornet Band played “Hail Columbia,” “Red, White and Blue,” and “America.” The assembled people sang the national anthem. The Declaration of Independence was read “in a masterly manner,” causing the reporter to write, “The grand old document never seems to grow older, and always remains fresh and new in the hearts and minds of the American people.” The orator, undoubtedly chosen for much the same reasons as today’s grand parade marshal, spoke of this day “that every loyal American loves to celebrate, for it is the day our forefathers conquered, after a long and hard struggle, the power which had oppressed them and gained for us the glorious privileges of Liberty, Equality, and Independence.”
Field races provided young and old, fat and skinny, white or Native the opportunity to compete for prizes, usually money. Ten dollars seemed to be a typical prize in 1887 for such events as running or standing long jump, backward race, hop-skip-and-jump race. The winner of the foot race took home $20, and if he was a miner this was nearly a week’s wages!
Spectators yelled themselves hoarse during the tug of war. Large purses were often awarded to the team that could pull the other team past the specified marker. In Juneau in 1895, the purse was $25. If there were 10 men, that was $2.50, not quite one day’s wages in the mine! Betting on a favorite team added to the excitement of the occasion. Some of these tugs-o’-war lasted as long as 15 minutes. In Wrangell, the competition between the loggers against the Calder marble quarry workers lasted 27 minutes! One in Chena Hot Spring lasted 30 minutes. Some committees cut the contest after a specified time when the struggle seemed to be a draw. Some teams nailed cleats to the wooden street to brace their feet against.
Canoe races were another feature of the day’s entertainment. Natives teamed up in the fastest canoes with the best paddlers to compete against each other. In Sitka in 1869, there were 13 canoes that participated in three different races. Generally up to 16 men and a helmsman were allowed. Over the years, fewer and fewer participated. Only two or three raced in Juneau in the late 1880s. Three canoes of nine men and a captain raced in Skagway in 1898. Prize money in the 1880s was about $20 for the winning canoe. By 1896-98, it was $60 in both Juneau and Skagway.
At various mines, the day was also celebrated. Black powder and blacksmith anvils took the place of fireworks and canons in many camps. Powder put between two anvils and fired made an ear splitting noise. With sufficient powder, the top anvil flew through the air and participants scattered to avoid the weighty iron’s descent.
What a glorious day! A time to whoop and holler! And if you were lucky, a chance to win prize money!
Pat Roppel, a 50-year resident of Southeast Alaska, lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org