Celebrating the Fourth of July in Los Angeles, 1892

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This Independence Day takes on particularly poignant and powerful meanings as the values embodied in colonial America’s war of independence against the British Empire continue to be both an inspiration and a challenge to Americans—an inspiration because of the vital expression such essential goals of freedom, the pursuit of happiness and equality, but a challenge because, too often, there are many ways in which, while making slow and general progress, we still fall far too short of those aims.

In this light, the examination of today’s highlighted object from the museum’s holdings, a Fourth of July program from Los Angeles in 1892, is viewed with that thought in mind.  How far had the nation come in realizing these ambitions and how much remained to be done and then what has transpired in the last 128 years?

Los Angeles Express, 5 July 1892.

That year was also the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus and his crew sailing under the flag of the kingdom of Spain (which, it should be added, also engaged in a mass expulsion and forced conversion of Jews in its domain that year) in the so-called “New World.”

Americans engaged in year-long celebrations of the Italian navigator’s “discovery” of what was soon called America, though conspicuously absent in the festivities were the viewpoints of the remaining indigenous people of the continent, whose numbers were radically reduced by ruthless wars conducted by the Army and attacks by whites seizing more land from the native people.

This and other images below are of the “official programme” for the City of Los Angeles’ Fourth of July festivities in 1892, including a downtown parade, literary exercises at Hazard’s Pavilion, owned by the mayor (and presumably made available by him free of charge to the city!), and a fireworks show at Westlake (now MacArthur) Park.

Also generally not part of these events were people of color, be they Blacks, Asians or Latinos, all of whom were denied the participation in the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the resulting Bill of Rights, Constitution, and legal and political decisions of the preceding 116 years.

In Los Angeles, 1892 came a few years after the region’s largest growth period to date, the Boom of the Eighties, which peaked in 1887 and 1888 during the mayoralty of William Henry Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman.  As booms go bust, of course, economies suffer and the Nineties as a whole, while there was some growth in the area, included a national depression that came in 1893 and several years of local drought that had heavy impacts on farmers and ranchers.


Still, the region’s residents had a range of parades, pageants and festivals to keep them in a broadly-minded civic spirit, including the newly launched Tournament of Roses in Pasadena, founded in 1890, and a flower festival that, in 1894, morphed into La Fiesta de las Flores and then La Fiesta de Los Angeles, which, for about a quarter of century, had a thin veneer of the pre-American past over what was a celebration of commerce, tourism and local development almost exclusively involving white elites.

These events might include a contingent of mounted Californios or the Chinese dragon, but such displays were ephemeral and the overwhelming emphasis was on the development of the city and region wrought by Anglos, even as some of the most successful commercial figures in Los Angeles were Jews, who were more integrated with the elites, but were always viewed as the “other” because of religious and cultural differences with the majority.

Los Angeles Herald, 5 July 1892.

This “official programme” provides information on the festivities, which began at 9 a.m. with a formation on Main Street, south of Fourth.  There were seven divisions, the first headed by Los Angeles Police Department Chief John M. Glass with a cadre of mounted and marching officers, a military band, and grand marshal Daniel M. McGarry.

He was a Chicago coal dealer who moved to Los Angeles in 1881 and owned a vineyard which was subdivided during the boom, upon which he became a developer and business figure, as well as a city council member, including in 1892.  McGarry also had a large “staff” including many military figures and prominent citizens, one of which was [Andrew] Boyle Workman, son of the former mayor and who later became a prominent politician, including, for much of the 1920s, president of the city council.   Only one of the names on the list of staff was non-white, this being J.C. Fernandez, who, however, was from Santa Barbara.


The second division was comprised of the U.S. Army’s 7th Infantry Regiment, formed as a battalion in 1885 and becoming a regiment five years later.  It was based in Los Angeles and is now the 160th Infantry Regiment, with its garrison and headquarters in Inglewood.  Its drum and bugle corps and light battery were included in the parade and the regiment was accompanied by the “Whittier Cadets,” these likely being from the recently opened state reform school, which opened in July 1891, became the Whittier State School two years later, and was long known as the Fred C. Nelles School.  The facility closed in 2004 and most of the property is now under development.

In the third division was the mayor, Henry T. Hazard, the City Council, the county Board of Supervisors, federal officials, foreign consuls and others representatives, and visiting officials and guests.  Hazard, a renowned orator in Los Angeles, was a Mormon migrant as a child to San Bernardino who became a lawyer, land developer, member of the state assembly, and builder of Hazard’s Pavilion, a prominent entertainment venue in the city.  During the horrific Chinese Massacre of October 1871, the young attorney was in a barber’s chair when he ran out and jumped on a barrel to try and stop the rioting and lynching of Chinese, though he was pulled down by friends after threats of violence against him.


The fourth division included children from the city’s schools; “continentals,” which meant representatives from European countries; members of the Sons of Veterans of the United States of America, now the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War; and members of the Grand Army of the Republic, another Union Army veterans organization and which has been succeeded by the Sons of Union Veterans group.

During the war, southern California was, in fact, a stronghold of Confederate sympathizers, but, with the Boom of the 1880s, there was a major influx of migrants from the Midwest and Northeast.  Presumably, attendance at the event by veterans was aided by the opening in 1888 of the Pacific Branch of the National Home for Disabled Veteran Soldiers in the Sawtelle area near Santa Monica.

