Rollin’ on the river, like in the olden days…

2 events at the Wheeling Heritage Port are bringing back old-time nostalgia on the river.

Story of the sternwheeler

Nothing evokes the 19th century American heartland quite like an old-fashioned riverboat. In September, more than a dozen come to dock at the Wheeling Heritage Port for the annual Sternwheel Festival.

You may not know what a “sternwheel paddleboat” is, but you’ve probably seen them in movies or photos. These flat-bottom boats with their multi-level decks, steam engines and paddle wheels at the rear connected the U.S. Midwest in the days before railroads and interstates, and were our first form of industrially-powered transportation.Sternwheeler at Blennerhassett Island, WV

They moved people and goods along our great river highways. In pop culture, they were the realm of frontiersmen, snake-oil salesmen and, of course, Huck Finn.

You may think that sternwheelers have gone the way of the dinosaur, and for the most part jetboats and propeller crafts turned out to be more efficient. But there are still quite a few sternwheelers out there. Nowadays, most are powered with diesel engines instead of steam, but they still look just as classic as anything from a Mark Twain novel.

Boat owners at the Sternwheel Festival have taken special care to really “deck out” their boats for this public showcase.

Beyond the classic sternwheelers, the festival has become Wheeling’s traditional “last hurrah” of summer festivals on the waterfront. Expect plenty of live music, fireworks, and fun kids’ activities and carnival rides, too.

Vintage race boats

Incredibly, this is not the only classic boat exhibition in Wheeling during September.

Wheeling Suspension Bridge, WVEarlier in the month, the Heritage Port closes off the entire Ohio River and sponsors a full-on race of classic motorboats and hydroplanes.

As opposed to the laid-back, 19th century vibe of the Sternwheel Festival, the Wheeling Vintage Race Boat Regatta hearkens back to the mid-20th century, as the brightly-painted wooden hulls of old-school boats tear up and down the river.

So, if you’re any kind of watercraft hobbyist, history buff or river lover, “wheel” on over to Wheeling for a welcome that is anything but stern!

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This post was last updated on March 16, 2022