Party on the levee

The 38th annual Ohio River Sternwheel Festival officially got under way at 6 p.m. Friday, but sisters Debbie Massey and Janet Payne and their cousin Iris Treadway were in a Sternwheel state of mind much earlier.

They claimed seats for themselves and their family on the terraced section of the Ohio River levee around 11 a.m., and they plan to be in that area for much of the weekend.

“I like it all. I like the singing, the music, the food,” said Massey, 63, of Marietta.

In between musical performances Saturday and the evening fireworks display, the ladies will play games of Scrabble to pass the time. Massey usually wins.

“Sometimes I beat her,” said Payne, 58, of Marietta. “Very rarely, Iris wins.”

“I’m a good sport,” Treadway, 62, of Lowell, said in mock indignation.

For the festival weekend, on the levee is the “best place to be,” Massey said.

They were among hundreds who staked out seats along the river earlier in the day then crowded into downtown Marietta for the start of the Pioneer City’s biggest party. Many had been coming for years, but some were making their first trip.

“We heard that it was a lot of fun and very busy,” said Brooklyn Chapman, 18, who came with three of her friends from the Newark area.

“I heard there were fireworks,” said Sarah Gearhart, 19, of Newark. “I’m looking forward to fireworks.”

The annual Harry J. Robinson Fireworks Show on Saturday night is one of the highlights of the event, but like Massey, many people find a lot to enjoy during the three-day celebration of Marietta’s river heritage.

“It’s fantastic,” said Marietta Mayor Joe Matthews. “You see all the people here from far and wide.”

Among those was Parkersburg Mayor Bob Newell, who joined Matthews, Belpre Mayor Mike Lorentz and Vienna Mayor Randy Rapp to light the torch during the opening ceremonies, as they’ve gathered to do for the Belpre and Parkersburg Homecomings over the summer.

“It’s always a pleasure to come up here and open up the ceremony,” Newell said. “It’s important to the valley that we support each other.”

Marietta resident Alex Shaw, 25, said he comes to look at the boats and listen to the music.

“(I) don’t get a chance to go to live concerts very often,” he said.

He was on the levee Friday with his friend Corey Foster, who recently moved back to the area and was attending his first Sternwheel Festival since 2008.

“I was a college student, so I did all the free things,” laughed Foster, 25, who also listed spending time with friends as one of his favorite parts of the weekend.

Devola resident Madelyn Heslop and her husband Don were front and center at the entertainment barge Friday, despite not arriving until a little before 6 p.m.

“Tomorrow night is going to be different,” said Heslop, referring to the seat marking for the fireworks display that will start in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Heslop is looking forward to the weekend, with a weather forecast that includes highs in the low to mid-80s and mostly sunny skies – albeit with a 30 percent chance of thunderstorms Sunday afternoon.

“Sounds like we should have good weather – hopefully,” Heslop said. “At least no floods.”

In 2004, the festival took place in the immediate aftermath of flooding caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ivan and the entertainment stage was moved from the river to Second Street.

Sternwheel committee member Kathy Shively announced a late addition to the attractions Friday, with U.S. Coast Guard cutter Osage scheduled to dock at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ facility at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers Saturday. The vessel will be open for tours from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and noon to 3 p.m. Sunday.

Festival director-general Mike Spahr said things went smoothly on Friday, and offered a reminder to people planning to take in the entertainment on the levee that tents and similar structures are not allowed.

“There’ll be a lot of people here, particularly tomorrow night, and we need all the space we can get,” he said.