Los Angeles Times, 5 July 1892.

Comprising the fifth division was the Los Angeles Fire Department, including seven engine companies, a hose company, two chemical companies, and a hook and ladder company.  Among the men listed among these were just a few of color, including Latinos J. Sepulveda of Engine Company #1 and F. Valencia of Engine Company #6 and the first black firefighter in the department, Sam Haskins, who was with Engine Company #4.

The sixth division was composed entirely of a “trades display,” including vehicles representing a wide array of business types in Los Angeles, including plumbing; sign painting; furniture; clothing, shoes and the like; bakeries; stable keeping; butcheries; and even the Hunter Brothers Texas tamale company, which made “this mysterious repast of the fly-by-night individuals,” whatever that meant (itinerant laborers, perhaps?).


Finally, there was a seventh division featuring “a cavalcade of horsemen” and carriages and this seemed to be something of a loose conglomeration of locals taking up the rear of the procession, which went north on Main to the Plaza, went round that square, returned down to Main and, at the junction of that thoroughfare with Temple and Spring, the parade followed the latter to Fifth Street, turned right or west to Broadway and then went north to City Hall, on the east side between 2nd and 3rd, where the parade ended.

At 1 p.m., there was an event at Hazard’s Pavilion, decked out, of course, with all manner of red, white and blue bunting, ropes and tissue paper, a panoply of flags and, notably, a massive Japanese lantern (exotic “Oriental” objects were in fashion for some despite the blatant anti-Asian sentiments and actions of the era.)  Note that the second page of the program instructed that “no ladies, except those taking part in the exercises, will be admitted to the stage.”


Interestingly, there were some 400 children from city public schools expected to attend and sing patriotic songs, but barely a tenth of them showed up and just 1% sang in tune to the direction of a conductor, leading the Los Angeles Times to muse “it is not exactly in accordance with young America’s idea of patriotism to go to a big meeting, sit quietly on a platform of graduated seats and carol ‘Columbia,’ ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ or ‘America’  Rather, the paper continued,

He [why not she?] prefers to express his love of home and native land by exploding bombs, shooting fire crackers, eating peanuts and candy and hurrahing for the glorious Fourth.

Dignitaries, including Mayor Hazard and State Senator Reginaldo del Valle, took to the stage for speeches, an invocation, a reading of the Declaration of Independence, the singing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” by the quartet of children and the main oration.


In the evening, some 15,000 persons flocked to Westlake (now MacArthur) Park, which was established a half-dozen years earlier, for a fireworks show, said to be the best ever held in Los Angeles.  It was approvingly noted by the Times that there were few drunkards and that the crowd was properly well-behaved.  Of course, the paper added that the majority of attendees were, in fact, women and children (perhaps a good many of the men were in the city’s saloons and bars?)

The lake was bordered with a variety of themed decorations and Chinese lanterns (another touch of the exotic), while there was a timely political “set piece” consisting of fireworks portraits of Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland, the Republican and Democratic candidates for the presidential election held in November and which Harrison, the incumbent, lost to Cleveland, who was the incumbent bested by Harrison four years prior.  Other pyrotechnic imagery included those of the Roman god Neptune, of Niagra Falls, a “naval spectacle” battle simulation and other striking representations.  Fire Engine #5 provided a surprise with a red, white and blue colored water display through its hoses positioned in the center of the lake.

Note the ad for S. Akita’s store Yamato.

Other events during the day included banquets for the Whittier reform school cadets at a Los Angeles church and Grand Marshal McGarry’s dinner at Jerry Illich’s, a longtime popular restaurant for the city’s political and business luminaries.  Also mentioned by the Times were red, white and blue signal fires set burning on Mt. Wilson and which “were greatly admired by the people in Los Angeles who were so fortunately situated as to see them, even at a distance of eighteen miles.”

Quite a few Angelenos decamped to Santa Catalina Island, including members of the Knights Templar masonic fraternity, while the Los Angeles Wheelmen (presumably no lady would or would be allowed to participate in such an affair) had its second annual road race from the Los Angeles Athletic Club on Spring Street to Santa Monica, including some rough roads on the way westward to the finish line at Third Street and Utah Avenue, now Broadway, at the beach city.


After about an hour and ten minutes, the winner, H.B. Cromwell, who had a three-minute handicap, reached the finish line first, but was overcome with exhaustion and was carried to the Hotel Arcadia, where most of the twenty-six riders and others associated with the contest had a banquet, to recover.  F. Waller, an Oakland racer, however, beat his time by about nine seconds, while finishing seventh.  While the remainder of the competitors enjoyed the beach or headed home, Waller, it was reported, immediately left Santa Monica for Los Angeles and then Riverside for another series of races.

Looking back nearly 130 years to Independence Day celebrations in Los Angeles, there is the obvious and stark contrast to the circumstances of our Fourth of July with our COVID-19 pandemic conditions.  What was an almost completely Anglo series of events, as embodied in the program and in media coverage, in 1892 is juxtaposed with the realities and anxieties of 2020, specifically our confrontation of what American freedoms, liberties and opportunities as embodied in our founding documents and events mean in our ongoing self-examination of race and ethnicity, inclusion, equity and other elements.

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