150 years of Thunder

Apr 13, 2011 at 5:00 am

As we gather on our city’s front porch to celebrate Thunder Over Louisville’s sesquicentennial on Saturday, it’s important to take a look back at Thunder’s storied history of glorious firepower. From its inauspicious beginnings in April 1861 to today’s fireworks-and-air-show extravaganza, Thunder Over Louisville has kept generation after generation of revelers enthralled with a range of thrilling stunts, pyrotechnics and eye candy found nowhere else on Earth.

Admittedly, Thunder’s first 37 years were no more spectacular than an average spring day in Louisville because the event literally consisted of thunder over Louisville provided by warm, moist air fronts moving across the Ohio Valley. But one particularly loud thunderclap in 1875 proved momentous when it spooked a stable of horses into a quarter-mile stampede in what would become an annual tradition known as The Kentucky Derby. But the Derby seems destined to forever live in the shadow of its “big brother,” Thunder Over Louisville.

It wasn’t until the Spanish-American War in 1898 that Thunder became the country’s premier showcase for America’s military might (not counting wars). Inspired by that conflict, Louisville promoter Walter Witney Brown organized a thrilling reenactment of hand-to-hand combat and “Rough Rider” cavalry on the Louisville waterfront, followed by a prolonged Navy battle between armored warships in the Ohio River. Sadly, 63 brave Kentuckians and 75 Hoosiers gave their lives in tribute to our armed forces, but Thunder became more popular than ever.

Despite these thrilling reenactments, something was missing: air power. Finally, during World War I, Thunder found its true home in the skies. With the invention of fixed-wing “aeroplanes” and other flight technologies like glider sailplanes and zeppelins, the first fighter aces and other aircraft appeared over Louisville’s skies. Sadly, the thrill turned to tragedy when 11,345 spectators and participants died in an opium-fueled riot at the 1919 Thunder. Ironically, Thunder was credited with helping end the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, because many of those who died were carrying the bug.

During the Great Depression, Thunder fell on hard times. The city could not afford fireworks, and the military couldn’t spare enough fuel to send its hardware to Louisville. Nevertheless, Louisvillians showed their endearing trademark party grit when 110,000 revelers gathered on the waterfront to watch two ruffians beat up a hobo. Sadly, 19,234 spectators died in 1934 after consuming bathtub gin sold illegally from a fried dough stand.

The modern Thunder era arguably began in 1940 with the invention of the portable outhouse. An instant hit with Thundergoers, the “Sanitation House in Transit,” or “S.H.I.T.-house,” was especially popular with women, and served to convert Thunder from an event primarily attended by men and prostitutes into an attraction for the whole family. Even today, thousands of women eagerly line up at the popular S.H.I.T.-houses and spend much of their Thunder waiting their turn to go inside.

Further enhancements to Thunder came in the ’60s and ’70s with the surging popularity of rock ’n’ roll music and the fashion of wearing jean shorts. Thunder organizers placed loudspeakers around the waterfront, and swarms of music fans gathered to dance in their denim cutoffs as fireworks exploded overhead. Sadly, at Thunder 1978, a batch of bad Quaaludes sold at a Bunyan Onion stand killed 2,345 visitors. That same year, 7,483 Thundergoers were sickened by Mexican marijuana that had been clandestinely sprayed by the American government with the herbicide Paraquat.

In the ’00s, Thunder enjoyed perhaps its biggest revitalization thanks to religion-driven terrorism, which reignited patriotism and introduced a new generation of revelers to interstate-highway shade. The post-9/11 Thunders were some of the most successful in history, as 700,000 visitors each year lined both sides of the river to watch America’s finest war craft swoop through the skies and gently dip their wings to Lee Greenwood‘s “God Bless the USA,” completely free of irony.

So this Saturday, as we fight the traffic, then walk to the waterfront, then stand in line to buy a Pegasus Pin, all while averting our eyes from the morbidly obese gentleman who smells like he sat in pee, let’s pay homage to those who built this tradition so we can raise an overpriced beer to the next 150 years of Thunder Over Louisville!