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Big Boom In Boston

July 2024
11min read

“Come immediately … Nothing like it in a lifetime!” an exalted customer telegrapheds wife after hearing the opening number of the National Peace Jubilee in 1869

What must have been the most starting outburst of sound in the history of harmonics was rendition of the Anvil Chorus from Verdi’s Il Trovalore that split the air of Boston, Massachusetts, one hundred years ago last June 15. Featured were one hundred Boston firemen wearing blue trousers, red shirts with double rows of brass buttons, and gleaming brass helmets, smashing away with blacksmith’s hammers upon as many anvils, amid showers of sparks. Against this organized cacophony a chorus of ten thousand roared out, in four-part harmony, specially written words that transformed this high point of an Italian opera into an even greater showstopper as an American patriotic hymn. Behind them, a one-thousand-piece orchestra puffed and pounded. “The largest pipe organ in the world” rumbled and thundered, and “the world’s biggest bass drum,” twenty-five feet in circumsference, gave forth with resonant booms. Bells from every church tower in Boston chimed in somewhat haphazardly. A battery of cannon outside the building, electrically fired by push buttons located on the conductor’s music stand, shook the ground for miles around as the chorus soared to its crashing climax.

And the throbbing audience of forty thousand jumped up and down, madly waving programs, flags, fans, handkerehiefs. Some reported later that they thought they had “gone to Heaven,” and a Mrs. Dunlap from Chicago actually did die in the balcony, either from sheer excitement or consternation. Whether she went to heaven is not known.

The occasion was the National Peace Jubilee, a monster musical explosion that continued for five days in a vast, bunting-draped, indoor coliseum—a temporary wooden structure, seating fifty thousand, named the Temple of Peace. (The new Madison Square Garden in New York seats 20,234.) The excuse for this gigantic caterwaul was to celebrate “the restoration of peace,” more than four years after Appomattox.

Actually, the jubilee was in part a promotional scheme for Boston business houses. More than that, however, it was the expression of a grandiose dream of Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, the first great American bandmaster and one of the world’s most flamboyant musical showmen. And it is even possible that the jubilee may have hit a few significant licks for culture.

Pat Gilmore, who conceived, promoted, organized, and directed the event, was a winsome character—part Barnum, part great conductor, part pixie, and part Professor Harold Hill, the itinerant horn salesman recently immortalized on stage and screen as the Music Man. Of medium height and looks, Gilmore was blessed with abounding good nature, quick Irish wit, and, evidently, an ear for perfect pitch, sales as well as musical.

Gilmore was humbly born at Ballygar, in County Galway, on Christmas Day, 1829. Sixteen years later he was playing B-flat cornet in the town band at Athlone, where he had a job in a brewery. In 1848 Pat emigrated to Boston, then America’s musical capital, and in a half dozen years he was leading New England’s best band.

During the Civil War Gilmore went to New Orleans to organize a suitable celebration for the inauguration of the new carpetbag governor of Louisiana, Michael “Beast” Hahn. He recruited five thousand singing youngsters from New Orleans schools, and some three hundred military bandsmen. Their concert in Lafayette Square reached a climax with “Hail Columbia!” in which the singers and musicians were backed up by cannon salvos and pealing church bells.

The National Peace Jubilee, a mammoth version of the New Orleans doings, came to our hero in a vision one June day in 1867 while he was walking along the street in New York City. “A vast structure rose before me,” wrote Gilmore, who loved soaring rhetoric almost as much as band music and cannonading, “through whose lofty arches a chorus of ten thousand voices and the harmony of one thousand instruments rolled their sea of sound, accompanied by the chiming of bells and the booming of cannon … all pouring forth … loud hosannahs with all the majesty and grandeur of which music seemed capable.” As Gilmore conceived the event, the President of the United States and practically everybody else important in this country and abroad would be there.

But when Gilmore got home to Boston and revealed his vision to his wife, she reacted as follows: “Why, are you crazy? Have you lost your senses?” Fat then broached his idea to friends among local business and civic leaders; they viewed the project pretty much as Mrs. Gilmore had. Next, he offered the jubilee to politicians in Washington; then to city fathers in New York. At least one of the latter thought he must be dangerously insane.

