The whimsically named festival, organised way back in 1972, was such a disaster that festival pundits still refer to it as the worst music festival ever.
Bad music festivals are aplenty. In fact, even iconic ones like the legendary Woodstock couldn’t escape scathing criticism when its edition of 1999 fell flat, literally. But Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival belongs in yet another league of its own, if we’re speaking of tragedies, that is. The Sherp looks back at the festival, and everything that went wrong with it.
On paper, the Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival had a lot going for it. The festival, touted to take over the legend of Woodstock was to take place over the Labour Day weekend in 1972. Among its list of performers were Black Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac, Cheech and Chong, Ravi Shankar and The Allman Brothers. It was to give Indiana a taste of music and counter-culture. But as good as it did sound in theory, the event was nothing less than a misnomer.
Tom Duncan and Bob Alexander, mere newbies in the festival scene were all ready to organise a festival that would stand up to the Woodstocks, Isle of Wights, and the Glastonburys of the world. Having already held a successful small scale festival with performances by Tina Turner, Edgar Winter and New Riders of the Purple Sage in Indiana, they believed it to be time to go big. That it when the ambitious Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival came to be. With some of the greatest musical icons of the time, all set to perform at Chandler, Indiana, a small, picturesque town near Evanseville, very little could go wrong. Or so they thought.
Shift in venue
The organisers, in the days leading to the festival, released ads for the event splashed all across Rolling Stone Magazine. All was good until, due to several court battles, the then Evansville mayor Russell Lloyd banned the festival from taking place. With little time to exercise a proper change in venue, the festival was promptly shifted to Bull Island, Indiana. The festival, since then, began to be infamously referred to as the Bull Island festival, and not for good reason.
The swampy venue that was Bull Island
Bull Island was a large mass of swampy ground on the Indiana-Illinois border. It could be accessed by road only from the Indiana side, as the other end was surrounded by the Wabash River, therefore making the festival only reachable from the Indiana end, although it fell under the jurisdiction of Illinois. Because of its tricky location, no forces, from either states, were present to monitor the event, thereby making it a chaotic, lawless venue.
The unprecedented turnout
While the venue held a capacity for some 55,000-odd participants, over 300,000 people turned up. As the venue could be accessed by only two roads from Indiana’s end, the traffic went as far as 30 kilometers from the venue, with attendees choosing to traverse the distance by foot. From the Illinois end, there were reports that several people decided to cross the swamp to make it to the festival, thereby raising the count even further. With the number of attendees being so high, chaos ensued from every quarter.
An attendee had this to say in the Bull Island Blog
The lack of sanitary facilities was a real problem. I have a photo of a line of about a hundred people waiting to use just one portable toilet and that was before they were full to overflowing. Some people told stories like, “I just shared a joint with some chick I was taking a crap next to”. Having not brought enough food was a bummer but the up side was it kept me out of the crapping ground. I know what you’re thinking, “TMI”. I’ll move on.
While the venue lacked food, water and basic nutrition, the one thing it didn’t lack were the drugs. The venue had a makeshift shopping district, where so called ‘drug vendors’ decided to make up for the absence of food vendors, and acid and marijuana began to be circulated like pop-sickles. What was indeed worrying were the amount of laced drugs doing the rounds, with acid mixed with strychnine being consumed in hundreds, despite the warnings issued by the organisers.
And the music?
Several performers sent their agents to scout the situation, before descending upon the venue. Important performers like Black Sabbath and The Allman Brothers cancelled their performances. Cheech and Chong came on to the stage to perform for a mere 15-minute set, before deciding to skip the rest of it. There were a few memorable moments. Like when the otherwise coy Ravi Shankar rode the crowd atop a wooden pallet. But there were far too few, as the deluge of rain continued to add to the event’s woes.
One can only take the lack of food and water for so long, for before the festival could even end, it descended into absolute anarchy. People did not only start mugging each other, but there were violent outbursts aplenty. One attendee Linda Gray was run over by a truck, while she was asleep in her makeshift tent; an accident which broke her ribs and her vertebrae. She had this to say of the memory –
We were looking for our friends who were in the green school bus at the back of the site. Being exhausted from the trip, we cleared a spot behind the bus, made a campfire and I crashed in my sleeping bag. I was awakened with a rush because someone drove over me trying to leave in their pickup truck. I guess it looked like a space behind the bus with no fire in the dark. A woman was holding me up telling me i was run over and i only wish i could thank her today. I was put on an army gurney and hand transferred along the crown for what seemed like hours trying to get to the medical tent. I was supposed to be flown out, but the weather and the crowd didn’t cooperate for that, so i was sent to a hospital in evansville indiana in the back of a small jeep. I had broken ribs and a crushed vertebrae, spent 3 days in the hospital and my parents came and took my home. My car was missing for 3 wks and finally showed up in akron by the friends who i went with. Bull Island wasn’t Woodstock, but could of been. This festival was just 3 yrs after Woodstock, but, by the vibes of it was a lifetime. My memories were brief, and 37 yrs later, it seems surreal, but, i’m the “chick” was run over by a truck and didn’t know it. That comment is a quote from Cheech and Chong who were performing when the accident happened.
The weather was such that she could not be transported from the venue in a helicopter, but instead had to be taken to the hospital in the back of a jeep. While one man drowned in the Wabash River, one other fell to drug overdose. But the deaths weren’t all.
The crowd began to get unruly not long after, and they ended day 3 by setting the stage and instruments on fire. It seemed like the fitting end to the festival which was an absolute disaster, despite the infamously enduring memories it left behind.
The saga of Bull Island
The Eric Canal Soda Pop Festival, despite its unfortunate end, is still remembered fondly, for it was a true representation of the wild and callous 70’s. There were attempts to revive the festival in 2011 in its intended location of Evanseville, which unfortunately never happened. One can only hope.