Twenty boats have already registered for the Charleston Sternwheel Regatta, which is returning to West Virginia for the first time since 2008 and expected to draw an estimated 250,000 people, making it the largest event in the state.
The five-day festival June 30-July 4 has a renewed focus on river-related activities, including towboat tours from AEP River Operations, said Bryan Hughes, one of the festival commissioners. It will also include the unveiling of a plaque honoring four captains instrumental in the formation of the festival in 1971: Capt. O. Nelson Jones, Capt. Charles T. Jones, Capt. Lawson W. Hamilton Jr. and Capt. Harry F. White.
Nelson Jones came up with the idea for the festival when he was 13 years old.
“He wanted to see sternwheel races on the river,” said his widow, Capt. Robyn Strickland Jones. “Of course he was a child, and nobody really wanted to listen to him, but he knew the mayor’s secretary, Henrietta Cook. They had become friends, so she actually went with him to the mayor to make the proposal for the regatta. She got the mayor to agree, and the first regatta race was five sternwheel boats.”
The festival grew each year and became a highlight for the Charleston region.
“People came and lined the riverbanks to watch because it was an anomaly back then, and from there it grew,” Jones said. “It became one of the largest festivals east of the Mississippi, with hundreds of thousands of people attending.”
At its peak around the year 2000, more than 50 boats raced in the regatta, and the festival had grown to a 10-day event with concerts each night, a popular “anything that floats” race, a “push/shove” race between towboats, a “towboat rodeo” that included a line-throwing contest, fireworks and children’s activities.
The regatta, held on the Kanawha River, also spawned other regattas around the country, including in Marietta, Ohio, Augusta, Ky., Wheeling, W.Va. and near Cincinnati, Ohio.
Over time, however, the Charleston festival became less connected to river activities. Eventually, with changing priorities, it disbanded in 2008. Capt. O. Nelson Jones died in 2010.
The festival was revived as a priority of Charleston Mayor Amy Goodwin, who campaigned on a promise to bring it back. The city contributed $500,000 in seed money, with Kanawha County providing another $100,000, and private sponsors, including title sponsor Encova Insurance, even more.
City officials approached some of the festival’s original volunteers to determine how best to bring it back. One of them, Randy Damron, had the idea for the plaque.
To be titled “Givers of the River,” organizers hope to raise $12,000 for it. It includes a photo of the four men sitting on the levee with a background that includes the mountains marking the beginning of navigation on the Kanawha River. The plaque will be mounted on the levee wall, just downstream of a design marked in the concrete of a towboat and barges.
Capt. O. Nelson Jones grew up on the river. His father, fellow honoree Capt. Charlie Jones, had been president of Amherst Industries. O. Nelson Jones grew up to be president of Madison Coal & Supply, which later became part of Amherst Madison, the towing, construction and repair business.
The other honoree captains both participated in the first regatta and continued to do so over the years. White was the owner of White Brothers Inc., a marine construction business, as well as a riverboat captain. Hamilton was a coal operator and philanthropist as well as owning a sternwheel boat.
Those interested in contributing to the placement of the plaque may do so by sending donations to The Great Kanawha River Navy, P.O. Box 144, Dunbar, W.Va. 25064. Checks should be made out to Givers of the River Plaque.
Jones said she is looking forward to having the festival and the regatta at its center back.
“People are so ecstatic, and this is the great thing,” she said. “I can’t find anybody who doesn’t have great memories of the old regatta, and many have said they wished they could see their children attend this, and this year they’re going to get the opportunity.”
Although now packed into a five-day festival, Hughes said he thinks those who enjoyed attending the regatta in the past will be pleased. Most of the major events are back, he said, and so is the focus on the river, including making sure youth in attendance know about good-paying jobs on the river as they get older.
Festival organizers are bringing back the Anything That Floats race, which has in the past included everything from a school bus with a paddlewheel on the back to a miniature towboat and tow. AEP and the Coast Guard are both bringing boats, and the West Virginia Sailboat Association is also involved.
“Everything we can try and incorporate with water is going to be involved in this entire event,” Hughes said.
Concert headliners include Everclear, the Four Tops and the Temptations, Martina McBride and Rick Springfield, along with the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra. The festival will also include fireworks two nights and the Firecracker 5K race, along with “Magic Island,” a children’s activity area focused on science, engineering and math, and a mini, “kid-powered” Anything That Floats race in a small pond. Because organizers wanted to make sure the festival was not a financial burden on families, donors are covering the cost of food for children who attend the festival, and attendance at the festival is free for all.
“We’re bringing back so much, and what we’re seeing and we’re hearing is the excitement is on such a different level,” Hughes said.
The centerpiece of the entire festival remains the races among the sternwheel boats. The sternwheel boat race is to take place beginning 1 p.m. Sunday, July 3, and several of the older boats that have competed in past years are returning.
“That’s something that everyone is excited about,” Hughes said. “You just don’t get to see sternwheel boats race. Mind you, we don’t go very fast, but it’s the nostalgia of it.”
Caption for top photo: River activities during a previous Charleston Sternwheel Regatta. (Photo courtesy of HD Media/Charleston Gazette-Mail)