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Reenactment of L.A.'s First July 4 a Blast From Past

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pyrotechnical bombs were bursting in air in Los Angeles suburbs. But it was Fourth of July cannon fire Friday that brought traffic to a halt downtown.

Nearly 100 costumed soldiers reenacted the city’s first Independence Day celebration by firing an ancient howitzer and a 28-musket salute at the site of Ft. Moore--the hilltop military encampment dedicated with a ceremonial flag-raising July 4, 1847 above the Los Angeles pueblo.

The reenactment was described as the largest in city history and marked the first time in 150 years that cannon fire has echoed from the hilltop.

The unusual ceremony was the noisiest of dozens of Independence Day commemorations around L.A. County.

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Parades were held in Pacific Palisades, El Sereno, Monrovia and Culver City. Picnics and games took place in Alhambra, Torrance and Monterey Park. Fireworks-punctuated concerts were staged at the Hollywood Bowl, Marina del Rey, Beverly Hills, Castaic Lake, La Puente and the San Fernando Valley’s Hansen Dam.

Organized fireworks shows in stadiums and at parks in Long Beach, Van Nuys, Huntington Park and more than two dozen other places drew thousands of spectators.

But motorists on Broadway stopped and gawked in surprise as an authentic 1840 mountain howitzer boomed 13 times from atop nearby Hill Street to signal the morning flag-raising reenactment at the Ft. Moore Pioneer Memorial.

The memorial is a 400-foot wall built in 1958 on Hill Street north of the Hollywood Freeway. Serving as a retaining wall beneath the Los Angeles school system headquarters, the memorial is marked by what used to be an 80-foot-wide, 47-foot-high artificial waterfall and a series of bas-relief sculptures that depict the fort’s first flag-raising, along with farming and transportation scenes in early Los Angeles.

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At the time its terra cotta panels were installed, the artwork was the largest bas-relief in the United States. Three pumps recirculated 21,000 gallons a minute over the waterfall.

Veteran battle re-enactors from Ft. Tejon were joined by first-time costumed soldiers for Friday’s ceremony, which was sponsored by Times Mirror Co. and McKesson Water Products Co. Also assisting with the event were the archdiocese of Los Angeles, Hatco and Mormon groups.

The volunteers portrayed members of the Mormon Battalion, a group of 250 men who had enlisted in the Army to earn money to bring their families west by wagon train.

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The Mormons built the 400-foot-wide earthen-walled fort in three months. They dedicated it on July 4, 1847 by hoisting a 28-star American flag during a ceremony observed by a crowd of about 700.

Nearly 2,500 watched Friday’s reenactment as the costumed troops raised a replica of the original flag. Orators and a brass band duplicated the speeches and songs that were offered 150 years ago.

The event had a personal meaning for some of those portraying Mormon Battalion soldiers--most of the originals had been clad in ragged civilian clothes because they sent their uniform allowances to their wagon-awaiting families in Iowa.

El Monte residents Richard Allen, a 63-year-old guitar maker, and John Anderson, 53, a bus driver, said their great-grandfather was battalion member Wilford Hudson--who went on to help discover gold at Sutter’s Mill.

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Gavin Christen, 42, a Riverside welder, said his great-great-great-grandfather, William Ewell, went to the San Bernardino Mountains to get the two 75-foot pine trees that were pieced together to form Ft. Moore’s original flagpole.

Others, such as 38-year-old Matthew Woodruff, a La Canada Flintridge accountant, just wanted to feel a part of history.

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He and his father, Serge Woodruff, 68, a retired banker from Hemet, grew scruffy beards for their roles. “My mom made our shirts for me and dad,” Woodruff said. A friend let them select antique muskets from his collection to carry during the reenactment. They picked the lightest ones he had.

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Tom Pearson, 18, of Glendale, built the muzzle-loading rifles that he and brother Steven, 15, and their lawyer father, Don, carried. He used wood dowels for their barrels, 2-by-6 boards for their stocks and kitchen cabinet door handles for their mock trigger mechanisms.

“It must have taken a lot of discipline for them to come all the way across the desert carrying all this stuff,” said Steven Pearson--who is the same age as some of the Mormon soldiers. “I don’t know if kids today have that kind of commitment and dedication.”

Reenactment veterans, who also portrayed members of the U.S. 1st Dragoons and the New York Volunteers during the Ft. Moore ceremony, used authentic muskets to fire a 28-gun salute to help end the rites. The blank rounds symbolized each of the states that existed 150 years ago.

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Event co-chairman Jay Johnson, a La Canada Flintridge architect, said organizers hope to raise $300,000 through a nonprofit Ft. Moore Foundation to pay for restoration of the memorial. During Friday’s ceremony, Johnson singled out Mark H. Willes, chairman of the Times Mirror board, for a $10,000 donation from the company.

The restoration efforts include renovation of the waterfall.

Unlike the pioneers it was built to memorialize, the waterfall was all but forgotten after being shut down by officials during the 1977 drought and never turned back on.


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