Was This the Most Ambitious Event Ever Held in an NPS Area?

Part of the tent city set up for the event. Photo from "The Yorktown Sesquicentennial," published by the Government Printing Office, 1932.

Most of us face some challenging tasks from time to time at work, but you can be thankful you weren't put in charge of this project. It gets my vote for the most ambitious special event ever held in an NPS area, and it occurred on October 19 nearly eighty years ago.

In July 1930 the U.S. was in the midst of the Great Depression, but a milestone event in the nation's history was coming up. Congress had appointed a Sesquicentennial Commission in 1928 to plan an appropriate celebration for the 150th anniversary of the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, which would occur on October 19, 1931. There were, however, some serious challenges to overcome.

The Yorktown Sesquicentennial Commission published a report in 1932 detailing the event, and it provides some fascinating insights into the planning and the execution of the celebration. It noted,

"The celebration was to be held at Yorktown, and the problems involved in preparing and holding the celebration were many and perplexing."

That's probably an understatement. Colonial National Monument (now Colonial National Historical Park) was planned as the site of the event, but the area wasn't authorized by Congress until July 3, 1930, so just over a year before the celebration the park had no staff, owned no land, and had no budget.

Any other problems? The Commission report describes the area:

"Yorktown is a small hamlet of a few houses, and has a population of about 300 persons. It is 6 miles from the railroad. It had one privately owned wharf in a rather dilapidated condition, …only two small hotels and a few private homes, which were not sufficient to accommodate the large crowd of visitors reasonably to be expected.

It was without water or sewage facilities, without lights, without adequate wharves, and with only two improved highways leading into town. Yet the celebration had to be held there. It could not go elsewhere, for Yorktown was the sacred scene of the events to be commemorated."

Thanks largely to the work of the Commission and an amazing cooperative effort between a host of private groups, government agencies, the military and individuals, "when the hour struck for the celebration to open everything was ready. There had been performed what appeared to be almost a miracle."

What occurred in this new NPS area in 1931? Here's a recap, based on the Commission report.

The necessary water, sewer and other utility systems were installed and a temporary tent city was erected on the site. The celebration area covered about 300 acres, so a road network was developed, a network of footpaths extended throughout the area, and the entire area was landscaped and decorated to "present a parklike appearance."

All of this area except the pageant field, stadium and parade grounds had the appearance of a tent city…erected with such precision and symmetry that the attractive appearance received 'much favorable comment.'

A grandstand was constructed which included 16,382 free seats and 7,896 paid reserved seats; 10,000 additional seats were provided in bleachers. A stage 85 feet in diameter included a 40-foot revolving central portion which was "provided with elevator equipment by which it could be lowered into the pit for exchange of scenes without interruption of the pageant program."

The stage and seating areas were provided for four days of events, which included a host of speeches, concerts and dramatic presentations. These "pageants" involved about 3,800 participants and

illustrated the Colonial and Revolutionary periods of American history…"The greatest care was used to make the costumes of all actors portray the garments of the different periods to which they referred." On October 19, "just 150 years to the hour," the surrender of the British troops was reenacted for a huge crowd that included President Hoover, and was broadcast live around the world by radio.

Both NBC and CBS covered the entire four-day event, and to do so set up

very elaborate equipment in preparation for broadcasting a larger number of programs than had ever been attempted outside of Washington…In order to convey to the radio audience the picture of the proceedings of the surrender scene on the afternoon of October 19, the National Broadcasting Co. made what, up to that time, was probably the most elaborate microphone arrangement for any outside broadcast.

A big challenge was how to feed and house everyone who came to the event. A Richmond, Virginia, restaurateur won the competitive bid to serve food and beverages, and the army connected tents to form

one large unit with a floor space of 83,200 square feet, divided into kitchen and three dining rooms; a dining room for official luncheons for official guests seated 1,800 persons; a restaurant for the general public seated 800, and a cafeteria seated 1,800 persons. These facilities were estimated to be capable of serving 12,000 persons per hour.

