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From Riverfront Celebrations to Mountaintop Spectacles: Riverside's Evolving Fourth of July

From humble beginnings with small fireworks and paper balloons to today's grand spectacles, Riverside's Fourth of July traditions have evolved, with Mount Rubidoux set to host another unforgettable fireworks display.

Fireworks launching on Mount Rubidoux (Courtesy of Dr. Bob Sirotnik)

Riverside will celebrate another Fourth of July today, and once again, a spectacular fireworks show will launch from the top of Mount Rubidoux. After a two-year absence from the mountain, the city council voted to return the iconic show to the top so that people throughout many neighborhoods in Riverside and the surrounding area can view the show.

For almost every year since 1964, the colorful show has been performed from the top of Mount Rubidoux, but the show has also been in other locations through the years.

James Boyd, one of the early pioneers of Riverside and an early historian, wrote about the first Fourth of July celebration in 1873, just three years after the city was founded. John W. North was the chairman of the committee which planned the event, which was held down by the river near present-day Fairmount Park. However, there were no fireworks that year.

Program for Fourth of July 1873. (Courtesy of the Riverside Main Library – Local History Archives)

By 1880 Riversiders gathered to watch a small stock of fireworks and two paper balloons sent up into the sky. One of the balloons was sponsored by Frank Miller and was inscribed “Blue Front Store, Frank Miller, Proprietor.” Miller, at that time, ran the Blue Front Store, a grocery store on Main Street. By 1886 the fireworks show downtown was described as “a battle ground, and the firing of bombs and crackers on the sidewalk, crowded with women and children, was a very reckless and dangerous proceeding.”

By the early 1900s, the city of Riverside had more organized events and fireworks shows. Many of the activities, such as races, speeches, food, and music, were usually held at Fairmount Park. However, in 1902, the fireworks show and other activities were at Chemawa Park. Chemawa Park, located at the present site of Chemawa Middle School, was built and managed by the owners of the Riverside and Arlington Electric Railway. The manager for both the rail line and the park was Frank Miller.

Advertisement for Fourth of July 1902 in Chemawa Park. (Author’s Collection)

In 1903 a firework show was set off from Mt. Rubidoux, but not from the top. Rather the site for the fireworks was the lower knoll which had been the site for the failed Hotel Rubidoux. In 1905 there were fireworks at both Fairmount Park and Chemawa Park. At Chemawa, the Japanese set off their fireworks at one end of the park and the Americans at the other end. It was reported that the Japanese won the prize for the best display.

Quarry Hill, overlooking Fairmount Park, was the location for the 1906 show. The event ended suddenly with a spectacular show as a box of the remaining fireworks was ignited and went off in a whirlwind finish. An estimated five thousand people visited Fairmount Park on the Fourth of July. An interesting ad for Geo. A. Kingman Insurance Company appeared on July 3, 1906, declaring: “Get an insurance policy before the small boy burns your house with his fireworks.”

The crowd at Fairmount was even greater in 1912, as an estimated attendance was between 8,000 and 10,000 people. There occurred various burning of colored fires on the water and spectacular displays of rockets in the sky that entertained the crowds.

Fireworks over Fairmount Lake in Fairmount Park in 1912. (Courtesy of the Riverside Main Library – Local History Archives)

The Riverside Military Band planned and led many of the activities for the 1914 Fourth of July Celebrations. As seen in their program booklet, there were concerts on Main Street in the morning and at Fairmount Park in the afternoon and in the evening. In between, there were races, a baseball game, water fights between the Riverside and Arling fire departments, and ended with fireworks over the lake. The second prize for the baseball game was a box of cigars.

Riverside Military Band. (Author’s Collection)

The firework show moved very slightly in 1924. On July 4 of that year, the newly dug and filled Lake Evans was dedicated. The program started in the morning and continued through the water pageant and fireworks over Lake Evans later in the evening. This show was declared to be the best celebration in the history of Riverside.

Fireworks at Fairmount Park (Courtesy of the Museum of Riverside)

From 1933 through 1935, Riverside did not have any fireworks shows in the city. In the interest of the economy during those Depression years, the city council dispensed with the cost of the shows. There was an opportunity in 1935 for Riversiders to shoot off their own fireworks. Under the cooperation of the Riverside American Legion Post and Roman Warren, manager of the Riverside Airport, a safe place at the airport was provided. The American Legion sold fireworks as a fundraiser, the airport provided an open space, and the state district ranger stationed a fire truck at the airport for fire protection.

The fireworks returned to Fairmount Park for the July 4th celebration in 1936 with elaborate displays and shootings. Viewers were reminded of the unique view across the mirror-like waters of Lake Evans. A sixty-foot pole was erected for the climatic streaming tongues of fire cascading down to replicated Niagara Falls.

By the 1960s, the number of people swarming Fairmount Park for daytime activities and nighttime fireworks was huge. In 1964 the Park and Recreation Department decided to move the fireworks to the top of Mount Rubidoux to try to alleviate the traffic congestion at Fairmount Park following the fireworks show. The show from the top of the mountain would also allow more people in the surrounding area to see the fireworks, even from their own homes. It was predicted that, in some ways, the view from a little further away from the base of the mountain might be even better.

Fireworks launching on Mount Rubidoux (Courtesy of Dr. Bob Sirotnik)

In 1964 the La Sierra Lions Club started an Old Fashioned Fourth of July Celebration at La Sierra Park with activities and ending with a fireworks display. Today the Riverside Parks and Recreation Department continues that practice with a show also from La Sierra Park.

And from Mount Rubidoux, the 2023 Fourth of July Fireworks will once more spectacularly be seen. Hope you enjoy the show; I plan on watching the show from my own front yard.