Concluding that New York was a nice place for visions but a poor site for a jubilee, Pat resolved to stage his show in Boston as originally conceived, although nobody seemed to be for it except a few dreamy musicians. Leading local businessmen and bankers did meet and consider the project but reported, “We are not interested.” In his vision in June, 1867, Gilmore had seen his jubilee happening in almost exactly two years, but when New Year’s Day, 1869, arrived—his target date not six months away —he had not a penny in the jubilee treasury.

At least the press thought it made a good story. Gilmore gave Boston editors an extravagant announcement of the projected event, adorned with fancy type, exclamation marks, patriotic slogans, and drawings of flags and eagles; and the newspapers responded with enthusiasm and big headlines. “One of the most gigantic musical schemes in the world’s history is brewing in Boston,” blared the Boston Herald . “An event is being planned that will startle the city,” said the Traveler .

It did that, all right. Old Back Bay families were horrified at the thought of using the sacred Boston Common for such a “camping and tramping.” High-collar musical organizations considered the jubilee gauche. And the out-of-town press had a fine time casting aspersions on the whole shebang. “There is a limit to the number of voices which can sing effectively together,— a limit fixed by the laws of acoustics, and ten thousand is just about ten times too many,” said the New York Tribune . And the Philadelphia Bulletin prophesied direly:

This will be a big noise; there will be no concord in it … The bells, being at various distances, will send in their vibrations one after the other, two, three, and four beats behind time; the cannon will hang fire … The possible result will be the distraction, perhaps the absolute lunacy, of every sensitive musical man in Boston.

Yet a number of thousand-dollar pledges rolled in, principally from hotelkeepers, music publishers, and others who stood to benefit directlv. The school board
agreed tentatively to allow 20,000 children to sing as a feature for one day only. And an ironmonger offered to furnish 100 anvils, free.

But this was hardly a drop in the financial bucket, and public interest remained low. Gilmore pleaded with Boston’s builders to supply lumber and workmen and wait for their pay from ticket sales, but the builders had little faith in that. Three promoters set out to sell fifty thousand dollars’ worth of tickets in a month for a five per cent commission, but gave up in disgust after three days. (Reserved seats were $5 each; choice season tickets for all five days, $100 each; general admission, $2.) Gilmore next tried to persuade each local lumber dealer to contribute a part of the building. No luck. He campaigned through the state, asking each town to send a volunteer corps of Civil War veterans to contribute one day’s work. Nothing doing.

The maestro wrote later that his “distress of mind at this time was indeed almost unbearable.” He was “so enraptured” with his project that he had given up “all remunerative sources of employment.” He was, in fact, broke: “Grim-visaged Want was staring [me] in the face.” When March arrived with the coliseum no nearer reality, Gilmore desperately resolved to hold his jubilee outdoors, “with the blue vault of Heaven as its canopy.”

But at this point he got a big break. Boston’s leading merchant, Eben D. Jordan, head of Jordan, Marsh &
Company, had been watching Gilmore with mingled admiration, wonder, and the realization that a successful jubilee would be mighty good for Boston business. Early in March Jordan agreed to help organize the National Peace Jubilee Association and be its treasurer.

That did it. Top businessmen and bankers were quick to join the executive committee, and they agreed to underwrite expenses from their own pockets, to be repaid from seat sales. The site of the jubilee was changed from the Common to St. James Park, to quiet the Back Bay set. Circulars listing the numbers to be sung and giving detailed instructions for rehearsals were mailed to numerous choral societies. Each qualifying group was offered half the railroad fare to Boston and back, “reasonable” lodgings, and a bound volume of the festival music. In all, 103 vocal groups made it, and several dozen bands. And now, auditoriums and halls from Maine to the Midwest began resounding to nightly choral effusions and the brayings and oompahings of countless band rehearsals.

In Boston regiments of carpenters began work, and half the town came out to rubberneck as the great coliseum took shape like the ribs of Noah’s ark. Some religious
citizens decided this signalled the beginning of the millennium. Others compared it with the Tower of Babel. And various nervous individuals left town to escape the anticipated onslaught of culture seekers.

