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Fireworks of Past Years

With no fireworks display in Des Plaines this year, let's imagine the ones we used to have

This year, for the first time since 1990, there will be no Fourth of July fireworks in Des Plaines. Not counting rain delays. From 1990-1994 the Jaycees held fireworks at Maryville, then moved to Oakton Community College, where the Special Events Commission took over, until their funding was cut off this year.

It's not the first time your regularly scheduled pyrotechnic service has been interrupted. There were no fireworks for thirteen years, from 1977-1989, due to raucous overcrowding at the bicentennial celebration at Lake Park, where the fireworks had been held since 1967. There were plans to revive it for 1988, but the weather did not cooperate and the next year the city was too busy and "dropped the ball." There were seemingly no fireworks for fourteen years from 1953-1966, when the VFW held their Independence Days Festival and Carnival. In 1941 and from 1944-1951 (presumably the fireworks factories were busy with other things in 1942-1943), the American Legion hosted fireworks at Rand Park during their six-day Summer Festival; in 1952 the reins were handed to the fire department, which had handled the fireworks themselves in the past. There were no fireworks for thirteen years from 1928-1940.

That's because one of the most inadvertently spectacular - and tragic - displays and disasters in Des Plaines history took place on July 4, 1927. Understandably, the fireworks were cancelled for many years. The news articles from 1927 follow.

Cook County Herald:

Many people were injured at Northwestern Park at Des Plaines Monday evening, when the entire supply of fireworks for the Legion celebration exploded. The display of rockets had just started, when the accident happened and hundreds of men, women, and children made a mad race for safety, leaving behind them many injured. Ropes had been stretched in front of the display ground at an ample distance from the fireworks. However several hundred gathered at the sides of the area where there was no rope. Some of these people were as near as 25 feet from the stock of fireworks. Those injured were in this crowd. In their dashes for safety men and women climbed under autos and every possible screen of protection was utilized. The police and Legion officials made every effort to rescue the injured. The Lauterburg and Oehler ambulance was near and was utilized to take some of the injured to the hospital. Children became separated from their parents and it was over an hour before the excitement had entirely quieted down. Fear was entertained that some unexploded bombs might later become discharged and the police took no chances, ordering everybody off the park.

Chicago Tribune:

(...)An unhappy climax to the celebration of Independence day in Cook county came last night when a deflected skyrocket plunged into a huge pile of fireworks in Northwestern park, near Des Plaines and the massed explosives were hurled into the crowd of more than 3,000 persons.

Twenty-five, many of them small children, were injured by the bursting bombs and by being trampled on in the general rush to get away from the rain of fire. Fifteen were so severely hurt that they needed treatment by physicians and most of them were removed to hospitals.

Mayor C. S. Stewart announced early this morning that the explosion would be investigated thoroughly and that some action would be taken tonight at the meeting of the village board. It was recalled that a boy was injured last year at the fireworks display when he picked up a rocket. The police believe that the board will pass a ruling forbidding any more displays of pyrotechnics in the village.

The explosion at the park near Des Plaines, which is fifteen miles northwest of Chicago, came a few minutes after the celebration, managed by Des Plaines post of the American Legion, the Elks, and the business men of the town, had begun.

John Knoch, the manager of the pyrotechnic display, started off by discharging skyrockets. The crowd had been forced to stand back a distance of about twenty-five feet, behind stretched ropes. There men, women, and children were thickly massed. Babies were held in their mother's arms so they could get a good view of the fireworks.
One of the rockets, evidently defective, failed to raise skyward when it was set off. Instead it caromed to one side, struck a tree and burning fragments were hurled back into the pile from which supplies were drawn.

Immediately the whole pile took fire. To the sharp crack of the small crackers and the deep boom of the larger explosives was added o the hiss and the zoom of the sky rockets and the Roman candles as they poured into the crowd. The pile had an estimated value of $1,000 and it all went at once.

In the general rush to get away several women fainted. Others were knocked down and trampled on. Several children, it was reported, were more seriously hurt by the feet of hundreds than by the burns they received.

