WEBN’s Show Can’t Hold a Roman Candle to our 1898 Fireworks Display


Illustration by Dave Urban

I used to brag about it. Maybe you did, too, but I bragged better than you, because not only had I attended every single WEBN Labor Day fireworks show since they started, I worked on many of them from the inside. Created sound tracks back when “synchronization” meant vinyl LPs and dumb luck. Stood with a walkie-talkie on the barge, screaming timing cues to master control as red-hot shells rained on my head. Ran for cover.

But by now, our brags all blur together. When WEBN launches its 40th show on September 4, many multi-year attendees will raise a toast and boast that they’ve seen it all: Cincinnati fireworks at their biggest and most spectacular. And they’ll be very, very wrong.

No one alive has seen Cincinnati’s most over-the-top fireworks of all time, because they happened more than a lifetime ago, back in 1898. True, that show was not synchronized to Led Zeppelin or emceed by Eddie Fingers, and no shells spelled out a radio station logo. But did any President of the United States ever accept an invitation to a WEBN fireworks show? Did any Riverfest choreography include the detonation of a battleship? Do you remember that time thousands of soldiers came to town on fireworks day and paraded for hours, or the explosives-laden barge that almost slammed into the Suspension Bridge? Didn’t think so. Riverfest, schmiverfest. Nothing will ever equal the fireworks party of 1898.

You may wonder what grand occasion inspired such a mammoth celebration, since WEBN did not yet exist high atop Frog’s Mountain and Labor Day was not yet significant enough to inspire a mattress sale, much less fireworks. We’ll get to that. First, let us note that not all the superlatives surrounding the 1898 fireworks were positive. The bombs bursting in air oversaw a serious breakdown of social order on the ground. That near-collision with the bridge, for instance, was thanks to a Newport mob. Meanwhile, every downtown street provided America with a good reason for enacting Prohibition a few years later. We are essentially talking about a square-mile wide, extremely well-lit, outdoor bar fight.

The best way to recount the story of the 1898 fireworks is through a few of the major characters who inspired its planning, promotion, and performance. Their names are largely forgotten now, but at the time they were Kardashian-level famous.

  1. Admiral Pascual Cervera. Who? This guy, who probably never heard of Cincinnati, was the entire reason for our city’s celebration. Admiral Cervera’s Spanish naval fleet had just been squashed like a bug by U.S. forces in Cuba, abruptly ending the Spanish-American War. His humiliation provided the theme of Cincinnati’s party: a fully choreographed reenactment of our victory at the Battle of Santiago, staged on the Ohio River. (USA! USA!) Giant model battleships rode atop each barge. On the banks of the Licking River, fake Spanish forts were built for the sole purpose of being blown up. The fireworks? They were stand-ins for cannon fire, accompanied by actual destruction.

Can any WEBN display compare to this? America, the world’s newest superpower, was staging its victory lap in Cincinnati. Many local celebrities were on board the barge-battleships, in uniform, including the guy playing Cervera…

  1. Winsor McCay. McCay ranks with Walt Disney as history’s most influential cartoonist and film animator. He created Little Nemo, one of the first popular comic strips, and later drew one of the earliest animated cartoons, Gertie The Dinosaur. McCay’s rise to fame began during the 12 years he lived in Cincinnati, and by 1898, his popularity made him a natural candidate to portray Admiral Cervera on fireworks night.
  2. Philip Morton. Today we would dub Phil the evening’s executive producer. He began in Cincinnati as a simple painter of those giant words and ads you see in photos of 19th century buildings, but by 1898 he’d become the Steve Jobs of roadside blight. Doing business as Ph. Morton, Phil was an early pioneer of putting ads into free-standing frames called “bill-boards” and plunking them down everywhere. Eventually every railroad route and motorway in America had its view ruined by a Ph. Morton billboard. Phil became super-rich and influential, helped plan Cincinnati’s 1898 extravaganza, and hired Winsor McCay, his protégé, to paint those realistic battleship replicas. We don’t know if it was also Morton’s decision to cast McCay as Admiral Cervera, but it was a fateful turn, thanks to…
  3. Newport Thugs. Can Newport’s history ever catch a break? The Spanish-designated barges and boats sat along the Newport bank of the Licking River awaiting orders from Cervera/McCay. Phil Morton was on board as well. That’s when a bunch of youths, deciding that even fake Spaniards deserved some authentic hostility, started throwing a barrage of mudballs and rocks at the barge. McCay and Morton were hit—they weren’t seriously injured—but the crew on the accompanying tugboat panicked and backed away, setting them adrift. The battleship floated aimlessly instead of attacking; confused spectators probably assumed that the crew was as drunk as everyone else. When the barge started on a collision course with the Suspension Bridge, a real distress signal went up and an emergency boat scrambled to the rescue.

