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Travel: Celebrating America’s Independence is a Bristol tradition

Lisa Elia
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The Chronicle Express

The New England, coastal town of Bristol, Rhode Island, takes patriotism seriously as its Fourth of July celebration is the oldest and most continuous in the country.

Independence Day is a dandy in this town as American flags and red-white-and-blue buntings hang from Colonial- to Federal-style to Victorian homes. Window boxes brim with red, white and blue flowers, patriotic wreaths and wooden Uncle Sam statues decorate porches, and most decorations stay up all summer.

Bristol’s most famous landmark - a red, white and blue stripe down the middle of its main drag - which made its first appearance around the nation’s bicentennial - stays year-round.

Families have cookouts and picnics all over town and eat Italian sausages, Portugese chorizo, chowder and quahog-studded fritters as they watch the parade.

Located midway between Providence and Newport, Bristol sits on a claw-shaped peninsula, with much of its coastline along the Narragansett and Mount Hope bays. The town of about 23,000 features tree-lined streets, locally owned shops and restaurants, historic homes and a history as a deepwater sailing and shipping port.

The first patriotic noises were heard in Bristol was on July 4, 1777, when the American forces set off 13 volleys of cannonfire from Bristol, which could be heard a mile away by the British in Portsmouth on Aquidneck Island, said Rei Battcher, a historian for the Bristol Historical and Preservation Society. The shots - one for each of the 13 new colonies - were fired at sunrise and sunset.

After the war’s end, Rev. Henry Wight, a surgeon and war veteran who later became a minister at the First Congregational Church in Bristol, made the first proclamations of patriotic pride when he read the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1785.

He read the document at Bristol Town Hall in front of a small crowd, who later walked a couple of blocks to the First Congregational Church for prayers and singing. Battcher said the service was to give thanks that Bristol survived a barrage of British cannonfire in 1775 and the burning of 30 buildings in 1778.

Rev. Wight continued to read the Declaration of Independence for about 50 more years, and it became known as the Patriotic Exercises. The procession grew into a more formalized parade by 1826, Battcher said. Since then, the Patriotic Exercises have continued, and the celebration has mushroomed - kicking off on Flag Day and continuing for about three weeks until July 4 and features concerts, carnivals, a ball, sporting events, a naval vessel in the harbor and fireworks.

There’s plenty to do in Bristol even when it isn’t the Fourth of July. There’s historic mansions, including Linden Place and Blithewold; a bike path along the water that leads to Providence; and the Herreshoff Marine Museum, where five of the America’s Cup defenders were built.

The Patriotic Exercises will take place this year in a format that will conform to COVID-19 restrictions.

For more information about the status of the other Fourth of July activities, visit https://www.fourthofjulybristolri.com/parade or www.bristolri.gov.