Telluride’s Fourth of July is likely one of the oldest summer traditions around, and though it has changed through the years, it’s still one of the town’s premier summertime events.
Alongside the parade and Town Park barbecue, there are fireworks and festivities all over town. But the tradition of July 4 in Telluride goes back to the town’s earliest days. Historic photos from the early 20th century show brass bands and horse-drawn floats heading down a packed Colorado Avenue. And as the town grew, other events started to take shape, including tug-of-wars and mining-inspired events such as drilling and ore-loading contests that continued for decades. Though the drilling and tug-of-wars might be gone, Telluride’s annual patriotic celebration is still full of activity with big crowds and plenty of good times.
Since Telluride’s founding in the late 1800s there had always been some sort of July 4 celebration, and by the 1950s and ’60s it continued to be popular, with crowds from all over the region and the state coming to enjoy the holiday in the mountains. Each year, the day started with a blast of dynamite (said to be set off by the mythical, mischievous, underground-dwelling Tommyknockers) to wake up the town, followed by the parade and events. Six-man teams competed to best each other in fierce tug-of-wars on Colorado Avenue with other post-parade games including pie-eating contests and egg tosses.
Up until the 1970s the marshals and sheriff looked the other way on gambling and public drinking for the day and there were even military jet flyovers. And just as now, the Telluride Fire Department’s Town Park barbecue and fireworks show were anticipated annual traditions, but things used to be more rowdy.
“Fourth of July in Telluride in the late ‘60s; there was lots of drinking, lots of Black Jack and quite a bit of fighting,” said George Greenbank who said his first July 4 in Telluride was in 1959.
But by the early 1970s the town was in the middle of a transition away from decades of mining culture into a ski resort and full-time tourist destination. With the transition came more people and new ideas which in turn led to a near cancelation of the July 4 celebrations in 1973 and a full cancelation in 1976.
By 1971 the Telluride Times is filled with stories describing how an influx of young “newcomers” was quickly becoming a large segment of the town’s overall population. Stories and letters to the editor illustrate a stark contrast of sensibilities between the long-haired newcomers to that of the old timers, which in 1971 and ’72 spilled over into July 4 celebrations.
According to Times reports, the Fourth of July in 1971 was the biggest ever in Telluride up to that point. That year around 5,000 people are thought to have come to town, and around 1,900 were served at the then City Park barbecue. But with the crowds that year, longtime-residents were becoming frustrated with the increasingly rowdy behavior and the mess left behind.
Greenbank said part of the issue was that different motorcycle gangs who had been coming to town for years were starting to show up in greater numbers.
A week after July 4, 1971 the Times reported the long tradition of July 4 gambling had come to an end that year and only one man was arrested for selling marijuana. The article goes on to describe several “hippy types” who were seen cleaning up trash the next day in Town Park, and only a few injuries were reported.
But in 1972 things took a turn for the worse, and news reports say several people were injured in various accidents around town and garbage, along with crowd problems, had gotten close to out of control. As a result many of the town’s traditional events were canceled a year later.
In June of 1973 the Times reported “never again” was on the minds of many residents, and the Telluride Fire Department and other sponsors decided to cancel most of their events except for the fireworks show. With none of the traditional festivities, not even the parade, taking place, a group of 50 citizens, most of them newcomers, came together to form a committee to organize events for the holiday, which in part gave rise to new traditions.
The organizers (including Robert Korn, Kathy Watkins, Muffy Lanning, John Herndon, Larry Hopkins, the fire department, Steve Van Fleet, Rick Spickard, Greenbank, Scott Brown and many others) formed the Fourth of July Committee. They put together a smaller parade and instead of games and events, afterward there was a ski race in Tomboy Basin called Lunar Cup and a small music show in Town Park. The acoustic music show in the park featured a band named Fall Creek and the event would eventually evolve into the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
Lunar Cup too would continue and with Van Fleet as the chairman of the first race, it took place on July 4, 1973 in Tomboy Basin. The Times reported the race was a success with 30 racers and surprisingly good snow. The race has continued, though it hasn’t been held in a couple of years.
After the celebrations, the Times reported the most quiet and orderly fourth in years, and it quoted notorious Town Marshal Everett Morrow who said law enforcement was at least partially responsible.
“We hit them hard and fast on the third,” Morrow told the Times, “and got rid of that bunch from Farmington.”
Over the next two years, Greenback explained the town went through a number of political upheavals, and though the July 4 celebration had continued through 1975 it was canceled in 1976.
Though most cities in the U.S. were eager to celebrate the bicentennial, Greenbank said many of Telluride’s leaders were concerned about rumors of biker gangs planning to return and cause chaos.
“The old timers tried to cancel it in ’73, but couldn’t, then in ’76 the new town council was so afraid of the 200th anniversary that they canceled it,” Greenbank said.
But by 1977 a full July 4 celebration took place, and in the years to come the parade, barbecue and other events were all restored. Though it might have been different from what it was in earlier years, the intent is the same and now the July 4 celebration typically draws up to around 10,000 people into town and it is one of summertime’s main events.