Win Gruening: Juneau’s 4th of July celebrates what’s good about America



Growing up in Juneau, and later when raising our own children, our family attended countless Fourth of July parades, patriotic celebrations, and picnics.  The holiday also continues to be a popular time for family and class reunions.

On the Fourth, it’s exciting to see the floats, some often funky, but always entertaining and patriotically themed.  Parades are a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds. Filipino and Native dancers often march along with political candidates of every persuasion vying for votes.

It is gratifying to see the pride in our country and share the good will with everyone.

Independence Day commemorates the Declaration of Independence, which was ratified by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, establishing the United States of America. No longer under the British monarchy of George III, our original thirteen colonies were now united, free, and independent states. 

The U.S. Congress made July 4th a national holiday in 1870. Before Juneau was even incorporated as a city in 1900, it joined other communities across America in celebrating the Fourth of July.

One of the most unique aspects of Juneau’s celebration is its fireworks display on July 3.  Legend has it that this tradition dates back to when the Treadwell Mine on Douglas Island was operating. Since the mine only shut down on Christmas and the Fourth of July, in order to allow miners a chance to enjoy the fireworks, the show was moved to a day earlier at midnight.

In the early mining days, celebrations occurred on each side of Gastineau Channel, when Douglas and Juneau were distinct cities. Festivities were varied and included many of the activities we enjoy today. Newspapers of the day published extensive schedules of events and reported even the most minute details on attendance, contest winners, and sports scores.

  • Douglas Island News – July 11, 1900

A Glorious Fourth, Douglas Excels All Other Celebrations. Fine Weather. The Prize Winners” was the headline in the weekly edition of the Douglas Island News following the Fourth of July, 1900.  

The article included these descriptions: “About 3 o’clock on the morning of the nation’s birthday the little cannon which belongs to the Douglas City belched forth in mighty tones…at an early hour crowds of people in holiday attire thronged the streets. The men from the mines were out among the first…at 11, the tug-of-war teams began to gather and from that time until six o’clock the sports held the attention of everybody…the grand ball in the evening was the crowning feature of the day’s entertainment…the armory hall was beautifully decorated with boughs and bunting, flags and Japanese lanterns.”

  • Alaska Daily Empire July 3, 1913

“Douglas, July 3 – The Fourth of July program will begin at Treadwell tonight at 7 o’clock with the rock drilling contest…prizes will be $120 for the double-hand test and $60 for the single.” (Note: $120 in 1913 would be equivalent to about $3,500 today).

  • Alaska Daily Empire July 5, 1913

“The celebration of Independence Day in Juneau yesterday was marked by the attendance of enormous crowds…attendance at the baseball park was between three and four thousand…ferry service was overtaxed despite the fact three boats were on the run.”

In Juneau, activities and observances have grown even larger with the addition of June 14 Flag Day decoration contests in Douglas and Juneau Gold Rush Days, an event that commemorates Juneau’s mining and logging history.  

Fourth of July celebrations are an opportunity to appreciate the freedoms that Americans enjoy and express our gratitude to America’s Founding Fathers. America is not perfect, but it is always striving to correct its past mistakes in order to deliver on its promise of equal rights and opportunity for all.  In spite of our nation’s challenges, millions of people around the world still want to come to America. 

Perhaps now, more than ever, we can use the occasion of the Fourth of July as a time to reflect on America’s true gift – our commonality as Americans and Alaskans living in freedom. 

By doing so, the Fourth of July will remain a special Juneau tradition.

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.


  1. Yup. We have a special place.

    I feel bad for the people living near the flume trailhead. It must sound like they are getting shelled the way the fireworks echo.

  2. The Juneau 4th of July celebration in 1976 was my most memorable of them all: I was only in Juneau barely 3 years, but I was there that day: For one thing, it wasn’t totally dark. The fireworks were fabulous and the booms from them echoed back and forth across the channel between the mountains. It was the best EVER!

    • Barbara, I remember that 4th in Juneau! There was a Navy Destroyer or was it a Coast Guard Cutter tied up at the Sub Port, we were on a boat near the Ship when the Captain decided to let go with a blank out of one of his 5″ guns… serious sternum thumping reverberations! A good time was had by all!

      Old Juneau really was a wonderful place.

      • Probably a Coastie cutter. I don’t think Gastineau is deep enough for a destroyer.

        • Masked, Destroyers are shallow hulled, a full displacement hull is incapable of attaing speeds of 35 knts. The old 378′ Revenue Cutters were essentially Destroyers. Pretty sure that the Exxon Cordova exceeds the draft of a Destroyer, I’ve seen it tied up to the dock by the old Parking Garage.

  3. Aye Robert. Those of us coming of age in the 70’s got a glimpse of the golden age before it inexorably faded. At that time, we were unaware of how good those halcyon times actually were. Now, with this current era as a comparison, we see clearly how this new generation is being deceived to believe said golden era was the lesser. The term “progressive” has been perverted in the current vernacular. See 2Chron7:14.

  4. Wayne, I agree, we enjoyed far more freedom then but had to accept more responsibility for ourselves and our actions. . What happened between then and now? Was it the Nanny State? Was this the force behind the destruction of masculinity in this once great nation? Have we been led as a society into a reliance upon a government sponsored cradle to grave safety net where no one ever gets the opportunity to truly fail and therefore isn’t ever given the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and fully develop themselves?

    I read where testosterone levels in young men today are barely half of young men 50 years ago. You cannot blame it all on Soy products in everything and IPA beer hops.

  5. 70’s in Juneau were better days by far. More than one cruise ship stayed past the Midnight hour to contribute to Juneau’s Independence Day fireworks display. Politicians didn’t hide in City Hall back then, you spoke with them at City Cafe any morning, probably had a beer with the governor at the Triangle Club in the afternoon, and you could meet your child’s middle or high school teacher after school any Friday at the Breakwater Lounge. The decision to remove NIMBUS from the courthouse plaza wasn’t made in an Assembly Meeting! It was made in a coffee shop! In the 1970’s, you personally recognized at least half the people on every plane arriving or departing Juneau Airport. Chances are, if you were traveling, and flying Coach, you might find yourself sitting alongside Alaska Governor Jay Hammond, who never flew 1st Class on the state’s dime. Compare that with a later Governor who demanded his own plane (Father of our senior senator)!
    Sadly, we appear to be surrounded today by politicians bent on exploiting the taxpaying peons? So far, they appear to be winning? Just my opinion . . .

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