Charleston’s favorite event is back and bigger than ever in 2023.
WRITTEN BY STAN BUMGARDNER
PHOTOGRAPHED BY GARY WENDELL
After a 13-year absence, Charleston’s beloved Sternwheel Regatta returned to West Virginia’s capital city on July 4th weekend in 2022. An estimated 210,000 attendees turned out for four days of fun, food, and music. It garnered the West Virginia Department of Tourism’s 2022 Mountain State Award for events that “stand out above the rest.” And this year, the excitement of Regatta returns even bigger and better.
The first Sternwheel Regatta took place on Labor Day 1971 as a few thousand people lined the banks of the Kanawha River. The entire event consisted of a race between five sternwheelers—an old style of steamboat more closely associated with the pre-automobile days of the late 1800s or early 1900s. That inaugural event was the idea of Nelson Jones, a 13-year-old whose family had long been in the river business and who, to say the least, loved old boats.
From those humble beginnings, the Sternwheel Regatta—or just “the Regatta,” as it came to be known—grew into a 10-day street festival attracting hundreds of thousands. Over the decades, though, interest waned. By the early 2000s, young people had discovered video games, the internet, and other activities that prioritized indoor air conditioning above summer steamboat races.
After the 2009 Regatta, the city canceled it. While there was no replacing the Regatta, Charleston wasn’t at a loss for summer activities. Highly anticipated events like MultiFest, the weekly Live on the Levee, and FestivALL, in which “a city becomes a work of art,” showcase a variety of music, acting, dancing, visual artists, and more. But many Charlestonians missed the Regatta. When Amy Shuler Goodwin was running to become mayor in 2018, she regularly asked voters what changes they wanted to see in Charleston. The most common answer wasn’t something new, but something old. Tim Brady, president and CEO of the Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau (CCVB), says Goodwin received a lot of great feedback, but one thing consistently came up: “Bring back the Sternwheel Regatta!”
After being elected the first female mayor in Charleston’s 200-plus-year history, Goodwin got the sternwheels in motion. The pandemic put everything on hold for a couple years, but as public health conditions began to ease, she made the Charleston Sternwheel Regatta a reality again in 2022. The results speak for themselves. Nearly a quarter of a million people—equivalent to almost one-seventh of West Virginia’s population—attended the weekend festival. That turnout translated into an influx of money for the city, which, like so many places, was beginning to rebound from these unprecedented past few years. The CCVB estimates that the four days of the Regatta supported some 6,000 jobs and generated an estimated $31.5 million in economic impact.
But given the number of other entertainment outlets these days, why did the 2022 Regatta generate such a response? “I think it resonates with so many folks because it brings back memories,” Goodwin says. “Our younger folks grew up hearing stories from their parents and their grandparents, and so many families brought their kids to the Regatta—not only for nostalgia, but to create new family memories.” Her goal is for Charleston to become a destination spot for family outings. The Regatta, in her vision, is a cornerstone of that foundation. “It’s important to our city because it brings family and friends together for four days of festival fun.” When she talks about her city, Mayor Goodwin’s face lights up, and you hear the thrill in her voice. You sense she’s still very young at heart—and reliving her own fond memories of attending the Regatta. “Whether you enjoy sports, kids’ activities, the arts, music, or food, the Regatta has it!”
What’s Old is New
For those of us who grew up in Charleston, we’d never experienced anything like the Regatta. National music acts. Sternwheel races. A New Orleans–style funeral parade. The Anything That Floats Race. There was nothing like it.
Over the years, though, it became a victim of its own success. As it grew in popularity—perhaps too much so at times—the Regatta changed. Who wanted to sit on a grassy river bank and watch tortoise-paced relics of a bygone era try to nose each other out in a race designed mostly for fun? Eventually, even the Regatta’s signature event—the actual regatta—disappeared entirely.
Old has a way of becoming new again. Through our TVs and the internet, we can see nearly anything with a click of the remote or mouse. But even in the Age of Technology, you can’t often take your whole family to watch a live sternwheeler race in person. Many of our erstwhile ways have a fresh new appeal.
The “new Regatta” has the same flair as the “old Regatta,” with plenty of family-friendly additions. “We’re bringing back old favorites, such as the Rubber Ducky Race, the Funeral Parade, and The Wiener Dog Races,” Mayor Goodwin says. “Those are all part of what makes the Regatta so enjoyable. These are fun, family-friendly outdoor activities that folks can enjoy together. They bring back that taste of nostalgia, and it’s an opportunity for our younger folks to see what the stories were all about.”
And yes, the regatta is back at the Regatta. Back before planes, trains, and automobiles, the Kanawha River was Charleston’s superhighway, and for four days this summer, it’ll be the center of attention again. “Charleston was born from the commerce that moved through our waterways,” Goodwin notes, “whether it was salt, coal, or dry goods. The river has been crucial to the city’s growth, both then and now.”
Summer of Fun
The mayor’s gusto is sincere. “I remember looking down the Boulevard at the crowd on the very first day at the very first concert last year,” she recalls. “To see the energy and excitement that filled our streets, to look through the photos and videos folks shared throughout the event, and to hear the many stories, both new and old—that was truly priceless.”
Brady and the CCVB give Mayor Goodwin the lion’s share of the credit, noting her “vision and intense planning sessions,” while everyone mentions the long hours put in by dedicated employees and volunteers to make the festival come off without a hitch.
The 2023 Regatta will again be the weekend leading up to Independence Day: June 30–July 3. There’s a little bit of music for everyone, with an emphasis on that age group that attended the Regatta in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. This year’s musical lineup includes Better Than Ezra (June 30), Flo Rida and Red Line (July 1), Kool & the Gang (July 2), and Jo Dee Messina and Kate Boytek (July 3).
Ultimately, this family-friendly street party celebrates Charleston’s diverse cultural, artistic, and culinary qualities. But it’s mostly about having a good time. “Without question, the Sternwheel Regatta is helping to drive visitors to our Capital City,” the mayor reflects. “This and our many other activities make Charleston a great destination for travelers throughout the year.”
So, get to Charleston this summer, watch some boat races, dress up like you’re at the Mardi Gras, “Celebrate!” with Kool & the Gang and other bands, and just have some old-fashioned regatta fun this summer.
A Sampling of Don’t-Miss 2023 Sternwheel Regatta Events
FRIDAY, JUNE 30
Carnival begins, 1 p.m.
Fireworks, 9:40 p.m.
Better Than Ezra, 8 p.m.
SATURDAY, JULY 1
Wiener Dog Races, 10 a.m.
Funeral Parade, 2 p.m.
Flo Rida, 8 p.m.
SUNDAY, JULY 2
Rubber Duck Race, noon
Sternwheel Boat Races, 1 p.m.
Kool & the Gang, 8 p.m.
MONDAY, JULY 3
Kids Zone, noon
Professional Action Sports Exhibition, noon
Jo Dee Messina, 8 p.m.
TUESDAY, JULY 4
Battle Of The Bands, 2 p.m.
Youth Anything That Floats Race, 3 p.m.
West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, 7:30 p.m.
Fireworks, 9:30 p.m.
➻ Find the full, up-to-date list of events and locations at charlestonregatta.com/schedule.