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Murray Journal

Murray’s longtime, sometimes-crazy affair with fireworks

Jun 18, 2018 03:27PM ● By Shaun Delliskave

Murray photographer Robert Richmond snapped these Independence Day aerials. (Photo courtesy Robert Richmond)

By Shaun Delliskave|[email protected]

The tradition of Independence Day fireworks in Murray not only pre-dates the creation of Murray Park but the city itself. The celebratory pyrotechnics that take place every Fourth of July is as much a holy ritual in Murray as are other towns’ Christmas celebrations.

Murray’s central location and large park has made it the go-to place in Salt Lake Valley to witness the aerial barrage. Crowds have become savvy in trying to experience the show; neighboring Hillcrest Jr. High and Murray High schools and Mick Riley Golf Course have become as packed with lawn chairs and blankets full of people as Murray Park itself. Murray Police Department has turned crowd control into an art form to efficiently disburse departing spectators.

Of course, there are those who wish to avoid the mob, so they bring the explosive mayhem to their home instead. It’s unsure if there is any middle ground for feelings about personal firework displays, as they are generally loved or loathed. Consider this 1904 report from the Salt Lake Herald about Murray’s local firework displays: “The town of Murray has had more than its share of noise occasioned by fireworks of all descriptions. Complaints were made by citizens residing along State Street regarding the boisterous actions of young Murray.” 

Nothing yet compares to the wild Fourth of July shenanigans of 1899. At 5 a.m., 18-year-old Jacobus Cannegether and former Buffalo Soldier Walt Cooper started firing a cannon. The entire town reportedly could hear the racket, which was taking place behind the Murray Opera Hall (5020 South State Street). They had improvised a cannon from a bored-out car axle, about 8 inches long and 4 inches in diameter. This was placed upright in the ground, and 12 shots were fired with success. But the 13th was the fatal shot.

The Salt Lake Herald reports, “Cannegether … was holding the ramrod in the axle which had been loaded with powder, and Cooper … was hammering it down with an ax handle. They had packed the powder down with wadding and were hammering it further when suddenly there was an awful explosion. The improvised cannon had burst. The first twelve shots had so heated the barrel that the hard pounding of the powder caused it to explode. Both men were thrown backwards, and when Cannegether recovered he found that his right hand was almost blown off. It was feared that it may become necessary to take off the whole hand. His right eye was also injured. (Cooper) had the drum of one of his ears destroyed.”

The force of the explosion was so strong that it shot the ramrod a half-mile away through the roof of the Murray Mansion and into its kitchen. The ax handle they were using was found blown over several buildings and shattered on State Street.

After the complaints of 1904, city leaders took matters into their own hands and offered a substitute in the form of a city-sponsored fireworks celebration. The public was invited to convene on State Street, after a parade and hot air balloon launch, to watch the show.

In 1923, Murray Boy Scouts were part of a valleywide celebration in which every mountain peak surrounding Salt Lake Valley was to be scaled by a troop. At precisely 9 p.m., each troop was to shoot a white flare from the peak. As for forest fires that may have accompanied the flares, newspapers did not have any reports.

Murray’s Fourth of July firework tradition continues this year at Murray Park, with the show starting in the evening at 10 p.m., and with a special request from the city: “Leave personal fireworks at home.” According to law, personal fireworks are only allowed to be set off from July 2 to July 5 and from July 22 to July 25. Fireworks are restricted on or within 300 feet of the Murray Parkway, Wheeler Farm, and Murray Park.