The Journal of San Diego History
April 1957, Volume 3, Number 2
Jerry MacMullen, Editor

By Arthur Woodward

From the middle of the 19th century on into the first two decades of the 20th, Californians celebrated wetly and noisily. Independence Day was, of course, the day set aside for noise making. Anything that could pop or bang was brought into play. These were before the days of our paternal government; the individual citizens exercised their rights of sovereignty and whooped it up to their hearts’ content, without being told that it was agin’ the law. Any other day besides the Fourth, provided it seemed worthy of celebrating, came in for its share of powder burning.

Whenever a town or city possessed a cannon large or small, it was served by a crew of volunteer artillerymen and’from dawn to dusk it banged, bounced and jumped. Sometimes, as in the case of the huge bronze Jupiter, the former Spanish guardian of San Diego bay at Fort Guijarros on Point Loma, which was salvaged by the American forces in 1846 and later relegated to use as a Fourth of July piece, the celebrants used more powder than brains. The result was that El Jupiter cracked under the strain and became a useless hunk of metal, now resting quietly in the park on Presidio Hill.

The lack of artillery, however did not deter the citizens of San Diego from noisily ushering in the new era of communications between San Diego and the States. Arrival of the alleged “Jackass Mail” (so-called because on the last few miles from the edge of the desert into San Diego the mail was carried on mule back) called for a series of ear-splitting explosions made by firing two anvils, one hundred times.

Not long since I heard a man who loves to embroider his so-called stories of California “history”, snort with disgust and say: “Can’t make me believe they fired one hundred times; one hundred anvils — huh! — there weren’t that many anvils in all of Southern California.”

With the latter part of his statement I might agree. All the noise was made with two anvils, not one hundred, and had he read the item that appeared in a San Diego paper, Aug. 31, 1857 he would have seen the following item.

“Today arrived the first mail from San Antonio, Texas, making the journey in thirty-four traveling days. San Diego is rejoicing. As the cannon is unsafe, two anvils were procured and ‘Boston’ (J. Judson Ames, Esq.) of the Herald, and Capt. Stevens (an old sailor of the coast) and others have been firing for some time in honor of the event.”

During the following years San Diego celebrated with anvils, as did Julian, Ramona, Yuma, Tucson, and other towns and cities in California, Arizona, and Nevada, and probably elsewhere.

In San Diego, the Fourth of July 1873 celebration was ushered in with a “grand fusillade of rifles, shot guns, pistols, fire-crackers and other noise making agents” and said the reporter for the Daily Union of July 5th:

“The fire was kept up steadily all along the line until daylight when the roar of anvils was added to the din.”

In Julian, on the same day … “giant powder and two sets of
anvils were booming all day . . .”.

There was a celebration at Old Town, Mon., Dec. 8, 1874 where: “An anvil was fired at intervals and all was noise and jubilee.”

However, there were those who seemingly just fired the anvils for the sheer joy of hearing the racket, of which the disgruntled editor of The Union, Feb. 14 1875, disapproved:

“Some very smart practical jokers got out an anvil last evening and fired a salute, the object being to humbug the community with the idea that favorable railroad news had been received in town. It was successful so far as getting a crowd was concerned; but as a joke it was about the biggest failure of the season. It was a performance that cannot be safely repeated.”

Occasionally, even military posts resorted to the anvil for saluting purposes when artillery was lacking. An officer at Ft. Miller in the San Joaquin Valley (one of the earliest American military posts in that part of California) wrote to a friend on June 13, 1864 when the California Volunteers were stationed there:

“We fire a salute at this post tomorrow in honor of the re-nomination of Uncle Abe — using anvils for want of something better — anything to make a noise and let the Copperheads know we are here . . .”

Today there are many “old timers” who remember the firing or “shooting the anvil”. As a boy in Ramona I saw and heard the anvils fired on the Main Street on the Fourth of July.

Usually this important part of the day’s celebration took place in front of Frank Creelman’s blacksmith shop (long since demolished). The two anvils used stood on the ground in front of the open door. The largest of the anvils was placed upside down. Anvils varied in weight from small ones of 10 pounds to monsters weighing around 800 pounds. However, I should judge that the ones used in the Fourth of July firing in the early 1900’s in Ramona weighed 100 pounds. These instruments were made of either wrought or cast iron with steel faces; some were solid cast steel as well. The bases of these anvils were hollow in the form of a square. Black powder, varying in amounts according to the strength of the anvil and the explosion desired, was poured into the bottom of the anvil on the ground. Some anvil firers then placed a small rectangle of dampened cardboard over the powder, fitting it snugly into place, but leaving a small opening at one end directly under the small opening at the squared end of the top anvil (which was also placed into position upside down and crossways) so that the small round hole in the squared end was directly over the opening in the cardboard beneath. Into this round hole was poured enough black powder to form a firing train. Then the blacksmith heated a long, thin iron rod red hot in his forge, the men charging the anvil stood to one side, and the sizzling iron was applied to the powder. Then came the damndest bang you ever heard. A most satisfying, hellroaring sound. The ground shook and the upper anvil sailed into the air. The blacksmith grinned, shifted his chaw into the side of his cheek and said:

“Pretty good, huh? Fill ‘er up boys and we’ll do it again!”