RIVERDALE — In Riverdale, July 4 starts with a bang.
For many residents who live near Riverdale Park, Independence Day starts with a loud, early-morning boom from a “cannon.” It has been that way for decades.
The strange tradition started in the early ’80s, according to Don Roundy, a retired police officer and firefighter with 25 years under his belt who was there at the very beginning.
Why would someone shake people from their beds at 6 a.m. on Independence Day? “The Lion’s Club wanted a way to wake people up for their annual breakfast,” Roundy said.
Indeed, shortly after the boom shakes the park at 6 a.m., the local chapter of The Lion’s Club — a worldwide service organization with thousands of chapters boasting over a million members — has their annual breakfast.
For years, volunteers would use a steel pipe to shoot off the firework. Although the activity is listed as a “cannon blast” in the city’s information guides, Roundy said the activity is “more like a mortar drop.”
Roundy goes on to explain that before the activity was city-sanctioned, he and other volunteers would go around to local businesses and collect donations for the fireworks. He and other explosion enthusiasts used to drive to Wyoming to get the fireworks, he says.
“It’s pretty loud,” Roundy said. “You can hear it a few towns over.”
On Thursday, a handful of staff members from the Riverdale Fire Department were standing behind their station waiting for the official word. Typically, the fire department uses a 20-inch steel pipe to shoot a 2 1/2 inch mortar 250 feet into the air.
However on Thursday morning, the pyrotechnician ran behind schedule. So, they go with plan B: two sets of aerial canister shells that could be found at most firework stands.
Riverdale Fire Captain Nate Tracy wore a yellow fire jacket, gloves and a helmet as he approached the cylinders with a blowtorch. The fuses lit, and he moved away. Several shells fired into the air, filling the park with noise. There’s a brief moment of stillness. Tracy broke the silence with a smile on his face.
“Mornin’!” Tracy said with a laugh.
While it’s not the usual bang that Riverdale residents are accustomed to, firefighters say they always try to ignite the firework at 6 a.m. on the dot.
“It’s normally just a big noisemaker,” said Riverdale Fire Chief Jared Sholly. “It’s a very similar sound than what we just launched, but the only difference is about a 50-foot difference.”
Just a few hours later, Riverdale firefighters shot off more fireworks. This time, several shells were fired into the air to signal the start of the city’s Old Glory Days Parade. Sholly says the floats are lined up roughly two miles away, so they fire several shells to make sure they hear the signal.
For Sholly, the department’s chief for the past four years and a career firefighter with over two decades of experence, the 6 a.m. blast is the start of a lengthy day for him and a number of first responders around the area.
He arrived at the fire station at 4 a.m. Thursday, and he won’t be off duty until midnight, he says. “It’s the start of a 19-hour day for me,” Sholly said.
He and other Riverdale firefighters will be vigilant throughout the day, but once again gather when night falls. The city begins their own fireworks show at 10 p.m. on the dot, Sholly said. He estimates that the city will shoot off somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500 shells during Thursday night’s display.
The lengthy display the culmination of the firefighters’ busy July 4, but it all starts bright and early with the city’s regular “cannon” ignition that has lasted for decades.
“We love it, you know that’s the start of our day at 6 a.m. ... it’s a pretty deep tradition,” Sholly said.