Last year I wrote about the first indications that sternwheelers would soon be a thing of the past at the Regatta. Now it is a certainty since the leaders of the Regatta Commission have made it public knowledge that there will most likely never be another "Sternwheel Regatta", but instead something called a "Charleston Regatta." Why "Regatta" at all? Once the sternwheelers are gone then only river activities that will remain will be the swim and the Anything That Floats Race. That certainly doesn't deserve the designation "regatta."
Regatta Jumped The Shark in 1986. That was the year that The Beach Boys came and drew such a crowd that City leaders made the decision to steer away from big name acts because the size of the crowd was way too much for the CPD to handle. The next year it was rumored that Jimmy Buffett was interested in coming and bringing his Parrot Head army but that show never materialized. It was that year that a national magazine voted the regatta as the best festival in the southeast, but by the time the magazine was published the festival was already in it's decline.
Originally a one day event consisting mostly of boat races and other river activities, it soon grew into a three-day weekend full of activities (although Labor Day itself has always been nothing but the car show at the capitol). Most of its life was spent as a ten day festival, with opening ceremonies in the evening of the Friday before Labor Day weekend. If I'm not mistaken the festival reached its maximum duration in about 1985 of twelve days. The reason for the extra couple of days was that so many downtown businesses had their own events that they wanted at certain places, and as a result they held a few meaningless events on Wednesday and Thursday.
One of the worst decisions ever was the moving of events away from the riverfront. For a while there were events held in the Elk City section of the West Side, and even some in South Hills and Kanawha City. It was these far-flung events that took the focus off the river and that was the beginning of the end of the sternwheeler's participation.
I recall walking down amongst the sternwheelers as a teenager and young adult. The barges that Amherst Industries provided every year to serve as docks for the big boats were supposed to be closed to the public, but security was porous and anyone could walk right on. I met some nice folks and got to see some of the sternwheelers up close and personal. The arrival of the sternwheelers to the Regatta on the Wednesday before each Labor Day was a festive and thrilling event. Suddenly the levee area was transformed from a little street party into the grand festival it was because the guests of honor had arrived.
The river activities like the Line Handlers Contest, The Pushers and Shovers Contest, the Whistle Blowing Contest and, of course, the Sternwheel Races, those were the things that gave the event its spice. Even Just as a visual backdrop the sternwheelers made the Regatta special. The colorful boats and the flags they flew transformed the levee into a work of art. Add in the sounds of an occasional whistle blast or a ship's bell ringing and you had a full sensory experience.
When Amherst got fed up with the shenanigans of the Festival Commission it was the death knell for the sternwheelers. The festival that had been the brainchild of Nelson Jones, a child of one of the owners of Amherst Industries, was cut off from its largest supporter of river activities. This was in the late 1990's. The festival has hung on for a few more years.
But it's all over now.
I suspect that we'll have a few more Charleston Regattas, but if it's still around in five years in any recognizable form I will be surprised. It seems that the City has thrown all of its eggs into the FestivAll basket. unfortunately it is already showing signs of Regatta-cization, mainly the spread-out nature of the events that gives it a lack of focus.
Nothing lasts forever, but the Regatta deserved a better effort. Preserving the traditions of the river that gave birth to Charleston and celebrating the big wheeled boats that were such a part of its history was a worthy endeavor. Political tides roll in and then they roll out again, taking with them a little piece of our City's culture with each ebb. Will the Jones administration be the one to put the final nail in the coffin? That would be ironic since it was Nelson Jones who gave the festival life.
The late, great, Charleston Sternwheel Regatta Festival: My she live in our memories forever.