“Ya gotta Regatta!”
There was a time when this rallying call echoed across the state as Labor Day Weekend approached, signaling an annual pilgrimage to Charleston by those seeking the ultimate end-of-summer bash.
People planned road trips, booked hotel rooms. Crowds gathered on Kanawha Boulevard.
Then, after the 2008 Regatta, the party ended. It was announced in 2009 that the Charleston Sternwheel Regatta would not return.
Earlier this year, Charleston Mayor Amy Goodwin said she had been in discussions to bring the Sternwheel Regatta back, albeit on a smaller scale. That was before the pandemic hit, but she still thinks the Regatta could eventually be revived.
“Let me be clear, it’s gotta start again as a pilot program. It cannot be what it was,” Goodwin said in a MetroNews interview.
During its heyday in the ’80s, the Charleston Sternwheel Regatta regularly drew tens of thousands of people to its free concerts. Sure, there were other draws — sternwheelers, food, fireworks — but most people came for the music.
At its peak, the Regatta stretched out to 10 days. The entertainment lineup included names such as Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Reba McEntire, Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine and the rock band Kansas. When the Beach Boys performed in 1986, an estimated 200,000 people crammed onto Kanawha Boulevard (and filled boats on the river) to see the legendary band play its worldwide hits.
And these were thirsty people — beer consumption during Regatta became legendary in its own right.
In a Gazette-Mail story from 2012, former Regatta executive volunteer Bill Rice Jr. recalled there were times when they sold 1,000 kegs of beer a night. Organizers loaded the beer in two 40-foot dairy trucks, with 20 taps on each truck. Dozens of volunteers would man each trailer and serve the beer in 16-ounce cups. The city purchased cups by the tractor trailer load for the event.
Figuring 100 cups of beer per keg, that’s a lot of suds.
There were complaints about raucous crowds. In 1996, then-Mayor Kemp Melton banned beer sales. The major beer companies, which contributed a lot of money toward the entertainment, withdrew their support. In retrospect, many point to this ban as the beginning of the end for the Regatta.
The money dries up
But longtime volunteer and former director Sharon King believes it’s more complicated than that. King served as Sternwheel Regatta director from 2002 to the final one in 2008. She recalled her long history with the event in a recent interview.
“I started out volunteering on a food truck in the early ’80s,” King said. “Then we developed a health fair in conjunction with Charleston Town Center. That lasted a few years, and I was invited to join the Regatta board.”
It was King who launched the Charleston Distance Walk. The Charleston Distance Run was already a big event, and runners complained frequently about the walkers getting in their way. “Runners and walkers don’t mix,” she said. “So, we started a huge walk that began and ended at Coonskin. That was probably the best thing I ever did at Regatta.”
She also worked with the late Al Frey on the Regatta Parade, and later took over the parade’s organization. “We had spectacular floats in the parade, back when companies could afford it,” King said. “They went all out.”
When addressing the Regatta’s demise, King first mentions the recession that hit financial institutions and businesses in 2008. “The economy was the main factor,” she said.
“I had a budget of $400,000 for the 2008 Regatta. I closed the books with $26,000. I went to Danny [Danny Jones, then Charleston Mayor] and said there was no way I could raise another $400,000. He agreed and we closed it.”
King said all the financial records were put in storage. “When I took over Regatta in 2002, one of the things I did was keep books,” King said. “Every bank statement, every audit. When I finished in 2008, all of those boxes went to the Mayor’s conference room vault. Five boxes were put in that vault. All the financial material was kept.”
She said the $26,000 left over went to the Charleston Rod Run and Doo-Wop, a fall classic car show started by Jones. That event continues, although this year’s show was canceled due to the pandemic.
“By 2008, Regatta was not anything like it once was. It probably should have been shut down sooner,” King said. “It all boils down to money. Back in the day when we had the Beach Boys, we had people who were energized and out there raising money, getting the participation of banks and companies. Then things got political, and we lost a lot of those people.”
Kings points out that the ban on beer sales only lasted one year. “After that, somebody came up with the idea for beer gardens, which were a disaster. Little by little, beer sales on the street came back.”
But the support of the beer companies as major sponsors never came back, which King attributes to economic factors.
Can Regatta come back? “You can’t duplicate what is long gone,” King said. “You have a whole new audience today. But if you do host an event and call it ‘Regatta,’ the river needs to be included. We got away from the river. That’s probably my biggest regret.”
A river runs through it
In any new Regatta, The Great Kanawha River Navy would likely be involved. The Navy is a group of nautical enthusiasts that promotes recreational activities on the Kanawha River.
When Charleston Mayor Amy Goodwin floated the idea of bringing the event back, she sent representatives to meet with the group, according to member Pat Wood. Wood is a “fleet admiral” with the Navy, and a former commander.
“The Navy helped the Regatta get started back in ’71,” he said. Wood was a Regatta volunteer for eight years.
Wood also knew Regatta founder Nelson Jones. The story goes that in 1971, a 12-year-old Jones approached then-Mayor John Hutchinson to propose a race of sternwheelers for Labor Day. That tradition marked the beginning of the festival.
Jones’ family ran coal barges on the river, and he grew up hearing stories about steamboat races. He would eventually become president of Amherst Madison, a marine transportation company at Port Amherst. Jones served on the Charleston Regatta Commission until 1997. He died in 2010.
“He came from a wealthy family, but he was happiest working on the river,” Wood said. “He was friendly to everybody.”
Wood said that Robin Jones, widow of Nelson Jones, has met with members of The Great Kanawha River Navy about bringing Regatta back.
Wood, who lives on the river in Dunbar, is a member of the American Sternwheel Association. He owned a sternwheeler for several years and knows most of the owners in the area. He said that if the mayor invited the sternwheelers back, they would come.
“They would love to return to Charleston,” he said.
In addition to the sternwheel races, Wood would like to see the “Anything That Floats” race return, a fun event where people float homemade boats in a test of seaworthiness.
Another popular Regatta event, the Funeral Parade, has been kept alive by The Navy. The New Orleans-style jazz procession has continued in recent years as part of FestivALL (this year’s parade was canceled because of the pandemic). Wood would like to see the Funeral Parade be a part of any new Charleston Regatta.
For King, what stands out about the old Regatta was the people she worked with. “It was a phenomenal group of people who started it,” she said. “We’ve lost a lot of them. The volunteers kept it going — no one got paid. You were with these people day after day. Many of those friendships are still out there.”