A separate storage tent covered an area of 22,400 square feet and was equipped to hold 160,000 pounds of food; food deliveries were made by "Army trucks under escort, which arrived at Yorktown before dawn." The final tally: a total of 75,000 individual meals were served during the celebration—and no microwaves were available!

That tent city also housed many of the thousands of military and civilian personnel who were assigned to the event, but where would all those visitors sleep? No problem. A census was taken

of cities with a hundred-mile radius of the number of rooms offered by hotels, boarding houses and private homes." School children took home cards for parents to fill out, indicating if they had rooms to let; Boy Scouts made a house-to-house survey of available rooms, and womens' clubs "inspected and approved listings so that no visitors would be directed to undesirable places."

Yorktown's location on the York River provided access to large ships, and there was plenty of activity on the water in a town that prior to the celebration had only one "rather dilapidated wharf." The event attracted 41 Navy vessels, including 2 battleships, 1 aircraft carrier, 5 heavy cruisers, 8 light cruisers, 17 destroyers, and 1 "naval relic" (the USS Constitution); 12 Coast Guard vessels; 2 French Navy cruisers, 7 commercial steamships and about 40 other vessels.

This small fleet was apparently a big hit with those attending the celebration.

"A constant stream of visitors was carried back and forth between the ships in the harbor and the shore…It is estimated that over 100,000 visited the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels in the harbor."

The military vessels got a chance to show off their firepower when the battleship Arkansas arrived on October 19, carrying President Hoover: each of the 28 vessels fired a salute of 21 guns. That was undoubtedly an impressive demonstration, although I've read one anecdotal report that an unintended consequence was the breaking of more than a few windows in the village of Yorktown!

There was no shortage of dignitaries for the event. John Philip Sousa, the famed bandmaster, composer, and former leader of the Unites States Marine Band, conducted that band in several numbers, including the "Centennial March," which he had composed fifty years earlier for the 1881 Yorktown Centennial Celebration.

A seemingly endless parade of speakers during the four days included the governors of 13 states and General of the Army John J. Pershing, "America's greatest living soldier." President Hoover's speech on the October 19 was followed by "a grand military and naval review; more than 10,000 soldiers and sailors passed before the President, General Pershing and {French} Marshall Pètain." Numerous bands provided music for the review, prompting one reporter to note,

"It is doubtful if so many bands ever marched before in one parade. Those present will never forget the inspiring sight."

This event did take place in a new NPS area, so what specific role did the agency have beyond hosting the activity? An NPS exhibit area was set up, also under canvas, and provided an opportunity to acquaint visitors with parks in distant parts of the country. It displayed historical and natural objects, photos, paintings and "models" of parks, including Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Yosemite. The Yellowstone display included a working model of a geyser. A cadre of 57 temporary rangers, students of history at the nearby College of William and Mary, were hired for the celebration to "impart historical information to the public."

There must have been plenty of souvenirs available for attendees, but an official one was available at the post office—if you didn't mind waiting in line. A two-cent Yorktown Sesquicentennial commemorative stamp was issued for the occasion, and it was definitely a success. A total of 221,037 stamps were sold at the Yorktown Post Office on the first day alone; ultimately more than 1.5 million of the stamps were purchased in Yorktown!

It's hard to determine how many people attended the celebration; one estimate put the attendance at the final day at 150,000, although most of them clearly failed to land a seat in the grandstand. Many attendees came by train or steamship, but during the four day event, 97,000 private cars were parked in "spaces under the Army's supervision" and that was only part of the vehicle count.

There was one refreshing contrast between this event and any similar activity today: security concerns were on an entirely different level.

"At no time did the United States Commission fear serious disorders or crimes of violence. Nevertheless, it was considered the part of prudence to be prepared to preserve order and prevent crimes, particularly the operation of pickpockets."

A good summary of the celebration was provided in a report filed by Joseph S. Edgerton of the Washington Star, who noted,

"With pageantry and military pomp and splendor on a scale seldom, if ever before, seen in a State which has known more battles and campaigns than any other in the Union, Yorktown, in the lengthening shadows of an October afternoon, yesterday completed the celebration of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Surrender of the Army of Cornwallis and the realization of American Independence."

So, what's on your agenda for the coming week at work?