‘The city was thronged with people, fully 6,000 strangers mingling with the townspeople in one of the most glorious occasions our city has ever known on the Fourth of July. The early train from the south brought hundreds from Santa Maria, Nipomo and Arroyo Grande and the excursion train came a little later on loaded down with humanity from those towns. From the country roundabout everybody came.”
The weather predictions suggest that Monday will mark another wonderful Fourth of July in America’s “happiest” city. But the celebration in downtown San Luis Obispo 112 years ago was a truly memorable event.
The Tribune reported on July 6, 1899, that the Pacific Coast Railway had put on a special excursion train to bring families from as far away as the Santa Ynez Valley into the regional center of the Central Coast.
Before the era of automobiles and highways, the population of San Luis Obispo was more than doubled for the event.
“There was no hitch. The decorations of the business houses and residences were a delightful feature and gave rest to the eye. And again the visitors noted their satisfaction over the efforts of the committee in having numerous long benches placed along the business streets.”
The day began with the firing of “Old Abe,” a Civil War-era cannon now preserved in the veterans section of the Odd Fellows Cemetery. The paper euphemistically labeled the dawn awakening in patriotic language:
“At sunrise, a national salute awakened the town and then the big celebration was on. The small boy and the firecracker and the Dewey torpedo and all the din of such a day held full sway from one corner to another.”
The “Dewey torpedoes” were fireworks considerably louder than the Piccolo Petes that we are familiar with today. They commemorated Commodore George Dewey, commander of the American squadron May 1, 1898, at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War.
Dewey’s ships entered Manila Bay and took heavy fire from the Spanish fleet anchored under the shore batteries at Cavite for half an hour until he was in the best position. Then Dewey gave the order to Charles Gridley, captain of his flagship, the USS Olympia: “You may fire when ready, Gridley.”
The main event of the day was the balloon ascension.
The Tribune reported that the ascension “was a magnificent success. “Prof. Vosmer did more than most aeronauts do; he went up promptly on time. It was a beautiful sight to see the big canvas of hot air with the parachute contrivance and Vosmer dangling at the end, shoot heavenward. Up and up it went for fully 3,000 feet and then the parachute was released and opened out like some huge flower. (later) Vosmer alighted in the rear of the Mission.”
The balloon ascended from what was then a vacant lot at the corner of Chorro and Higuera, now occupied by the beautifully restored Johnson Building that houses Avanti and the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce.
Of course, there was music and a patriotic speech. In 1899, the winning group in the music competition was a bit unique, even for an “up-to-date city” such as San Luis Obispo.
“One of the last numbers on the program was ‘the growlers,’ who turned out in procession in grotesque attire and masked faces that would stop a clock. They had a band that outclassed ‘all others’ and finally wound up at the corner of Chorro and Higuera streets where the orator of the day, Hon. Will Lye, of Los Osos, ‘spouted’ to the multitude.”
You can read the complete microfiched files of the Tribune at the San Luis Obispo City-County Library, or access edited excerpts for the period from 1896 to 1899 done more than a dozen years ago by Wilmar N. Tognazzini for his former “One Hundred Years Ago” column in this paper at http://wntog.tripod.com.