History and Tradition: Huntington Beach’s 4th of July Parade

Posted July 01, 2014 by Chris Epting
Huntington Beach 4th of July Parade, circa 1952

Huntington Beach has the designation of being home to the longest-running 4th of July parade west of the Mississippi. The significance of this Orange County tradition is the fact that the city's first parade, held on July 4, 1904, also took place to commemorate the arrival of the very first electric passenger train. About 50,000 people were on-hand for the event, which meant big things for Huntington Beach: they would now be linked with Long Beach and Los Angeles.

The Huntington Beach 4th of July Parade, circa 1915

The Huntington Beach 4th of July Parade, circa 1915

Photo courtesy of OC Archives

This was also the moment that Huntington Beach got its name. Originally called Pacific City, the area was rechristened in honor of Henry Huntington, who owned the electric passenger trains. Back in 1900, Henry Huntington had a pretty good idea that the railway in Huntington Beach would not be securely profitable – but he knew that passengers would eventually purchase property from him and others in the area.

A Classic Parade Ripe with Orange County Tradition

Over the years, the parade has become as much a part of county tradition as anything else. Since the beginning, it has boasted all the elements that make up classic small-town parades, including: tug-of-wars, beauty contests, airshows, high eating contests, horse races and much more. Back in the 1930s, one of the more spectacular attractions featured the city's first lifeguard and fire chief, Bud Higgins. Higgins would wear a fire suit, slather his face with petroleum jelly, cover his entire torso with alcohol and then light himself on fire and dive from a 50-foot platform above the pier into the ocean. Talk about a showstopper.

The Huntington Beach 4th of July Parade, circa 1952

Huntington Beach 4th of July Parade, circa 1952

Photo courtesy of Chris Epting

From 1943 to 1946 the parade was put on hold because of efforts during World War II.

One of the other more interesting aspects of the parade is the array of grand marshals that have been selected over the years to lead the way. Celebrities including Jayne Mansfield, Natalie Wood, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Robert Wagner, Mickey Rooney, Dorothy L'Amour, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin have all shared the honor of being grand marshal.

Beauty Contest at the Huntington Beach 4th of July Parade, circa 1952

Beauty Contest at the Huntington Beach 4th of July Parade, circa 1952

Photo courtesy of Chris Epting

This year, the theme of the parade is “Waves of Freedom” and the grand marshal will be former NFL star (and Huntington Beach native), Tony Gonzalez. There will be a host of other grand marshals too, representing sports, comedy, the military and other categories.

The all-day festivities will be capped with one of the most spectacular and longest-running firework shows in Southern California. Later this week we’ll take inside look at the “first family of fireworks” that helps put on the show. 

The Huntington Beach 4th of July Parade, circa 1952 

Photo courtesy of Chris Epting

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