Syracuse's First Fourth of July Celebration
A look at Syracuse’s 1820 Fourth of July celebration

By Derrick Pratt, Erie Canal Museum Educator

The Erie Canal totally transformed the state of New York. In few places was that transformation as clear as in the Erie Canal Museum’s hometown, Syracuse. Prior to the Canal, what became the City of Syracuse was a small, swampy crossroads of about 250 non-native settlers. However, all of that began to change 200 years ago this year, in 1820, when the Middle Section of the Canal officially opened for navigation.

The incredible transformation that would be wrought upon this community would take years. In this week’s Quarantine Coffee Hour, we will look at an event in 1820 that seemed to portend Syracuse’s rise to earning its one-time nickname, “The Center City.” That event was Syracuse’s first Fourth of July celebration, which saw the attention of the entire state focused on it and the incredible waterway that passed through its heart. 

A Boat Parade and Honored Guests

The day began with thousands of people in boats, wagons, and on horseback descending upon the settlement from every corner of the state, many wearing splendid militia uniforms, uniting this day without regard for their previous opinions of the Canal or the politics dividing the state along Clintonian lines. The boats, 73 in all, were halted at the locks on the east and west sides of Syracuse until 10am, when a cannon was fired, giving the signal for them to advance down the Canal to meet in the Salina Basin, at the junction of the Erie Canal and the short Salina sidecut. Leading the boats from the east was the Oneida Chief, carrying Governor DeWitt Clinton, who had visited Syracuse for the first time only about a month before. He was joined by a retinue of other prominent New Yorkers, notably Judge William Van Ness, Aaron Burr’s second in his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton. This fleet, proudly bedecked with flags and banners, was greeted at the basin by a 24-gun salute, the songs of numerous bands, and the cheers of thousands of spectators. 

Disembarking on the north side of the canal, the passengers and the surrounding crowd formed a procession behind the Salina band that marched across the Salina Street bridge to gather in front of Joshua Forman’s house. There the crowd, estimated at 5,000-10,000 people total, was greeted by the Reverend Wilie of Utica, who led the group in prayer. He was followed by Nicholas Randall of Manlius, who read the 44-year-old Declaration of Independence, and LeRoy’s Samuel Hopkins, who delivered a stirring address on the wonders of internal improvements. This ceremony was only the beginning of the day’s celebrations. The crowd dispersed to board their vessels or join a procession stretching nearly a half a mile in length in order to head up the Salina side cut to enjoy lunch in a field alongside the canal in Salina. 

Music and Toasts

It was on this trip to lunch and afterwards that the true festivities began. Three bands accompanied the marchers, who found in Salina something resembling an early state fair, as each of the state’s western counties had a booth in which to showcase the wares that the canal would now make so easily accessible. After lunch, the main event of the day happened: the drinking of toasts. The Onondaga Register’s description of the event lists 13 official toasts that were drunk that day, honoring American independence, various government officials, and even the revolutionary struggles in South America, as well as six other toasts volunteered by members of the crowd. The loudest cheer was reserved for the 6th official toast, honoring Governor Clinton, who himself volunteered a toast to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.

A Peaceful Fourth of July 

Despite the apparent preponderance of alcohol being consumed by the crowd, the day saw no incidents to disrupt the harmony and frivolity of the celebrations. By 5pm the crowd began to head home, marking the end of this auspicious day in the early history of Syracuse. This proved to be just the beginning for Syracuse, as it continued to grow over the ensuing years and become one of the gems of the Erie Canal.