Grand Explosion on Pike's Peak, Colorado, July 4, 1901 (for 7th to 12th grade readers, and others)

Researched by James R. Heintze. All Rights Reserved.

On the evening of July 4, 1901, on the summit of Pike's Peak, Colorado, a signal was given. Seconds later there was a tremendous explosion. "A fiery beacon, 500 feet long and blazing for hundreds of feet in the air was set off. The immense sheet of flame over 14,000 feet above sea level, was visible from Cheyenne, nearly 200 miles north, to New Mexico, the same distance to the south." The explosion was the largest pyrotechnical display ever to occur on the Fourth of July. Hundreds of thousands of people witnessed the event, "the culmination of a two days' display on the peak." ("Pike's Peak Fiery Beacon," New York Times, 5 July 1901,1.)

Using explosives to celebrate the Fourth, to bring attention to the importance of the day, had always been an acceptable manner of expression. One year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the celebration in Philadelphia closed in the evening with "a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets." (Virginia Gazette, 18 July 1777.) With that the tradition for the use of fireworks on Independence Day was set.

In the nineteenth century explosives were used in a myriad of ways as an expression of excitement for the day. From a handful of small popping firecrackers purchased by a kid for 5 cents to the tremendous artillery barrages set off in towns, forts, ships, and arsenals, people went about the business of creating noise. The more the merrier was the general rule, albeit the frequently reported protests of persons abiding close to the sources of that noise. Whereas the day was filled with the sounds of small arms and toy cannons being fired, the evenings were highlighted with imaginative displays of pyrotechnic art. For example, some of these consisted of battle reenactments. In 1862 in New York a fireworks display included a reenactment of the notorious clash between the ironclad vessels Monitor and Merrimac in which each ship fired off Roman candles at the other. (New York Evening Post, 5 July 1862, 2.) In 1886 at Minnetonka Beach, near Minneapolis, Minnesota, a reenactment of the bombardment of Fort Sumter took place, using "bombs, rockets, Roman candles, and all the aerial works known in the pyrotechnic profession." (The Sunday Pioneer Press, 4 July 1886, 1.)

One of Colorado's Highest Peaks

As time went on, with Americans yearning for larger and grander fireworks displays, it was left to one's imagination and ideas for creative ways to meet that demand. To some, that Colorado mountain top in 1901 seemed an ideal site for a magnificent Fourth of July event.

Pike's Peak, discovered and named in 1806 by Zebulon M. Pike, is found in central Colorado. Cited as "the most conspicuous and best-known summit in the Rocky Mountains," the Peak stands 14,110 feet tall and today can be accessed by road, cog railroad, and trails. The lower slopes are readily identified by forests of pines, whereas the summit in stark contrast, is barren and "covered by broken granite rocks." Snow covers the higher elevation much of the year. (Phyllis R. Greiss, "Pike's Peak" in Collier's Encyclopedia , 1990, vol. 19:46.)

For years Pike's Peak had been a favorite spot for celebrating the Fourth of July. From far and wide, people came by train, carriage, and on horseback to spend a day enjoying the mountain's cool breezes. Excursions up the slopes at dawn to see the splendid sunrise were popular as were the many "picnic parties" on the sides of the mountain. On July 3, 1901, all of the hotels in the vicinity were "crowded to overflowing." In Colorado Springs alone, there were some 3000 visitors that had arrived "from eastern and southern points." (Colorado Springs Gazette, 3, 4 and 5 July 1901, 8, 5 and 7, respectively.)

"Stars and Stripes Float Above the Peak"

Part of the celebration of the Fourth on the summit of the mountain in 1901 included the unfurling and display of the Star-Spangled Banner. Under the direction of Fred Carstarphen, 12 persons strung a group of kites together with the flag suspended between them. Each kite was six feet wide. Amidst a blowing wind, the kites were released, gradually ascended and pulled the flag aloft. The entire contraption reached an estimated altitude of 18,000 feet and there it flew for a considerable time. It was reported that the flag was clearly "visible in Colorado Springs and adjoining towns, as well as the Cripple Creek district." Eventually "a snow cloud settled around the kites and wrecked them at 17,500 feet." This extraordinary feat was likely the highest display of the American flag to occur to date. ("Pike's Peak Fiery Beacon" and Colorado Springs Gazette, 3 July 1901, 8.)

The Big Bang

Notwithstanding the interest in the display of the American flag atop Pike's Peak, it was the magnificent explosion that was to take place on the evening of July 4 that people eagerly awaited. It is not known who the specific individuals were who dreamed up the idea of blowing off the top of the mountain, but the Denver Post newspaper and other major companies sponsored the event. It took a full week to prepare for the occasion. The plan consisted of hauling several carloads of wood up to the summit on July 3 and building a great fire fueled by numerous gallons of oil. "Dozens of carloads of old lumber were stacked in immense piles on the crest of the peak, and then were completely saturated with kerosene, while several barrels of oil were placed under each pile." The bonfire itself could be seen for many miles. A thick bed of coals and ambers was gradually built up and at the appropriate moment on the evening of July 4 the ambers were propelled towards the heavens through the use of exploding gasoline.

To accomplish this feat, a number of actions took place. First, "15 barrels of oil donated by one of the large oil companies of Denver [were] hauled to Manitou free of charge by the Rio Grande railway." Second, a track was built to facilitate the sliding of barrels of gasoline into the flames and "behind the whole affair was a platform a hundred feet in the air, on which several hundred pounds of red fire was burned to give a ruby glow to the smoke and flame." When the signal was given, the gasoline rolled down the track into the burning ambers, ignited, and sent the flame and coals some 200 to 500 feet into the air. It was reported that "from towns within twenty miles the effect was the same as of a volcano," and in Denver, 75 miles away, "the flames were plainly seen." (New York Times and other sources cited above.)

Although this kaleidoscopic event caught everyone's attention, ironically, Mayor J.R. Robinson of Colorado Springs wanted no part of complementary explosions, no matter the size, taking place in his town. On July 4, he had issued a warning with restrictions about their use: "The explosion of all dynamite within the City limits is prohibited" and "firecrackers [and other] explosives are prohibited in City Park. (Colorado Springs Gazette,4 July 1901, 3.)

Reader Questions:

With our current awareness for the importance of protecting the earth's environment, if you were there at Pike's Peak in 1901, how would you have argued against setting off the explosion on that mountain top? Write a brief paper developing an argument and rationale that you believe would have convinced those in charge that creating a man-made explosion on Pike's Peak would have resulted in an environmental disaster.

Library Search:

Many books and guides have been written on a wide array of aspects regarding Pike's Peak, the mountain and settlement. Begin a search using the keyword "Pike's Peak." For example, to learn more about other legends and stories, see James McChristal, Pikes Peak: Legends of America's Mountain (Raton, N.M.: Sierra Grande Press, 1999) and for an historical text, see Bob and Jane Young, Pike's Peak or Bust: the Story of the Colorado Settlement (N.Y.: J. Messner, 1970).

This page last updated June 3, 2008.

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