July 4th, Independence Day, is one of the most important dates in our nation’s history. Today, Americans celebrate Independence Day with parades, concerts, picnics, fireworks, and other festive events. The communities of the early West were no exception to this tradition. The first known official celebration of Independence Day in the Yellowstone region was held in Livingston, Montana, in 1883, not long after the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad were finished in the area. The first 4th-of-July celebration in Yellowstone National Park occurred in 1887, the year after the U.S. Army arrived in the park to protect and administer it for 30 years until the National Park Service was formed.The Independence Day celebration that year was a simple affair that included the raising of the flag at Camp Sheridan (subsequently replaced by Fort Yellowstone) and a speech by E.C. Waters, later the operator of the Yellowstone Lake Boat Company. “We . . . gather today to pay our kindly respects to the dear old flag,” intoned Waters, “and . . . may it ever be protected in this National Park by as gallant a commander and troops as today are its protectors.” The festivities continued at Gardiner with horse races.

The record is incomplete concerning what festivities occurred in subsequent years, but big celebrations are known to have occurred at Mammoth Hot Springs (site of Fort Yellowstone) in 1901, 1903, 1913, and 1916. It is likely that celebrations of some type occurred at the fort every Independence Day, but often festivities held in nearby Gardiner, Jardine, Cinnabar, Horr, Aldridge, or Cooke City overshadowed those at the fort. Celebrations also occurred in Livingston and Bozeman, and persons from Fort Yellowstone often rode the train north to attend those celebrations.

In 1901, Livingston’s newspaper, the Enterprise, reported that “at Mammoth Hot Springs the celebration was one of the best held” in the region with “a large crowd being present to witness the many novel and interesting features.” Those “features” included horse races, foot races, speeches, and other events. The 1903 celebration at Fort Yellowstone was reported by the Gardiner Wonderland newspaper. The festivities included relay races, horse races, broad jumps, a hammer throw, shotput, wood sawing, tug-of-war, and pie-eating contests. In the ladies’ egg-and-spoon race, there was an even division of prize money “as neither contestant could show any egg at the finish.” After dark fireworks were displayed from the top of Capitol Hill, and a gala ball was held in the hotel with music supplied by the Theodore Thomas orchestra of Chicago. The newspaper also noted that “early in the morning the big Transportation coaches and the teams appeared on the streets fully and handsomely decorated.”

The 1916 Fort Yellowstone celebration was reported to be “an old-fashioned and delightful
celebration.” Newspaper accounts noted that “it was participated in and enjoyed alike by the savages [concession employees] from the camps at Willow Creek and Swan Lake, the swatties [soldiers] from Fort Yellowstone, and the dudes [park visitors] from all over the world. The big event of the day was the baseball game between the hotel [employees] and the soldiers. At noon there was a salute of 48 guns which was heard for miles around.”

Today, the 4th of July in Yellowstone is celebrated in a more low-key fashion. Fireworks are not allowed in national parks, and big, organized events are difficult to conduct when there are as many as 30,000 visitors in the park on a given day in July. Normal park activities such as ranger-led nature walks and campfire programs continue, often with a patriotic theme. For many visitors, it is a family tradition to meet in the park to celebrate our nation’s birthday. For many, the chance to come to Yellowstone and see and smell a geyser’s steamy plume or hike a high-country meadow glowing with wildflowers or catch a brief glimpse of a grizzly bear or wolf or herd of bison is a fine way to celebrate the birth of our nation, a nation that has given the world its best idea, national parks.