As soon as the first panic was over members of the Legion post and their fellow townsmen rushed back and rendered aid to those who had fallen. Ambulances were hastily called and the injured were taken to hospitals.

"I was in the front row when the fireworks went off," said Mrs. Lamberty Prideaux, wife of a county highway policeman. "Everybody started to run at once. There were policemen around and they tried to quiet everybody, but it was impossible. They broke through all lines and it was remarkable that some were not killed."

Five of the more seriously injured were taken to St. Mary of Nazareth hospital in Chicago. Two of them were Stanley McGuire, 10, and his brother Neal, 3, of San Mateo, Cal. They were visiting friends in Des Plaines and went to the celebration with Russell Chidley, 4, and his brother Douglas, 10, of Des Plaines. The Chidley boys also were taken to St. Mary's. All suffered severe burns.

Mildred Jahnkow, 7, of 2763 Francis place, was wounded in the left arm and shoulder by a skyrocket that tore her skin in addition to burning her. She was taken to St. Mary's after treatment by Dr. C. A. Earle in Des Plaines. Dr. Earle also treated Edward Priebe, 6, of 565 Des Plaines avenue, Des Plaines. He was severely burned and cut on the back.

Edward Kehe, 32, and Bryan Melzer, 32, Legionnaires of the Des Plaines post, were among the injured.

Melzer's injuries occurred when he seized a tarpaulin, ran forward, and threw it over the exploding fireworks. According to Chief of Police C. F. Risser of Des Plaines his action probably prevented injuries to a large part of the crowd.

Another victim was Mrs. Walter Hanson, 1486 Prairie avenue, Des Plaines. J. S. McClure, 55, of 4436 North Winchester avenue, Chicago, was burned on the face and the chest and was taken to the Ravenswood hospital. C. A. Wilson, 65, of 1411 North Mansfield avenue, was cut on the face.

Victor Siljander, who gave a business adress in the Monadnock block; Miss Minnie Gabbanni, who lives near Western and Milwaukee avenues; Ray Koch, 7, of Des Plaines, and a man named Davis were also among the casualties.

The county highway police and the Des Plaines forces cooperated in clearing up the wreckage and conveying the injured to hospitals. The celebration was in charge of a Legion committee headed by Ralph Allison of Des Plaines.

And from Phyllis Bentley's excellent autobiography,

On the 4th of July, 1927, in addition to the many fire-works which each child had to set off at home, Des Plaines had a big fire-works display in Northwestern Park, on the east bank of the Des Plaines River, just across from the down town section. The American Legion and the Fire Department, who were largely the same men since our fire department was almost entirely volunteer, bought and set off the fire-works. Literally every child in Des Plaines went, including a bus load of orphans from St. Mary's Orphanage. That particular 4th of July a defective rocket, instead of mounting high into the sky, sailed into the pile of remaining fireworks and set off the whole mass. Never have I heard or seen such a sight, nor such panic and screaming. The orphans had choice seats down in front, and several of them were badly injured. That was the day of really big fire-works display, and the booming of the shells, and the wild display of color and smoke was terrific. The crowd was largely composed of women and children, all of whom were terrified and screaming. Men who had stayed at home could hear the terrible noise, and as we streamed from the park over the only bridge toward town there was a mad rush of men streaming the other way, from town to park, either to rescue their own families, or to see if they could be of help. It was many a year before Des Plaines had another public fire-works display. When I was young it was possible to buy fireworks almost anywhere, and for those who remained uninjured it was great fun and excitement to set off the different sizes of fire-crackers, hold the roman candles in your hand to shoot them up into the air, tack pin wheels and other displays to the trees in your back yard, and almost best of all throw down the little bombs which went off with such a ferocious bang if you hit the ground just right, to scratch the side-walks with son-of-a- guns, or light snakes which came piling out of an innocuous looking little pill.

Mary Grimes July 04, 2011 at 07:33 PM
My dad and I were at the Rand Park fireworks one year and we, along with everyone else, had to move way back because the ash from the fireworks was falling on the crowd and causing a dangerous situation.


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