Thousands celebrate the Fourth along Tacoma’s waterfront

Thousands of people packed Tacoma’s waterfront Friday to celebrate the nation’s birthday.

The 35th annual Freedom Fair held up its end of the deal, offering what seemed like limitless opportunities to shop, eat, relax and dance. Starting at 10 a.m., people flowed down through Old Town to Ruston Way, closed to traffic and open to more than 150 vendors, 30 musical acts, a pole vaulting competition and a bike race.

A few hours later the streets were bursting with people. Gary Grape, festival director for the nonprofit Tacoma Events Commission which puts on Freedom Fair, estimated around 150,000 visited the event Friday.

“I’ve been doing this now for about 13, 14 years,” Grape said. “I would say the crowds were a lot bigger this year. By 1:30 you couldn’t get a golf cart down Ruston Way, it was packed.”

Although disappointed the afternoon air show didn’t feature any military planes due to budget cuts, Grape said the civilian aircraft showed their stuff for the Fourth of July. He hopes to see the military planes return next year, if budgets allow, he said. The fair culminated with a fireworks show over Commencement Bay, scheduled for just after 10 p.m.

“It’s a tradition. You can’t live in Tacoma and not come to Freedom Fair,” said Shannon Nollan, 22, who with her family set up their picnic blanket across from the site where the fireworks barge launches the show. They spend the day soaking up the sun, playing cards, making origami items and playing in the water.

She and her daughter, Willow, munched on lunch while her brother Ryan Nollan, 15, sat astride a log and used a stick to row along the shore.

“Every year he finds a log,” Shannon Nollan said. “It’s just his thing.”

Farther down Ruston Way, Louise and Jay Bollman were applying sun block and trying to figure out exactly what their thing might be. The Bollmans attended Freedom Fair for the first time this year, in the company of their grandson Garrett, a student attending Clover Park Technical College. First impressions?

“It’s a long walk!” Louise Bollman said. The trio planned to make it all the way to the end in search of noodles for lunch.

Along 1.5 miles of Ruston Way, the Bollmans and thousands of others had opportunities to:

Near the kid play area, in a perfect placement of product and customer, kettle corn was for sale by the bouncy houses. Margarita Village promised to be an oasis of fresh fruit flavors, and it was, but pay attention to the small print: No alcohol.

That could be found at one of the 21-and-older beer gardens. At one near Katie Downs, three members of a vintage bicycle club arrived just after lunch to celebrate.

The club, the Skid Kings, was marking its 10th annual ride on the Fourth. Members meet regularly and ride their older-model bikes around town. Alicia Piña, Heidi Kammer and Theresa Brown parked their bikes inside the garden after pedaling down from The Spar.

“I’m a fair-weather rider,” Brown said, noting Friday morning’s sunny skies. The three women met through the club and now are close friends.

By afternoon the clouds rolled in, but that didn’t keep people away. Following the evening’s fireworks, volunteers and clean up crews had another three to four hours of work ahead of them, dismantling booths and restoring the street so that by Saturday morning there was no evidence of the festivities.

Kathleen Cooper: 253-597-8546