Philadelphia’s 5 Most Disastrous Independence Days

July Fourth around here hasn't always been endless fireworks and four-and-a-half tons of Wawa hoagies.

Happy birthday, America! Tomorrow — or, really, yesterday — you will turn 237 years old. Honestly, you don’t look a day over 192.

Independence Day, of course, holds a special place in the city of Philadelphia, since 237 years ago it was the most populous (and most important) city in these United States, and each year we have our pick of multiple Independence Day celebrations. This year, the weeklong Wawa Welcome America! once again graces our fine city. It peaks with tomorrow’s lineup: A parade, a tapping of the Liberty Bell and a concert featuring The Roots, John Mayer, Ne-Yo, Jill Scott, J. Cole and others. The Stars and Stripes forever!

Fortunately, not every Independence Day has featured a concert by John Mayer. Unfortunately, though, not every Independence Day has gone quite as smoothly as we hope the concert of Mayer and friends will. Here are five great disasters in and around Independence Day in Philadelphia history.

1819: Um, This

John Lewis Kimmel painted this depiction of the Fourth of July celebrations in Philadelphia in 1819. How boring. Where are the vendors selling glowsticks and balloons of popular cartoon characters? Where are the portable toilets? And aren’t these people hot in all these clothes? Glad I wasn’t alive then.

1844: Anti-Catholic Riots

Anti-immigrant sentiment was rising in the early 1840s. This was mainly directed at Irish immigrants by Protestants born here. Although the violence that broke out in 1844 was officially against Catholics, the book Philadelphia: A 300-Year History quotes a contemporary Protestant who said the rioters “would not have known the difference between the Protestant and Catholic Bible if it had been placed in their hands.”

It started on May 7th, when 30 Irish homes were burned down by political nativists in response to Irishmen breaking up on of their meetings. The next day two Catholic churches and a seminary were destroyed, including St. Augustine’s Church at 4th and Vine. The Fourth of July parade that year was held by nativist politicians and seemed to be a call to arms: The very next day, fighting broke out in Southwark at St. Philip Neri Church on Queen Street. By the time the fighting ended on July 8th, A 300-Year History reports, 15 were killed and 50 wounded.

1926: The Sesquicentennial Celebration Flops

The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was considered a success: 10 million people attended, President Grant spoke and the public got its first taste of Hires Root Beer. City leaders decided a similar World’s Fair should be held for the nation’s 150th birthday.


As told by historian Thomas H. Keels in his wonderful Wicked Philadelphia: Sin in the City of Brotherly Love, the sesquicentennial celebration was a complete flop. Mayor W. Freeland Kendrick placed the fair in South Philadelphia, near the current site of the stadium complex, to appease Philadelphia political boss William S. Vare, the “Duke of South Philadelphia.” Few nations built pavilions, the state and federal governments didn’t provide much money, and Mayor Kendrick pushed up the fair to attract a Shriner’s convention despite construction already being behind.

Keels writes that, during construction, Mayor Kendrick “had taken to riding around the fairgrounds on a handsome white steed.” The opening ceremonies were a disaster:

In 1876, the high-powered team of President Grant and Brazilian emperor Dom Pedro had opened the centennial. In 1926, the star attractions were Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover and Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg, neither of whom was a scintillating speaker. Hoover lectured the dispirited crowd on the “national misfortune” of the “growing disrespect for the law.” Kellogg was upstaged by a black dog that ran onto the field, chased by a number of bored policemen and Boy Scouts.

While the fair continued and President Coolidge spoke at the July 4th celebration, attendance ended up being less than half that of the centennial. Some boycotted the fair unless it was closed on Sundays. The Klan wanted to march in a celebratory parade. Bonds purchased by Philadelphians to help fund the fair plummeted in value. It eventually declared bankruptcy, leaving the city even more embarrassed than usual.

All of this raises an important question: Why doesn’t Philadelphia’s mayor ride a horse around the city anymore?! C’mon, Mayor Nutter, get on it.

1976: The Mayor Promises Violence

Philadelphia was hoping the federal government would hold a brilliant celebration in this city for the country’s 200th anniversary. Unfortunately, the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission opted not for a big Philadelphia party, but simply encouraged local celebrations instead. Strike one.

Mayor Frank Rizzo — who, shockingly, seems never to have ridden a gorgeous white horse around town — said he had received an assurance from President Nixon in 1972 that Philadelphia would get $100 million in federal funds for its celebration. Nixon was out by 1974, Philadelphia didn’t get the entire $100 million, and the city was left with a reduced celebration. Strike two.

Then things got really weird.

A month before the celebration, Rizzo alleged protesters were plotting to ruin the ceremonies. “A bunch of radicals, leftists … intend to come in here in thousands from all over the country to disrupt,” he said, requesting 15,000 federal troops.

Rizzo didn’t get his troops. But he issued another ominous warning on July 3: “I hope and pray that nothing occurs, but I know this — a lot of people are coming to this town who are bent on violence.” Rizzo’s warnings must have worked, because no protesters were arrested on July 4th. Of course, the expected crowd of 70,000 for the parade was about half that. Even entire marching bands stayed home, wary of violence promised by the mayor. Strike three.

2007: Late-Night Fireworks

The 2007 Independence Day concert didn’t have the same musical vibe as this year’s, but it will likely share one trait with 2013: It was held in the rain. Hall and Oates played their hits despite the rain. Then, the city told everyone to go home at 10:45, as the fireworks were canceled.

Then they set the fireworks off 40 minutes later, in front of a crowd of virtually no one.

But, hey, at least this didn’t happen.