The Temple of Peace, which was built in three months, was 500 feet long, 300 feet wide, and 100 feet from floor to roof ridge; it was constructed of fine Georgia pine. It contained 144 windows and a pair of six-foot-wide ventilators running the length of its roof. Main doorways were twenty-four feet wide, and forty-five great flagpoles projected from the roof. More than 7,500 pounds of mixed paint covered the exterior with sandstone color, trimmed withbrownstone; the interior with blue, gray, pink, and gold. Murals of harvest fields represented the return of plenty. The arch above the ten-thousand-voice choir was formed by two huge gilded angels, the torch of war lying extinguished at their feet. They clutched olive branches while gazing upward at a colossal scroll that proclaimed: “Glory to God In the Highest; Peace On Earth Good Will Toward Men.”

The Boston Herald gave twenty columns of publicity in one issue. Reporters excitedly measured the pipes of “the world’s greatest organ,” and exclaimed over the
building’s forty-eight water closets, “so completely equipped for every necessity of nature.” More than 2,400 gas jets fed by 25,000 feet of specially laid pipe provided interior lighting. The city put down a six-inch water main to serve the sinks, water closets, and Cataract Hose Company Number Ten, which moved right into the building with two hose carriages, twelve firemen, and 1,600 feet of hose.

Ole Bull, the internationally famous Norwegian violinist, agreed to serve as guest conductor. Euphrosyne Parepa-Rosa, an amply built soprano who, despite her name, hailed from Britain, and who had been featured at the Handel festivals in London’s Crystal Palace, would be chief soloist. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote “A Hymn Of Peace” as the festival’s theme song, and President Grant, his cabinet, and most of the Washington upper brass announced that they would be on hand. The jubilee was now a sure-fire box-office success.

A city of tents and wooden shacks began to spread about the coliseum, offering lodging, entertainment, gingerbread, soft drinks, notions, and souvenirs. Great crowds assembled daily to listen to the thunderous rumbles as the great organ was tuned. A multitude greeted the mighty drum when it arrived on a flatcar at the railroad station. And a cough-drop manufacturer announced that he would present each singer with a box of Brown’s Bronchial Troches.

And so, on June 15, 1869, the National Peace Jubilee opened its doors to what the New York Times called “the largest, most eager throng that ever awaited admission to an American place of entertainment.” After some long-winded preliminaries, the great Gilmore appeared on the podium, his star-shaped studs gleaming, his frame quivering with excitement. He thanked his backers; then he turned to his massed singers and musicians and gave the downbeat.

Whereupon an overwhelming detonation of harmony smote the audience and shook the building as the giant orchestra, great organ, and full chorus let loose fortissimo with Martin Luther’s rousing chorale, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” As if to prove this declaration, the sun burst through the clouds and flooded the Temple with its rays just at the peak of the hymn’s crescendo. The effect was overpowering. One man rushed from the audience and telegraphed his wife: “Come immediately! Will sacrifice anything to have you here. Nothing like it in a lifetime!”

The whole show—all five days of it—was a resounding success as capacity houses listened to slices of popular classics, hymns, and patriotic selections, all rendered with astonishing energy, imagination, and co-ordination. The hit number, performed every day, was the Anvil Chorus, with its firemen, bells, and cannon. The jubilee drew a truly national audience—lumbermen from the Northwest; quality families from the South; New Englanders from farms, villages, and
towns; and New Yorkers and Bostonians of high and low degree. The big moment of the jubilee came on its third day when President Grant and his cabinet strode down the center aisle while the orchestra played “See, the Conquering Hero Comes,” and, the New York Evening Post reported, “seething crowds … thirty deep at least, panted and struggled and stood for four mortal hours trying to listen to the music …” There were, to be sure, moments of musical confusion from time to time, but the decibel level was so high that they were hardly noticed. The New York Times summarized the reaction of the press: “In spite of a few unfortunate irregularities of the performers and certain errors in arrangements … the Peace Jubilee was one of the most remarkable successes ever accomplished in this or any country.”

