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1981-1984 - Charleston Sternwheel Regatta In Its Prime
By Heath Harrison
June 2, 2013


For many years, the end of the summer meant it was time for Charleston to host its annual Sternwheel Regatta.

The festival, which drew thousands to the city each year, was a staple of the city around Labor Day weekend for 38 years.

The Regatta began in 1971, when 12-year-old Nelson Jones suggested to Charleston Mayor John Hutchinson that the city have a race between five sternwheelers on the Kanawha River.

The event was a massive success and expanded to a two-day festival within two years. By the end of the 1970s, the Regatta had lengthened to a week long, featuring fireworks, parades and food vendors and musical acts. The Regatta continued to grow in the 1980s, seeing its peak attendance in 1989.

Regular features of the festival included the Anything That Floats Race, the Rubber Ducky Race, the New Orleans-style funeral parade, The Charleston Distance Run and the Taste of Charleston.

Eventually, the sternwheelers became less of a focus for the festival and many events were moved away from the riverbank. The races were phased out entirely in 2003.

The Regatta’s alcohol sales were a source of controversy for the festival. While a major source of revenue, organizers heard many complaints from those who felt the Regatta's raucous crowds made it unfit for families to attend. The beer sales were eventually restricted.

In its later years, organizers were unable to lure sponsors to pay for expenses and the Regatta began to shrink. By 2000, events lasted only for an extended weekend. The city ended the festival in 2009, as other attractions, such as FestivALL had overtaken the Regatta’s attendance.

Some of the acts to perform at the Regatta over the years included Willie Nelson, the Beach Boys, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Joan Jett, Michelle Branch, Miami Sound Machine, Kathy Mattea, Warrant, the Goo Dolls, Blues Traveler, the Spinners, Chubby Checker, the Charlie Daniels Band, Kansas, the Four Tops, Kool and the Gang, Reba McEntire, ZZ Top, the Temptations, Starship, Bret Michaels, Three Dog Night, Patty Loveless, the Gin Blossoms, Puddle of Mudd, Loverboy, Billy Ray Cyrus, Alabama, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Crystal Gayle, Latoya Jackson, Lee Greenwood, the Commodores, the Jets, Tanya Tucker, the Van Dells, Martina McBride, Blood Sweat & Tears, Delbert McClinton and Sheena Easton, among many others.

This week's video is another excerpt from the work of Charleston filmmaker Rodney D. Morrison. The clip contains scenes from 1981-1984, showing the Regatta in its prime and giving us a glimpse of what the riverfront, Kanawha Boulevard and Capitol Street looked like at the time.Morrison's full 10-minute clip can be found on YouTube

Remember When: 1981-1984 - Charleston Sternwheel Regatta In Its Prime

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