The now off-script battle loosely resumed and America was made great again. What a loud, bright, well-lubricated success it all was—minus the substantial number of crimes, fights, and injuries reported. The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, pointing its finger at the police, wrote, “Admirable as is the local department in many respects, candor compels the statement that it does not do first-class work in the management of multitudes of people.” Which is basically the 1898 equivalent of: You cops suck at crowd control.

Great story, isn’t it? A cast of thousands, non-stop fireworks, real destruction, spontaneous riots, near-collision of barge and bridge. It’s all too much. No, really, it is literally too much. Despite having appeared in trustworthy published works, it is, in fact, a myth. A cheesy biopic, Based On A True Story.

I hereby claim to be the first in our lifetime to expose this shocking truth, along with a theory of how the legend started. Ponder the implications as I await my Pulitzer. The truth, we shall see, is both bigger and smaller than the myth. First, the big reveal: Cincinnati did not have one notable fireworks show in 1898. It had three. The popular story above is a condensed composite, plus a few outright fabrications. Let’s walk through what really happened on each night:

Fireworks One: Saturday, May 21, 1898. Most of the particulars here fit the official, flawed story, but the ones that don’t…well, they really, really don’t. For instance, the real Battle of Santiago? It happened on July 3, more than a month after this night. Whoops.

It was actually America’s victory at Manila Bay on May 1 that inspired Cincinnati’s initial celebration, and with a completely different cast of characters. We declared “Dewey Day” in honor of esteemed Admiral George Dewey—as famous a superhero in 1898 as was General Eisenhower in 1945, General Schwarzkopf in 1991, and Captain America from 1941 to present.

As May 21 dawned, a procession of patriotic events began. More than likely, so did the drinking. Parades snaked through the streets, bands played, kegs emptied, church bells rang, flags waved, more kegs emptied.

By the time darkness fell and the pyro-theatrics began, things had gotten sloppy. Crowds spilled off sidewalks into the path of the parade, creating I-75-like backups. Burglars paraded into empty homes. Pickpockets were as happy as birds during cicada season.

The rest of the night, however, generally fits the popular narrative, so why not just forgive someone’s mixing up a battle name? (After all, the choreographed boats, fireworks, and demolitions were truly spectacular.) Nope, sorry, too many other things are missing or just wrong. News coverage from several papers contain nothing about Newport havoc or a barge floating dangerously awry. And not a single mention of Winsor McCay, not even in the Commercial Tribune, where he worked.

Fireworks Two: Monday, July 4, 1898. It’s Independence Day, the Christmas of fireworks. Perhaps we’ll find the accurate template for our story here. Victory in Cuba had been a foregone conclusion for weeks, so even though the Battle of Santiago didn’t wrap up until July 3, plans for the Fourth already included the celebration of our inevitable win. Yes, here is where our triumph at Santiago actually did see a re-enactment.

Except this show didn’t happen on the Ohio River; it happened on Lake Como at Coney Island. It was vastly smaller, much less specific, and isn’t even worth noting outside of being the only evidence of a Santiago battle re-enactment anywhere. Phil Morton was probably delighted to repurpose some of his May 21 gear.

Fireworks Three: Thursday, September 8, 1898. This night’s display had by far the biggest crowd but may have left the weakest memory. That’s because the city was exhausted from partying, dawn to dark, full blast, for four days and nights. (Perhaps the fireworks were a strategy to help keep everyone awake.) What was this extravaganza all about? Back to school? A plentiful harvest? The Reds going all the way?

