I was going to write about The Great Raft Race that used to occur Labor Day weekend here in Tulsa, but Tulsa World journalist Gene Curtis did such a bang-up job in his Only In Oklahoma series, I thought I would just share his column. Following his article I will add a link to some photos and a recently exhumed video from KOTV's vault
Only in Oklahoma: Raft race brought recreation back to riverBy GENE CURTIS 9/1/2007
Thousands turned out annually for 19 years to float down the Arkansas River in rafts that depicted everything from Noah's Ark to paddle wheelers and almost every other kind of water craft that could be imagined. Thousands more lined the river to cheer rafters, to watch the floating craft that ranged from simple to ornate to strange, or just to party once more as summers drew to a close.The annual Great Raft Race, sponsored by Tulsa radio station KRMG, began in 1973 as a radio promotion to draw attention to the river and continued on Labor Days through 1991. That first Great Raft Race from Sand Springs to Tulsa on Sept. 3, 1973, marked the first time in modern times the river had been open for public use and became an immediate hit. Although the river wasn't quite ready for such an event, the rafters and spectators found it fun, and twice as many rafts were entered the next year. The Arkansas was little more than a trickle on Labor Day 1973 because of a miscalculation about the time it would take for the water to flow along the river after its release from Keystone Dam. Many of the rafts got stuck on sandbars and spectators waded out for closer inspection.The fire department was busy that day, pulling rafts off the sandbars back into the small stream."It's kind of like being a part of history," one of the rafters told a Tulsa World reporter after that first race. Sunburned, bedraggled and exhausted, she said she and her husband and three friends had entered a raft."I don't know how they are going to let us know who won," she added. "But it doesn't matter anyway. I didn't enter to win."That was the mood at the first raft race and at all subsequent races. There were some serious racers in each raft race, but for most it was a fun time, not a serious event."The first race attracted 330 rafts with 1,000 people afloat. "I honestly thought we would have only about 150 entrants," KRMG General Manager Ron Blue said. There were more than 600 rafts the next year.When Blue first presented the idea of a raft race on the Arkansas to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers "they thought we were crazy." But as entries began to arrive, the Corps got more interested. At its height, the race attracted more than 900 rafts, but in 1991, only about 100 rafts were entered, possibly because of lightning and thunderstorms. That's when KRMG decided to pull the plug." KRMG has decided to focus its time and dollars on other areas," a spokesman said, "like Mayfest, the Career Fair, Octoberfest and the Tulsa State Fair." A former race director said the station had provided a community event that was one of the largest single-day events in the state. River Parks Director Jackie Bubenik said it was sad to see the race end because it "showed people that the Arkansas River can be used for recreation and generated a lot of enthusiasm for the creation of an agency to overlook development of the banks of the river to more usable park areas." That agency became Tulsa River Parks. Over the years, originality and individual taste shone everyplace. One raft carried a plastic pink flamingo as a mascot, another featured a mermaid with her left hand missing. One year a raft was built to look like a shark from the movie Jaws. A raft entered in 1987 by the Oak Hill Baptist Church was built to resemble Noah's Ark. Raft names often involved plays on words. B'nai Emunah Synagogue entered its Emunah Schoonah one year. The Marriott Hotel had the Merry-Yacht. Gov. George Nigh, his wife, Donna, and their daughter, Georgeann, and several friends made the race in 1979 on their raft named "Ship of State." Nigh's raft was escorted by staffers from the governor's office on rubber rafts as a security flotilla. Perhaps they were to protect the governor's raft from his foes from the House of Representatives, who also entered a raft. But no battle ensued.Water fights between rafters were a traditional part of the race early on. One raft had a large slingshot mounted on its deck to use for ship-to-ship water balloon fights.Another raft had a pump that its crew used to force water through a hose to aim at other floaters. People were knocked off their rafts just before reaching the finish line. After that, mechanical devices were banned. The race never had a fatality and only a few cases of heat exhaustion and minor bruises. A team of inspectors made sure every floater had a life vest and that rafts were river-worthy. About 15 safety boats patrolled up and down the river.
For some great photos of that era, click HERE.
This is one of two videos from KOTV's vault. I can only post one at a time on this blog, so I will add the other one tomorrow. This is from 1980: NOTE: Video's are not wanting to load here. I will try posting them in another entry.