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How Five U.S. Communities Celebrate the 4th of July

Check out these patriotic and imaginative Independence Day events


Bring on the red, white and blue bunting, make way for the floats, strike up the bands and get ready to “ooh” and “aah” at the fireworks on the 4th of July as we celebrate our country’s 243rd birthday.

In 1777, on the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, citizens of Philadelphia marked July 4 with fireworks. John Adams gets credit for that. A year earlier, Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, suggesting that independence ought to be celebrated and commemorated with “bells, bonfires, and illuminations.”

Today, the American Pyrotechnics Association reports that about 25.4 million tons of fireworks are consumed across the U.S. in public displays.

In small towns and big cities alike, here are five communities that come together, with fireworks and more, for this annual summertime celebration:

Midnight Parade in Gatlinburg, Tenn.Credit: Courtesy of Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau
Midnight Parade in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

1. Midnight Parade in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

This annual parade in Gatlinburg, Tenn., about 35 miles southeast of Knoxville, will start at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, July 4 and wind through the city’s downtown.

Will anyone be awake to see it?

“The turnout fluctuates year to year, between forty thousand and fifty thousand people,” says Marci Claude, public relations manager for the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Our year-round population is about thirty nine hundred, but in the summer we get so many visitors. National Geographic’s Traveler magazine has named our parade one of the top ten to see in the U.S.,” she adds.

Local paradegoers set out lawn chairs along the route three days in advance and most dress up for the parade, which debuted in 1976. “Little kids are in pajamas, but the adults go all out with red, white and blue shirts and hats and outfits with blinking lights,” Claude says. The mile-long parade features floats from community attractions, local businesses, car clubs and marching bands; Santa Claus makes an appearance at the end.

“No matter where you watch from, it’s a passionately patriotic display, and it’s just beautiful.”

In spite of the late night, crowds gather again at 10 a.m. for the river raft regatta. That evening, a military band presents a music concert, which is followed by a fireworks display choreographed to Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”

Fireworks on the 4th of July in San DiegoCredit: San Diego Tourism Authority
Fireworks on the 4th of July in San Diego

2. Synchronized Fireworks Displays in San Diego

Fireworks are big — really big — in San Diego, where the annual Big Bay Boom features synchronized displays set off in four locations.

“We think it’s the biggest fireworks display on the West Coast, and half a million people may show up,” says Robert Arends, public relations manager for the San Diego Tourism Authority. The show lasts 20 minutes and costs about $500,000 to put on.

The Port of San Diego funds over a quarter of the cost, Arends notes, with the rest coming from corporate sponsorships and city and county government agencies. The event brings in about $10.6 million and many of the area’s 110,700 active duty military personnel and their families benefit from that.

“Last year, the San Diego Armed Forces YMCA received $82,000 from the 2018 Big Bay Boom,” says Arends.

4th of July fireworks in New OrleansCredit: Gulf Coast Air Photo/Patrick M. Quigley
4th of July fireworks in New Orleans

3. ‘A Passionately Patriotic Display’ in New Orleans

The American Pyrotechnics Association ranks New Orleans’ “Go Fourth on the River” fireworks display as one of the top five in the country, and the event is purely a community project.

“After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it was clear that city money couldn’t go to a fireworks display, so the Riverfront Marketing Group formed a nonprofit organization to produce the event,” says Debbie Bresler, coordinator. “Community businesses and our other true-blue sponsors, many of them along the riverfront, now make it happen.”

The 20-minute show starts at 9 p.m., and the fireworks can be seen from both banks of the historic New Orleans riverfront or aboard a riverboat.

“No matter where you watch from, it’s a passionately patriotic display, and it’s just beautiful,” Bresler says. “I always tell people to bring a big box of tissues, because usually everybody is in tears by the end.”

Frog racing at the annual Tom Sawyer Days festival in Hannibal, Mo.Credit: Hannibal Convention and Visitors Bureau
Frog racing at the annual Tom Sawyer Days festival in Hannibal, Mo.

4. Fence-painting, Mud Volleyball and Lots of Contests in Hannibal, Mo.

In Hannibal, another iconic town on the Mississippi River, a fireworks display is a big part of the July 4 holiday, but residents and tourists also attend the annual Tom Sawyer Days festival (Hannibal is Mark Twain’s hometown). Events include a fence-painting contest, frog jumping contest, a Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher contest, a parade and a mud volleyball tournament.

These events and more are sponsored by the Jaycees, the Hannibal Business and Professional Women, service agencies and other local nonprofits in this town of about 18,000 people.

“Thousands come out for Tom Sawyer Days,” says Megan Rapp, assistant director of the Hannibal Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s the biggest event of the year for Hannibal.”

Cardboard boat racingCredit: Courtesy of Port of Bandon
Cardboard Boat Races on the River in Bandon, Ore.

5. Cardboard Boat Races on the River in Bandon, Ore.

An unusual event is scheduled for Independence Day in Bandon, Ore., on the south coast of the state, where a Cardboard Boat Regatta Race takes place on the Coquille River.

Boaters in their cardboard vessels paddle out to a buoy, go around it and head back to the boat launch. Kids 10 and older and adults may take part, in separate categories. The hand-crafted boats must meet rigid specifications, and all participants must wear personal flotation devices to ensure everybody stays safe.

“Last year we had ten participants, but we have had as many as fifteen in the past,” says Josh Adamson, project manager for the Port of Bandon, which oversees the event. “The crowd, of course, is much bigger.” Bandon has a population of about 4,000.

The race takes place from 3 to 5 p.m., after the parade and the Lions Club barbecue, and before the gathering for apple pie and ice cream, the “After-Five Wine Walk,” the live music concert and the fireworks display.

Prizes are given in three categories for each age group. The Pride of the Regatta Award, judged by Coast Guard members stationed in Bandon for the summer, honors the best use of corrugated cardboard. The Vogue Award goes to the most attractive boat.

The third category is the Titanic Award. “That’s for the person who sinks the best,” says Adamson.

By Patricia Corrigan
Patricia Corrigan is a professional journalist, with decades of experience as a reporter and columnist at a metropolitan daily newspaper, and a book author. She now enjoys a lively freelance career, writing for numerous print and on-line publications. Read more from Patricia on her blog.

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