Photo above: President Richard Nixon. Courtesy National Archives. Right: Statue of Secretariat at Belmont Park, 2014, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
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1976 - Detail
July 4, 1976 - The Bicentennial of the United States is celebrated throughout the nation. The 200th anniversary included Operation Sail in New York City, as well as a Bicentennial Wagon Train that traversed the nation during the year.
It was a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Bicentennial of the United States. Across the nation, from 1975 through July 4, 1976, various celebrations were held. There was a Freedom Train, a locomotive that traversed the nation from coast to coast with exhibits about the nation. There was a Wagon Train, that traced the old roads that made the nation, again from coast to coast. There was Operation Sail, a celebration of tall ships in the harbors of New York and Boston.
Congress had established the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission ten years earlier, contemplating just what type of celebration would be held. Would it be a World's Fair like that of the 100th anniversary, the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition 1876, a one site celebration (that was the initial thought), or something that encompassed the entire nation in a variety of ways? They chose the later with the first commission dissolved and a second established in 1973, the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration. There would be local events and a few that traversed all parts of the continental United States. Three stood out.
American Freedom Train
The first of the national oriented celebrations began in April 1975 when the Freedom Train left Wilmington, Delaware. It contained ten display cars with exhibits on American history. There was George Washington's copy of the Constitution, the original copy of the Louisiana Purchase, Martin Luther King's robes, plus a moon rock, among others. It would eventually travel across the forty-eight continental states through December 31, 1976, ending its journey in Miami, Florida. Over seven million people would visit the train.
Bicentenntial Wagon Train
At a more pedestrian pace, the Bicentennial Wagon Train did a reverse pioneer voyage, starting out in Blaine, Washington on June 8, 1975 and crossing the United States along original wagon roads until it reached Valley Forge for July 4, 1976. The trails that the settlers had originally used during the two hundred year history of the United States saw state and local wagons traverse the Bozeman Trail, Great Wagon Road, Natchez Trace, Old Spanish Trail, the Oregon Trail, and others. Originally there was to be one wagon for each state (it grew to sixty official wagons), but along the way others joined. By the time the Bicentennial Wagon Train reached Valley Forge, there were over three hundred participants and seventy-five thousand visitors on July 4. The wagon train would camp there for two months, providing an example to visitors, as they had during the entire trek, of a nation reborn through peering back on how it started and spread.
The odd part of the Wagon Train was in the signing of scrolls by participants and visitors, including President Ford. Over twenty-two million people signed them, preservation of a time and bicentennnial event for perpetuity. But someone society lost them since. Today, none of the scrolls can be found in the various archives where you'd think they might be; not at Valley Forge, the state archives in Harrisburg, or Washington, D.C. They were supposed to be buried in a time capsule. Nobody can find that either.
Through the history of the United States, various Operation Sails have been held. For the Bicentennial, on July 4, 1976, sixteen ships would sail into New York harbor and be witnessed by millions. The ships would be representatives of various nations; Amerigo Vespucci (Italy), Barba Negra (Norway), Christian Radich (Norway), Danmark (Denmark), Dar Pomorza (Poland), Eagle (United States), Esmeralda (Chile), Gloria (Colombia), Gorch Fock (Germany), Juan Sebastian de Elcano (Spain), Kruzenshtern (Soviet Union), Libertad (Argentina), Mircea (Romania), Nippon Maru (Japan), Regina Maris (USA), Sagres (Portugal), Sebbe Als (Denmark), T/S Te Vega (Panama), Tovarishch (Soviet Union), Peyk (Turkey) Roseway (USA), Transition (USA), and the Brig Unicorn (USA). The nautical parade would continue to Boston the next week.
The First Centennial
While the Bicentennial showed the United States at an awkward time after Watergate and the resignation of a President, it represented a mature nation, now at the forefront of all nations. When the first Centennial was held in Philadelphia in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition, the dynamic was much different. In 1876, the United States was slightly more than ten years removed from the Civil War and thought of by foreign nations as a rube former colony not nearly elevated to the status of the prominent European nations. However, the Centennial celebration would prove, once and for all, that the rubes of the United States were embarking on a display of innovation and ingenuity that would spark its elevation to the forefront of the international stage. Inventions such as Bell's telephone, Edison's phonograph, and the Corliss Engine marvelled its rivals. To this day, the Centennial Exposition likely stands as one of the most important historical events in U.S. history that almost nobody knows about. But at its time, it rose the nation of rubes one decade past a civil conflict to the heights of the nations of the world.
Photo above: American Freedom Train in Georgia, 1976. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Photo below: Operation Sail, Tall ship Amerigo Vespucci, New York Harbor, July 1976, Read Admiral Harley D. Nygren, NOAA America's Coastlines Collection via Wikipedia Commons. Source info: BiCentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage to Pennsylvania, 1976, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library; "Pioneers in Reverse," June 21, 2016 by Dan Weckerly; "Bicentennial Wagon Train Signatures are lost pieces of American Past," By Monica Hesse July 3, 2011; Wikipedia Commons.