“It’s the most wonderful time of the year”- for most people that song is about Christmas. But for Marietta, it’s all about the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival. This is the city’s biggest annual event, and as far as tourism goes, surely the most wonderful time of the year.
Each September, the week after Labor Day harkens the arrival of the sternwheelers. From up and down the rivers and different parts of the region, the unique boats jockey for prime space along the levee and tie down at water’s edge. The captains and families settle in for a special week, ready to be treated like minor celebrities. The festival is actually a celebration of them, their boats, and the river; not exactly an intimate gathering, with over 100,000 people attending over the course of the weekend.
Over the years the festival has become a must-see for many people, some planning their vacations and visits home around the weekend. In addition to seeing the dozens of sternwheel boats, visitors can enjoy the Rollin’ Oldies Car Show, The Miss Genevieve Pageant, concession stands with all your favorite festival foods and vendors and games.
The live entertainment includes a variety of bands that perform on a barge tied to the shore. The genre will change from hour to hour and the levee fills with people- some camped in their lawn chairs while others dance to their favorite tune. Behind the row of sternwheelers you can see the river crowded with smaller boats, their passengers joining the party from a different approach.
The festival concludes with the mighty sternwheelers racing on the Ohio River, a fierce competition between the captains. Crowds cheer as victory whistles echo throughout the valley. But ask anyone about the highlight of the festival, and the answer will not likely involve boats. In Marietta, it’s all about the fireworks. For a solid half hour, big booms and bright lights choreographed to music keep every neck craned and every eye upward.
The awe-inspiring display is launched from a barge, and this year the 40th anniversary required something even more special. A visual waterfall of fireworks discharged from the Williamstown Bridge gave the illusion of flowing water accented with golden bursts of light. The effect was jaw-dropping and topped a show that was already hard to beat. The sensory overload of sound and sights is an experience that keeps people coming back year after year. Once you see the explosions of color reflected on the water and the sternwheels in the glow, you too will make plans to return.