By Cliff Radel
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Cincinnati earned the right to host the 2003 Tall Stacks Music, Arts & Heritage Festival. That cannot be denied. It is as sure and secure as a docking steamboat tethering its python-thick line to an iron ring embedded in the Public Landing's cobblestones.
In 1999, the last Tall Stacks, thousands gathered along the riverfront to watch the parade of boats.
The Belle of Louisville (foreground) and the American Queen steam along the river during the 1999 parade of boats.
No other river city's fortunes have been as inextricably linked to the steamboat as the Queen City.
As the paddle-wheelers went, so went Cincinnati. When steamboats ruled America's rivers 150 years ago, this stop on the Ohio was the country's sixth largest city and the publishing, brewing, hog-butchering and soap-making capital of the Midwest.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Southern markets closed. Steamboats and the city suffered a protracted decline.
The story of how Cincinnati became a steamboat town - and how it came to be the home for all five Tall Stacks events - has the makings of an old-fashioned river yarn.
This tale includes conflicting claims and a sense of anticipation about what lies beyond the next bend in the river.
"The river was the conduit and riverboats were the vehicles for the exchange of goods, people, music, food and ideas," said Mike Smith, Tall Stacks' executive director.
"They came off the boats and were spread by people on the shore. That is what we're celebrating at Tall Stacks."
During Tall Stacks 2003, that exchange will take place on the Public Landing. Similar transactions have occurred on that site since the first steamboat chugged by in 1811.
Five years later, Cincinnati built its first paddle-wheeler, launching a thriving industry.
By 1826, 48 of the 143 steamboats on the Ohio were built in Cincinnati. Between 1841 and 1850, 295 steamboats were made here.
OK, so what are tall stacks anyway?
The stacks are those tall, black smokestacks you see on steamboats. Some rise 30 feet or more and can be lowered to pass under bridges. Most boats have two, but some have only one. On newer boats, the stacks are more decorative than functional.
Why are they so tall?
In the old times, when the boats ran with coal or wood, the smoking stacks could already be seen from far distances, so the people waiting at the next landing knew very early when the steamboat would come.
This was not the reason the stacks were so high, though.
Steamboats transported cotton and had to be very careful to prevent the cotton (and the boat) from burning down. So the sparkling of the fire had to be kept as far away as possible from the cotton.
By 1880, Cincinnati-made steamboats totaled 1,374. Most came from boatyards in the East End. The neighborhood still bears street names, such as Bayou and Lumber, reflecting its riverboat-building heritage.
"The 1850s marked Cincinnati's day in the sun," said Christopher Phillips, University of Cincinnati associate professor of history and co-editor of Ohio Valley History.
"It was one of the largest and most vital cities in America," he added, "and that can be attributed to location, location, location."
Situated on the gently sloping north shore of the Ohio, Cincinnati became a transportation hub and a center of commerce.
The Queen City connected river traffic to rail lines, canals and turnpikes. Those routes brought goods, raw materials, livestock, people and ideas to Cincinnati.
"People and goods from the Great Lakes could go down the Miami & Erie Canal, board a steamboat in Cincinnati for New Orleans and from there take a ship bound for Europe," said former Delta Queen historian Don Deming.
"That made Cincinnati an outlet to the sea. For a city in the middle of America, that's incredible and you can thank the steamboat."
Today, with Tall Stacks set to start its fifth incarnation, celebrating the city's steamboat connection with a festival of music and paddlewheelers is a given.
But that was far from the case in 1984. Plans were in the works then for Cincinnati's 1988 bicentennial celebration.
Everyone wanted to stage a blockbuster event. But no one on the Bicentennial Commission had any solid ideas.
The idea for Tall Stacks came from, take your pick: Rick Greiwe or Alan Bernstein.
Greiwe became executive director of the commission in 1984. That summer, he and his wife drove their car to Philadelphia, Boston and Toronto to check out plans for those cities' birthday parties. The hit attraction of each party revolved around an ocean-going vessel, from the Queen Elizabeth II to a fleet of tall-masted sailing ships.
On the way home, as they drove along Interstate 75, Greiwe recalled asking his wife: "What is this about boats? We can't do tall ships. Why not riverboats?"
He remembered reading the term "tall stacks," in a work about steamboats by Mark Twain. He also remembered calling Alan Bernstein, a riverboat captain and owner of BB Riverboats, to see if he could persuade river men across the country to bring their tall stacks to Cincinnati.
Bernstein remembers that differently. "I told Rick that maybe I could get some of my friends in the passenger vessel association to bring their boats to Cincinnati. We could re-create what the riverfront looked like in the 1850s.
"He said, 'Alan, that is a great idea.' "
That was a great idea. No matter who came up with it.
Fifteen years later, Tall Stacks stands on the verge of a breakthrough. For the first time, nationally known performers dominate the festival's entertainment lineup. Paired with the cast of riverboats, this could be the year the event makes money and creates a word-of-mouth sensation to put Tall Stacks on a par with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
The advance buzz already has Bernstein, a member of the Tall Stacks Commission, making plans. He's thinking ahead to Tall Stacks 2007 (marking the 200th anniversary of the maiden voyage of Robert Fulton's Clermont, the first financially successful steamboat) and Tall Stacks 2011 (the bicentennial of the first steamboat to pass Cincinnati).
"We're already looking forward," Bernstein said.
As with all boatmen, he's hoping for smooth currents and great promise down river.