How Medford celebrated the first big blast

    How Medford celebrated the first big blast

    Just moments after sunrise, cannon blasts ripped through the peaceful morning and echoed off Roxy Ann Peak.

    To still-drowsy minds, the crack of gunshots and rapid snaps of firecracker strings announced that the "big day" had finally arrived, and the promise of "enough noise to wake up every native on every island in the Pacific Ocean" was easily met.

    It was the beginning of "The Grand Celebration — the 108th Anniversary of American Independence," and something new: Medford's very first Fourth of July celebration, 1884.

    Medford's original flier had announced there would be 39 cannon blasts, each honoring a state in the Union. Luckily, just before sunrise, someone realized that there were only 38 states and the salute was adjusted accordingly.

    For more than 30 years, Rogue Valley residents in surrounding towns had enjoyed a well-established celebration routine of parades, picnics, patriotic speeches, food and games, but this festive summer day would be completely different.

    In April, the Oregon and California Railroad had reached as far south as Ashland. For the first time, a person could travel to Portland in less than a day and go as far as New York City in a week.

    To a newspaper editor who was accustomed to stagecoach rides, "This seems like traveling by telegraph. We are finally connected to the rest of the world."

    Along with the railroad had come the new town of Medford. In just six months, two saloons and a horse stable alongside the tracks had grown into houses, stores and more than 400 people.

    Though there would be celebrations in Jacksonville and Ashland, Medford was promising the largest event ever seen in the valley. Most people were curious about this new town and quickly abandoned their hometown festivities.

    When the Ashland city fathers refused to pay their own Ashland Silver Cornet Band $125 for a Fourth of July performance, the music makers left town and headed for Medford instead.

    Discounted train fares lured riders from Grants Pass to Ashland onto railroad excursion cars. Whistle shrieks and puffing steam were irresistible to people who had never even seen a train, and soon everyone's amusement ride of choice was jammed to capacity.

    Three thousand visitors, dressed in their Sunday best, found relief under oak trees in the city's makeshift park.

    By 10:30 the morning fun and games were over, and the band began to play.

    The glee club sang "America," and Professor Williamson, Medford's only schoolteacher, read the Declaration of Independence. Twenty-nine-year-old judge Lionel Webster delivered the featured speech — "a long and eloquent oration, full of patriotism and holding the audience breathless."

    Food, fireworks and frolicking ended with a late night of dancing in the town's new brick hotel.

    Celebrations in Ashland and Jacksonville had flopped. No one could ignore Medford's very first BOOM! The curious had ridden a train for the first time and seen a town that would never be new again. With curiosity satisfied, they went home to a brand new world.

    Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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