Dayton, Ohio

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Dayton was more than just a setting for the birth of the airplane; the city played a part in the drama. When the brothers turned their creative attention to the problems of flight, and before that to innovations in bicycles, and still before that to printing, they were doing what has long come naturally for Daytonians. In 1870, by U.S. Patent Office standings, Dayton ranked fifth in the number of patents awarded, relative to population; by 1880 it was third; and by 1900 it was first. Sitting astride a web of rivers, but with few other natural resources, Dayton lived on trade, then manufacturing, then the products of the mind. Its human capital was refreshed by waves of immigration from neighboring states and also from Europe. It was firmly Midwestern, which in the nineteenth century meant it was self-reliant by necessity. What was needed was often not at hand, so one learned to improvise. The result, as the Dayton historian Mark Bernstein has put it, was that “invention builds on itself.” Dayton developed the craft traditions, financial resources, and spirit of invention to give us not only the airplane but also numerous other novelties, among them the cash register, the automobile self-starter and electric ignition system, the liquid-crystal display, the stepladder, and the pop-top can. Like many cities, Dayton has a prominent downtown club where members can socialize, dine, and hold meetings. But instead of being called the University Club or the Athletic Club, in Dayton it’s known as the Engineers Club.

To commune with Dayton’s two most celebrated engineers, the logical place to start is the neighborhood where they lived and worked: West Dayton. Separated from the downtown area by the Great Miami River, West Dayton was one of the city’s first streetcar suburbs. When the Dayton Street Railway crossed the river, busy commercial districts sprang up, such as the one along West Third Street. At a brick storefront at 1127 West Third, a sign in compact white lettering above the door and display window once read THE WRIGHT CYCLE CO. Nearby there were working-class neighborhoods of small, tidy houses, such as the two-story frame building at 7 Hawthorn Street.

The city of Dayton itself played a large part in the drama of the birth of the airplane.

West Dayton was a lively portal for newcomers. These included Eastern European immigrants and families like the Wrights returning from points west. Starting around World War I and continuing through the early 1960s, the population shifted to mostly African-American, fueled by migration from the South. Then, in the mid-1960s, the area began to empty. Interstate highway construction, a riot in 1966, new housing opportunities for African-Americans elsewhere in the city, and the threat of urban renewal all served to depopulate West Dayton. When I first visited there, it looked less like a slum than like a wasteland, remarkably devoid of people and with many buildings gone. Wilbur and Orville would have found little to recognize in their old neighborhood.

But that’s changing now. Surviving houses are being restored, and new ones built, all in the style of the Wrights’ day. Incentives provided by the city of Dayton are attracting new residents to live there. A few doors from where the house at 7 Hawthorn once stood, I spoke to a woman unloading groceries from her car. She mentioned almost casually that she was living in a house that had once been the home of Ed Sines. That was a name I knew well. Ed Sines was Orville Wright’s childhood best friend and later his partner in a printing business. Along with this residential program, there is an effort to breathe life back into the nearby business district, also in a way that restores the look of early-twentieth-century Dayton.

A key element in all this redevelopment work is tourism. The Wrights’ old haunts are being historically preserved not only for those who live in Dayton but also for those who come to visit. At 7 Hawthorn Street the wayside markers and other enhancements now make clear the significance of the spot. Meanwhile, 1127 West Third, the former location of the bike shop, is as of this writing an archeological site. For years it was ingloriously occupied by a derelict commercial building. Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the Dayton Aviation Heritage Commission, says with both pride and irony, “If I accomplish nothing else, I can say I got rid of the used furniture store that stood on the site of the place where mankind invented the airplane.” When the store was removed, what appeared to be the foundation of the Wright bike shop emerged, and that is what prompted the archeological dig. A re-created facade is being considered, along with other features to mark and honor the site.