The National Peace Jubilee was not only an emotional success; it actually made money. Total expenses were $283,388.29 (of which the coliseum cost $120,750.68). Total receipts were $290,270.33. The profit was thus $6,882.04. Delighted Bostonians rewarded Gilmore with a $40,000 purse, and he left for a vacation in Europe—where the Franco-Prussian War was soon to begin. Its conclusion provided him with the inspiration, three years later, to throw another musical wingding in Boston in praise of peace, this one billed as “twice the size” of the 1869 affair.

For this World Peace Jubilee, Gilmore secured as soloists such internationally famous European artists as Franz Abt, Arabella Goddard, and Franz Bendel; he also imported three of the world’s most distinguished bands. From London came the band of the Grenadier Guards in red, gold, and bearskins; from Paris the band of La Garde Républicaine. The Kaiser sent the band of the Kaiser Franz Regiment and his Own Household Cornet Quartet. But Gilmore’s greatest catch was Johann Strauss, composer of “The Blue Danube” and in 1872 probably the most popular musician in the world. Lured by Gilmore’s persuasive powers and a reported fee of $20,000, the Waltz King departed Vienna and made his only trip to America to conduct the immense orchestra in
one of his waltzes on each of the jubilees eighteen days, as well as at a Grand Ball. Strauss later wrote: On the musicians’ tribune there were 20,000 singers; in front of them the 2,000 members of the orchestra. A hundred assistant conductors had been placed at my disposal. I was face-to-face with a public of 40,000 Americans. Suddenly a cannon shot rang out, a gentle hint for us … to start playing.

Although Gilmore scored another personal triumph, this second festival, running from June 15 through July 4, 1872, was disappointing artistically and financially. The size of the crowds fell short of expectations; so did some of the performances. Various disasters dogged the enterprise. A coliseum seating 100,000 was to have replaced the original Temple of Peace, which had been wrecked by a storm. The second Temple’s wooden trusses were so large and unwieldy, however, that they blew down before carpenters were able to brace them securely. The sponsors then cut its capacity to 60,000 and ran the building up as cheaply as possible. There were also instrumental troubles. The giant bass drum, twenty-one feet in diameter, was so huge its head would not vibrate properly; it was hung on the wall for show. The immense organ required so much pressure that the engine powering the bellows gave out.

Apparently the World Peace Jubilee was just too big to be practical. And it lacked the spontaneity and enthusiasm of the first. Nevertheless, the European bands made a big hit. They created a splendid show each day by marching in uniformed formation into the coliseum. And they sounded, many people thought, a lot better than the twenty-six American bands.

Perhaps this inspired Gilmore, soon after the World Peace Jubilee ended, to move to New York and announce plans to build the “best military band in the world.” He may or may not have succeeded in this, but he did assemble the first great band in America by paying the highest salaries in the business—up to $650 per week (for a featured cornetist)—and inspiring his musicians with his own electric enthusiasm.

The last twenty years of his life saw Gilmore’s Band become an American institution. New York’s old Hippodrome was renamed “Gilmore’s Gardens,” and his band packed it for 150 consecutive concerts. For thirteen seasons Gilmore’s Band was the main attraction at then-popular Manhattan Beach, and it made highly successful annual tours to the larger U.S. cities. In 1878, Gilmore and his men became the first American brass band to tour Europe.

Gilmore left behind him a musical tradition that paved the way for the great age of American bands. He died of a heart attack on September 24, 1892, while playing a series of concerts for the St. Louis Exposition. Two days later John Philip Sousa’s band gave its first concert. Sousa truly picked up where Gilmore left off, and went on to greater renown; and a score of other band leaders, with Gilmore as their inspiration, attained national or even international acclaim.

But in many ways the National Peace Jubilee of 1869 was the peak of Gilmore’s career; it was his shining hour, and he never touched that height again. As the New York Sun commented after the 1869 event: Heretofore America has had no standing in the musical artworld. England has looked down on us. Germany has supposed that no Festival could be given here except by her Sängerbunds. Italy and France have recognized for us no higher possibilities than the production of their operas. At one step … we have lifted ourselves … to an artistic level with these nations…. But [the jubilee] has done more. It has shown that our people can think of something beyond mechanical inventions and the almighty dollar, and it has given earnest of a noble musical future for America.

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