AP NEWS

Paddlewheel boats to race each other on Black Warrior River

May 13, 2019

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — A champion will face off against a first-time contender in a paddlewheel boat race on Saturday in connection with Tuscaloosa’s ongoing bicentennial celebration.

The race is a family-friendly event meant to recall the importance of river commerce and travel in the city’s early history.

“We know that is why we are here, and we wanted to recognize the significance of it,” said Shelley Jones, the chair of the bicentennial commission’s community engagement subcommittee.

The Bama Belle, owned and operated by Capt. Craig Dodson, will race for the first time against the Pickett Hastings owned by the Sherrill family of Tuscaloosa, organizer Ken DeWitt said. The Pickett Hastings is a racing champion built by Ike Hastings, a legendary ship builder and racer, DeWitt said.

The race will be at 3 p.m. Saturday and the public is encouraged to watch along the Riverwalk. Activities including food trucks, face painting and music will begin before the race at 1 p.m. The boats will race between the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater and Manderson Landing.

The race is an affiliated event of Tuscaloosa’s Bicentennial, a yearlong celebration that includes concerts, art, expos, educational activities and other events. Each month has a different theme. May’s theme is transportation.

The Bama Belle will take about 60 passengers onboard for those who want a first-person view of the race, Dodson said. Tickets are $20 and available on a first-come-first served basis at www.bamabelle.org. Dodson said the website also has information about the Belle’s other cruises including trips to the locks and sandbars.

The commercial cruise boat depends on the public, he noted.

Part of the afternoon’s celebration is meant to capture the spirit of a time when the river played a more central role in commerce and transportation.

“We are trying to evoke the time when Tuscaloosa was young, and the river was the center of life,” DeWitt said. “The news came when they heard the steamboat whistles. That is when stuff arrived.”

The afternoon will also feature people in 19th-century costumes and period music.

The University of Alabama’s Mildred Westervelt Warner Transportation Museum will be open during the event. The museum’s exhibits include photos and artifacts from the region’s history with paddlewheel steamboats. DeWitt noted the museum has two scale-models of Ohio River steamboats built by his uncle, Charles E. “Bud” Cason of Fort Thomas, Kentucky.

DeWitt traces his enthusiasm for the river to his experiences with his uncle and parents. DeWitt lived as a child along the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers. His mother and uncle also took him as a child to see the riverfront in Cincinnati during family trips. DeWitt recalled seeing similar races in other cities.

“It occurred to me that Tuscaloosa was founded because the steamboats could only go so far up the river because of the falls,” DeWitt said. “Hey, we are a river town, let’s have a steamboat race.”

The winner will receive the “Black Warrior River Silver Antlers Trophy,” a prize Dewitt said was inspired by the award given to the winners of the Great Steamboat Race, an annual contest between paddlewheels in Louisville that is part of the festivities around the Kentucky Derby race. The race winner gets the pair of silver antlers to display and bragging rights for the year, DeWitt said.

“We are starting such a prize here and a tradition in here in Tuscaloosa,” DeWitt said. “The winner displays those antlers on their boat. It becomes a point of pride to wear the antlers up near the boat bell.”

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Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, http://www.tuscaloosanews.com