July 4th In Boston: Fireworks by the Charles River

In 1783, July 4th officially replaced March 5th, the date of the Boston Massacre, as the national Independence Day in the U.S. However, Boston did not celebrate the Fourth of July on any grand scale until after 1973. Since 1929, the Boston Pops Orchestra, conducted by Arthur Fiedler, had held a series of concerts at the Hatch Memorial Shell on the Esplanade. In an effort to revive the city’s lagging interest in what had become lackluster entertainment, David Mugar, a businessman, and Fiedler decided it was time to make some changes. With the stirring sounds of church bells, cannons, fireworks, and the music of Sousa and Tschaikovsky echoing from the Esplanade across the Charles River, the 4th of July became a celebration where, in Fiedler’s words, “all hell broke loose.”

The morning of July 4th in Boston begins with the traditional flag raising ceremony at City Hall Plaza and a visit to the Old Granary Burial Ground where wreaths are laid on the graves of the patriots. At noon, a 21-gun salute is fired to the nation from the USS Constitution in the Charleston Navy Ship Yard, followed by a 12-gun salute to the Massachusetts Commonwealth.

Crowds of people begin to arrive shortly after 9:00 a.m. at the three-mile Esplanade along the banks of the Charles River. Concertgoers gather on the grass pavilion of the outdoor concert hall at the Hatch Memorial Shell, where the 85-member Boston Pops Orchestra performs. In addition to the medley of classical and Independence Day music by the Boston Pops, various musicians and vocalists add their talent to the extravaganza that begins around 8:00 p.m. Fighter pilots from various fighter squadrons and wings in the U.S. fly over the scene immediately following the Star Spangled Banner, while the USS John F. Kennedy sails into the Boston Harbor. This event is also celebrated on the Cambridge side of the Charles River through nine stereo towers set in place between Massachusetts Avenue and the Longfellow Bridge to deliver the stirring sounds to those viewers.

There are other traditional events held in conjunction with Boston’s 4th of July celebration that bring thousands of visitors to the city at this time each year. The Harborfest, a seven-day festival beginning on June 28th, is a full week of activities dedicated to the colonial and maritime history of Boston with noontime concerts, live entertainment, and tours of places of interest. The largest patriotic celebration in the U.S., with over 200 events planned for downtown and along the waterfront, opens at Faneuil Hall Marketplace, a Boston landmark. After the opening ceremony, tourists have the opportunity to take a walk along the Freedom Trail, with its 16 historical sites, enjoy a nostalgic trip through the John F. Kennedy Museum, take part in a colonial reenactment at the Old South Meeting House, or visit the USS Constitution, for a bit of maritime history. Although some of the historical sites have admission fees, many of these events are free.

Some of the main events at City Hall Plaza include Children’s Day and the Chowderfest, another tradition of Boston’s 4th of July. From 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., usually on the 3rd of July, the top restaurant chefs in Boston compete to win the clam chowder contest. More than 2,000 gallons of chowder are served to several thousand people who sample and place their votes in ballot boxes around the plaza. Tickets are $7.00 for adults and $5.00 for under 13.

Boston’s Fourth of July celebration ends with a 23-minute fireworks display at 10:30 p.m., launched from stationary barges on the Charles River. With over 10,000 fireworks devices set off by more than eight tons of explosives, the largest shell reaching twice the height of the John Hancock Tower, this well-planned display is one of the most spectacular in the U.S.

Admission is free to the Esplanade; wristbands confirm entry. No parking, except limited handicap spaces, is available and public transportation is encouraged. No reservations or seating arrangements, so it’s best to come early and bring your own chair or blanket.

It is estimated that well over 500,000 people attend Boston’s 4th of July Esplanade celebration each year, with thousands more taking part in the other festivities, and the rest of the nation viewing the celebration on national television.

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