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Fireworks in Columbia City

A history of Hitt's Fireworks Company

Hitt's Fireworks Company brochureHitt’s Fireworks: A Family Business, 1905-1976

 

Thomas Gabriel Hitt, known as T.G. Hitt, was born in London in 1874. He was studied chemistry at Westminster College, and in 1898 he began manufacturing fireworks. Within the year, he and his brothers moved to Victoria, B.C., and started the Hitt Brothers Fireworks Company. His wife, Annie, had met T.G. in England just 10 days before he sailed for Canada. They wrote letters for three years before she finally joined him.

In 1905, the Hitts moved to Seattle and settled in Columbia City. T.G. started the Hitt’s Fireworks Company on a wooded knoll just south of town; as the business grew, the site became known as Hitt’s Hill. They built a house near the factory and raised four children: Raymond, Dorothy, Wilmot and Marion. Ray Hitt shared his father’s inventive and business talents and took over the business when his father died.

 “The Best Fireworks Obtainable Anywhere”

Hitt’s Fireworks became an internationally known company, developing new explosive products every year at their factory on Hitt’s Hill. The operation consisted of a series of sheds rather than one large building, so that accidental explosions and fires could be contained more easily.

Hitt fireworks whirled, whistled, fizzed, and flashed. Their best-selling product, the “Flashcracka,” was advertised as “the best fireworks obtainable anywhere, at any time or at any price.” In addition to individual fireworks, they produced spectacular shows all over the country. Hitt fireworks extravaganzas opened the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in Seattle and the San Francisco and New York World’s Fairs. They also produced the show that welcomed the King and Queen of England to Victoria, B.C. in 1939.

Closer to home, they presented shows at Sick’s Stadium and at Playland in north Seattle. They created the 4th of July show for Ivar’s until 1974. Their fireworks shows were large-scale productions: for every major celebration, the Hitts built elaborate sets up to 400 feet long, which served as platforms for the fireworks show. The sets carried themes such as “Mt. Fuji,” “Fires of Freedom,” and the “Birth of America,” often with lines of chorus girls and military drill teams performing between the explosions. The Hitt signature grand finale was to blow the set up in a ball of fire, igniting the skies with explosions of color and showers of rockets.

The Burning of Atlanta

Their skill at building, burning, and blowing up sets made the Hitts pioneers in movie special effects. The company produced fire scenes for, among other films, “What Price Glory” and “Gone with the Wind.”  The burning of Atlanta in “Gone with the Wind” involved a 40 acre set constructed from used sets (including the gate from “King Kong”) and then set on fire. Flames shot 500 feet in the air and it took three 5,000 gallon tank trucks of water to extinguish the flames after the shoot. All seven Technicolor cameras available in Hollywood at the time were used to film the sequence, capturing 113 minutes of footage at a cost of $25,000. The film was nominated for a special effects Oscar.

A Smokescreen for the Shipyard

During WWII, the company manufactured flares and safety supplies for the military. Their most notable contribution to the war effort was the smokescreen over the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton. Throughout the war, the shipyard at Bremerton built ships for the navy and repaired battle ships and aircraft carriers serving in the Pacific. To protect this essential operation from a sneak attack like the one at Pearl Harbor, the  Hitt’s Fireworks Company used their knowledge of chemicals and explosive powders to create a smoke screen for the shipyard, hiding it from potential enemy planes flying overhead.

 “They’ve taken the independence out of Independence Day”

There were a few explosions at the Hitt factory over the years, with one tragic fatality in 1921. In 1961 the Safe and Sound Fireworks Restrictions made it illegal to manufacture many types of fireworks in Seattle. These regulations hurt the Hitts’ business. Ray Hitt commented, “They’ve taken the independence out of Independence Day.” With fireworks production moved to China, Hitt’s continued to produce lavish fireworks shows until the cost of permits and liability insurance made the shows unprofitable. The last fireworks show the Hitts put on was for Ivar’s in 1974.

Hitt’s Hill Today

 

Members of the Hitt family spent years negotiating with property owners, developers and Seattle mayors advocating to preserve the hilltop. These efforts finally paid off after the formation of the Friends of Hitt’s Hill, when the group worked with the Cascade Land Conservancy and the Seattle Parks Department to transform the site of the old Hitt's Fireworks Company into a park. The nearly four-acre property now provides quiet, natural, open space and trails for Rainier Valley residents and a home for birds and other wildlife.

 Mikala Woodward

[article edited, 2014]