Why you should care
Because not all festivals go the way of Burning Man.
Tom Duncan and Bob Alexander had big plans. In 1972, just four years after Woodstock and the Summer of Love, the two novice, Indiana-based promoters concocted a plan for a festival that would be “bigger than Woodstock.” Named the Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival, the Labor Day event was set to feature huge names like the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, the Allman Brothers and Black Sabbath and host a massive crowd of 55,000.
But the people of Chandler, a tiny town in southern Indiana, were galled at the prospect of tens of thousands of unwashed ne’er-do-wells descending upon their bucolic utopia. Less than a week before the event, Mayor Russell Lloyd officially barred the festival from taking place within city limits. With flower children from all over the Midwest already arriving, the Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival seemed doomed before it had even begun.
The courts, according to Marley Brant in Join Together: Forty Years of the Rock Music Festival, told Duncan and Alexander they couldn’t hold the festival in Indiana. So the men rushed to find a new venue, while acts like Rod Stewart and Black Sabbath began to cancel. The venue they found — a day before doors were scheduled to open — was Bull Island, a peninsula of swampy fields situated on either side of a changing bend in the Wabash River about 50 miles away. Although technically part of Illinois, it was only accessible through Indiana, making Bull Island a lawless wasteland.
It was easier to buy drugs than it was to buy water.
Attendee Marty Pinsker
When Labor Day weekend came around, a quarter of a million people showed up — five times as many as they’d anticipated. Traffic on the two-lane road leading up to the festival grounds created a bottleneck that stretched for almost 30 miles, blocking the arrival of food, water, medical supplies, security and staff. Thousands abandoned their cars on the road and set off on foot while others waded into the festival from the bordering swamplands. “The young people making their way down the road resembled a defeated army,” reported Edwin Newman on NBC Nightly News that day. As the swelling mass of people approached, the promoters abandoned any semblance of order, declared the event free and opened up the gates to prevent riots.
Inside, chaos was already in full swing. The stage was half constructed, and the campgrounds — crammed with over four times as many people as expected — were lined with open drug markets. Hawkers set up stalls selling marijuana, mescaline, LSD and heroin. “I never saw so many drugs in my life,” attendee Ray Kessler recalled to local newspaper The Mount Vernon Democrat. With only six outhouses and half-dug wells to serve as sanitation, thousands instead took to relieving themselves en masse in what became known as “The Turd Fields” and bathing in the Wabash River.
As a thunderstorm rolled in overhead, the mayhem took a dark turn. Rain turned the festival grounds into a muddy pit, cancellations left long periods of silence on stage as the huge crowd chanted the names of heroes who never showed up. Even worse: Food and water supplies were dwindling. “It was easier to buy drugs than it was to buy water,” says attendee Marty Pinsker. “That was when the mood turned.” When vendors began gouging prices, charging upward of $10 for a hamburger, the tension broke into a morbid pandemonium worthy of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
Angry hordes formed and looted vendors, a supply truck was mobbed upon arrival, stripped of its goods by a baying crowd, and then overturned and torched. A spate of muggings and robberies plagued the campgrounds, while a batch of bad acid laced with strychnine began making the rounds. Warnings made over the loudspeaker achieved little. Scores of angry youths entertained themselves by setting RVs and trailers on fire and cheering the carnage.
Some of the hardier performers flew into the festival in helicopters and delivered rousing performances that enlivened the rowdy crowd despite the hellish conditions. Ravi Shankar famously rode on a wooden pallet atop the crowd, while the Eagles, Santana and Ted Nugent endured the rain to perform memorable sets. Comedy duo Cheech and Chong, however, took to the stage for only a few minutes before deciding the better of it and helicoptering off. Joe Cocker, upon arriving at the scene, flat out refused to play. Duncan and Alexander gave up too, fleeing the festival 24 hours before its scheduled conclusion and retreating to nearby Evansville to address a mounting pile of lawsuits.
The lasting memory for many of the Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival — better known now as Bull Island — is of the wild-eyed, weary and stranded mob who, at the end of the weekend, set the stage on fire. Even worse, two people died at the festival, one who drowned in the lake and another who overdosed on heroin. It took weeks for the last of the thousands to make their way out of the Bull Island swamplands, but the memory of what may have been the worst festival in history lingers with a nostalgic glint for many of the attendees. The owner of the land had the site bulldozed and buried the huge piles of trash, debris and waste, but walk along the marshlands of Bull Island today and you can still find bottle caps pressed into the mud.
Despite all the chaos, promoter Bob Alexander — who could not be reached for comment — may not have learned his lesson. “It had the possibility of being one of the greatest festivals ever,” he told the Evansville Courier & Press in 2012. “I think that the mere fact that we’re talking about this 40 years later says something about it as a major cultural event. You know, I’d love to try it again … in the same location.”