In the mid-1970s, with the scars of the Tropical Storm Agnes flooding still fresh on Wyoming Valley’s landscape, Owen Costello and the Wilkes-Barre Recreation Board came up with an idea to pick up the community’s spirits.
“We thought it would be great to do something for the Fourth of July,” Costello said. “We would invite people to come out to the park and enjoy an old-fashioned Fourth, with carnival rides and fireworks and everything.”
So it was that the annual Independence Day extravaganza began. Annually it draws a crowd rivaling that of a major college football game to Kirby Park. Countless thousands sit on the slopes of the levee or down in the park itself on blankets, eating picnic lunches or food from vendors, waving sparklers, taking the kids on carnival rides and enjoying a concert by the Northeastern Philharmonic – topped off, of course, by a thunderous pyrotechnic display.
The festivities are scheduled to open at noon Friday, with the concert at 7 p.m. and the fireworks going off shortly after darkness sets in.
The road to our Kirby Park spectacular, though, was long and full of twists and turns – and an unfortunate amount of human agony.
Wyoming Valley’s earliest Independence Day celebrations were more a communal picnic than colorful explosions followed by choruses of oohs and aaahs.
At an 1811 event organized by young men at Harveys Lake, food was the draw, said the Smith-Harvey history. “A table was spread beneath the branches of the forest, and it was laden with wild game from the surrounding highlands and fish from the clear waters of the lake.”
In 1827 the people of Wilkes-Barre bedecked Public Square with an arbor and liberty pole, reported “The Historical Record.” Prayers were said, the Declaration of Independence was read and tables full of food were “supplied by the patriotic ladies of the neighborhood.”
By the late 1800s, thanks to Americans’ increasing ability to create explosions, things had begun to shift to a louder and more familiar (to us) type of Fourth.
Independence Day of 1898 in Wilkes-Barre saw a “parade in the morning and fine display of fireworks in the evening witnessed by 30,000 people,” reported the “Wilkes-Barre Record” newspaper.
With the growing use of fireworks by individuals, however, came growing danger. Just a year later, reported the Record, “Albert Shultz (was) killed by a small cannon at Edwardsville and many others more or less seriously injured in the city and vicinity while celebrating.”
The year 1906 was particularly deadly, with six local boys dying when they set off some dynamite in a pipe at Newport Township. By this time injuries had become so common that one year the Record dismissed the carnage as just “the usual number of accidents.”
Alarmed, community leaders took action. In 1911 Wilkes-Barre passed its first fireworks control law, banning the sale of all but sparklers and small firecrackers. Two years later a community event featured a parade in the morning and an afternoon of historical tableaux and music at Riverside Park.
Said an obviously relieved ”Wilkes-Barre Board of Trade Journal,” “The smell of powder and the bang of the firecracker on July 4th are fast becoming obsolete.”
The Journal spoke too soon. In 1920, the Record reported, “Six boys and girls were fatally burned from sparklers,” including a 5-year-old and a 6-year-old.
A major move toward safety came in the 1920s when the city of Wilkes-Barre began organizing public fireworks displays at the then-new Kirby Park. After one particularly bloody year, when an estimated 100 people were injured in Fourth of July blasts, in 1933 the city tightened its anti-fireworks law, banning all sale and discharge of explosive devices.
Not quite everyone thought patriotism and explosions had to go side-by-side. By early 20th century newly arrived ethnic groups were celebrating Fourth of July with parties and picnics at amusement parks, demonstrating their integration into America with “Lithuanian Day” or “Slovak Day” or similar titles.
Through most of the 20th century, though, Independence Day celebrations were sporadic and varied, with individual communities scheduling festivities and lighting up the night sky.
If there was ever a time when the spirits of Wyoming Valley people needed a lift, it was in the months and years following the Agnes disaster. In June 1972 the Susquehanna River overtopped the levee system, inundating protected and unprotected areas alike, destroying buildings and roads and bringing commerce – no less than everyday life – to a standstill.
Even the recovery depressed spirits, with buildings being torn down and thousands of people having to move or make other life-changing adjustments.
Enter Owen Costello and the city Recreation Board, which he headed. In the mid-1970s, the first modern Fourth of July event was held at Kirby Park.
“We got so many calls about what a great time everyone had and they wanted us to continue it,” he said. “Then a few years later Martz (bus company) got involved and they picked up the cost of the Northeastern Philharmonic. It just took off.”
Costello spearheaded additional events, such as the Great American Race road rally for antique automobiles, which drew national attention to Wilkes-Barre.
“We were doing a lot of things. That’s when we started the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the Farmers Market. I’m thrilled that that’s all kept going.”