My first memory of the Charleston Sternwheel Regatta was from one of the first times the event was held, although I can’t be sure exactly which one. I remember my parents taking my brother and me to town to watch the boat races and the pushing and pulling contests between the working boats.
We spread out blankets on the river bank in the grass, just upriver from the Union Building. I remember it was hot in the sun, but it was also exciting to watch the rooster tails of water thrown into the air as the owners of the sternwheel-driven boats raced toward the finish line.
It was as close as a kid from West Virginia could get to the adventure of the high seas at the time.
Much of the history of riverboats and working sternwheelers on the Kanawha and Ohio rivers has been forgotten, even by people who have lived their entire lives in the city.
I’m no historian, but from the late 1800s through the middle part of the 20th century, riverboats plied the rivers, bringing commerce in and taking away raw materials in the form of salt, timber, coal and eventually chemicals.
Eventually working tug boats with massive diesel engines and propellers replaced the sternwheelers, but many local residents worked to keep them alive. A few remained (and still do) as work boats, but many were converted to private vessels that recall the heydays when travelers, entertainers and gamblers used the river to get away.
In my late teens and through most of my 20s, the Sternwheel Regatta grew, attracting larger crowds and bigger-name entertainment. By then, I had gotten involved with groups that were manning the beer booths on the levee. I often had a front row seat to the best concerts.
One of the biggest I remember was when Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine performed. There was a conga line hundreds of revelers long dancing on the boulevard.
The crowd estimates became a running joke after a while as Regatta organizers attempted to guess how many people showed up. For years afterward, you could always get a smile from a local by labeling a number that was obviously inflated as a “Regatta number.”
Don’t get me wrong — it was an ideal time to be in my 20s and single. It was a 10-day party. The Regatta of the late 1990s also helped the city of Charleston gain national attention, and it made a number of lists of the best end-of-summer activities.
But even then, I knew that the Charleston Sternwheel Regatta was missing the point. It was supposed to be about the river and the history. It lost that.
The boats still came, but no one paid attention any more. The attendance for the boat races fell off. And the boaters got tired of being ignored. It was a great party, but it wasn’t about the river anymore.
About that time, I came to know some of those boaters and was able to ride a sternwheeler in the races. I also visited smaller regattas in towns along the Ohio River. Those places might not have The Beach Boys, or 45-minute fireworks displays, but they still cared about the river, the history and the legacy of the riverboats.
That’s about the time it all started to fall apart. I still have a copy of an essay I wrote after the 1997 Regatta that began with the lines:
“The smoke from the fireworks had barely blown away when we left Charleston. The Regatta was over. If it weren’t for the good times that follow the sternwheelers and their owners, there would be very little to tell about that event. Once proud, politics have reduced the Charleston Sternwheel Regatta to a shell of its former self.
The fireworks were good at least, the boaters all said. The only other positive comments to be heard all began with ‘This USED to be the best festival ...’”
I wrote it onboard the sternwheeler “Hobby III” as we left town on a three-day cruise to Marietta, Ohio.
I moved away from Charleston in the winter of 1998, so I wasn’t here for the last few years. I understand it went downhill quickly as various groups in the city decided it should end.
Today, I would wager that most people in Charleston don’t recognize that the Schoenbaum stage at Haddad Riverfront Park is designed to look like a sternwheel. And that’s sad.
The riverboats that are lovingly maintained by local enthusiasts are a testament to the legacy of the boats and the river trade that made life in Charleston, West Virginia, possible. That history shouldn’t be forgotten.