Ken DeWitt is a local river enthusiast and the organizer of the race.
“Tuscaloosa is a city that was founded because of the River, as steam boats and paddle-wheelers could only travel upriver to the waterfalls at Tuscaloosa before the locks and dams were built,” DeWitt said. “So, what better way to celebrate Tuscaloosa’s history than by having a historic paddle-wheeler boat race?”
There is no charge to observe the race from the shore, and residents and visitors are invited to attend, bring a picnic, and enjoy the spectacle. The Riverwalk between the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater and UA’s Manderson Landing will serve as the viewing area.
Steamboat races are popular on the Ohio River, and every May before the Kentucky Derby, “The Great Steamboat Race” occurs in Louisville on the Wednesday before the Derby. DeWitt recalls attending races in Cincinnati as a youth while visiting his mom’s relatives.
The Bama Belle, owned by Craig Dodson and operated as a charter boat, will be in its first race, and a limited number of passenger tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis to observe the race from onboard the Belle. For tickets, visit bamabelle.org.
The newly-restored Pickett Hastings, owned by the Sherrill Family of Tuscaloosa, is a veteran and champion of many races along the upper Mississippi River. Ike Hastings was the legendary builder and racer, and before he died, he entrusted the Sherrill Family to carry on the proud boat’s traditions.
The two boats will vie for the Black Warrior River Silver Antlers Trophy. A trophy celebration will be held after the race near the Tuscaloosa River Market.
As part of the celebration of “Transportation Month” of the Tuscaloosa Bicentennial, organizers are working to get others to participate in the day.
“We hope to have people costumed in 1800s-style clothing, traditional music of the era, perhaps even a Calliope (traditional steam organ) evoking a themed riverfront celebration to honor our City’s founding generations,” DeWitt said.
Tuscaloosa’s Mildred Westervelt Warner Transportation Museum, located across from the Tuscaloosa River Market, has an extensive photo and memorabilia collection of river history, as well as two scale-model Ohio River Steamboats built by DeWitt’s late uncle, Charles E. “Bud” Cason of Fort Thomas, Kentucky, on display.
The museum will be open during the day of the event. That will also be the last day to see a major Bicentennial Exhibit on display there, according to Museum Director Katherine Edge.
“No celebration of River History would be complete without a tour of the Museum,” DeWitt said.
Vintage photos will be featured in a soon-to-be-published book, “Illustrated History of the Original Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway, Alabama” by Maurice F. “Scott” Mettee. DeWitt hopes to have some of these photos on display, especially one of the water front when there were three locks and dams in the downtown Tuscaloosa area.
Modern transportation may also be featured, as Parker Towing Company may have a display of some sort, depending on boat availability.