No, this had been planned weeks in advance. It was the annual convention of the Grand Army of The Republic, a large and powerful group consisting of, and providing support for, Civil War veterans. (This was before our federal government started “supporting” veterans.) The G.A.R. had chapters everywhere, and almost all of them crowded into Cincinnati to celebrate America’s biggest military victory since Appomattox. Even President McKinley was scheduled to show up and cheer tens of thousands of soldiers parading through town for an entire day; sadly, blaming urgent post-war responsibilities, he cancelled at the last minute.

Like the other two fireworks nights, pieces of this one don’t fit the official narrative either, and this time, the bad fit comes from the fireworks themselves. They’re on the Ohio River, they’re enormous and beautiful, but dammit, they are fireworks only. No re-enactments, no boats in costume, no rioting Newporters or barges gone wild.

Phil Morton did indeed hire Winsor McCay to play a role, but not on the river. McCay constructed and painted a huge arch that spanned several Cincinnati streets for the multitudes to march beneath. The police and populace, chastened by the embarrassments of May 21, partied quite responsibly this time. Huzzah.

So that’s the real story of Cincinnati’s 1898 fireworks. Neither WEBN nor anyone else has ever matched it since: a citywide cascade of events, a record-breaking launch of explosives, and national press coverage. Twice in one summer! The biggest national exposure WEBN’s fireworks ever got was 10 seconds on NBC’s Real People in 1983.

But how, then, did bits and pieces from these separate events congeal into one impossible story, one that has hardened inside an official Winsor McCay biography (Winsor McCay: His Life and Art, written by John Canemaker) and in a full-page posthumous retrospective for McCay in The Cincinnati Enquirer? What happened to what happened in 1898? I think I know the answer: Philip Morton.

It’s surprising how quickly this guy disappeared from history, considering that his wealth and influence made him roughly comparable to Carl Lindner in our time. When Morton died in 1941—front-page news—he was considered Cincinnati’s largest individual property owner. He was a major player in many areas, especially public events, and directly involved in all of our 1898 pyro pageants.

Morton didn’t own a circus, but a bit of Barnum hyperbole seems to have been in him. He was famous for telling amusing stories that were, conveniently, decades old and unverifiable. Did you know that Morton’s Dayton branch once employed a young Orville Wright? In his pre-flight days, running a bicycle shop with his brother Wilbur, Orville pedalled a customized bike built on pontoons across the lake of a Dayton amusement park, proudly waving a Ph. Morton ad banner! Spectators must have thought Jesus scored an endorsement deal. But when Morton told the story in later years, he switched brothers. Now it was Wilbur on those pontoons, not Orville.

Also note that Phil’s story has no date, no reliable location, was never told by anyone else involved, and when he told it to an Enquirer reporter, there was no one around to corroborate it. Sound familiar? Well, the extra-exciting popular version of our 1898 fireworks—the one that puts Morton and McCay in mortal danger—also has no date, no reliable location, was never mentioned by anyone else involved, and when Morton told it to an Enquirer reporter, there was no one around to corroborate it.

That’s right: Our official, impossible, hybrid fireworks tale first appeared half a lifetime after the event, in 1936, as part of an Enquirer retrospective about the recently-departed Winsor McCay. The celebrated animator could not possibly have played the daring admiral depicted in that article, but don’t blame McCay for planting the story; he was dead, just like Orville Wright. Both anecdotes were “relayed by Philip Morton,” with no evidence to support them and no survivors to refute them.

If I’m correct that Philip Morton mangled his memory of 1898’s events and even pumped some steroids into them, I forgive him. I’m not quite the age he’d reached when he recounted these adventures, but I’ve already been called out by friends and family for screwing up details when sharing old times. Blame our aging neurons. Or wet brain. Or weed brain.

In any event, WEBN is set to launch its 40th fireworks. But please, don’t confuse that with the 40th fireworks anniversary, or the station’s 50th, which is next year. The first big bang in 1977 was for the station’s 10th birthday and intended as a one-time event, which, at the time, The Cincinnati Post called “the largest fireworks display in Cincinnati history.” I don’t think so. I’m proud of the time I worked at WEBN, during the station’s best years, and proud of the tradition it started for our town. Yet I must bow to the undisputed champions of Cincinnati fireworks, Philip Morton and the Pyromasters of 1898. Their “official” story may be a lot of smoke and a few extra mirrors, but the real one—all three of it—still sparkles.

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