- Historic Sites
A town forced to earn its living by its wits from the very beginning—most spectacularly through the work of two young bicycle mechanics—and now remaking itself into a Colonial Williamsburg of the industrial age, this year’s Great American Place is
October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
If you want to see the Flyer take to the air, visit Dayton Wright Brothers Airport.
If such mementos move you, take a short ride to the Wright brothers’ namesake campus, Wright State University. There, at the Paul Laurence Dunbar Library, is the Wright Brothers Collection, comprising more than 6,000 business, technical, and personal papers, along with photographs, diaries, memorabilia, and the like. In addition, the archives hold more than 70 other manuscript collections associated with the history of flight. These resources are maintained for faculty, students, and visiting researchers, but others can enjoy them as well. Samples from the collections are displayed in glass cases, in rotating exhibits. When I was there, I saw, among other things, the ornate medals awarded to the Wright brothers by various governments, their contract with the U.S. Army to supply a flying machine, and, from Orville’s student days, his beautifully rendered sketches of plants for a botany class. Portions of the collections can be viewed at the library’s Web site
One of the rewards of pursuing the Wright legacy across the Dayton area is that links begin to emerge. Consider that famous photograph of the first powered flight on Kill Devil Hill. As mentioned earlier, at Carillon Park you can see the camera that took the picture. At the Air Force Museum you can learn from an exhibit that the image that’s so familiar is actually a cropped version. The original glass-plate negative was damaged in Dayton’s disastrous flood of 1913, losing a portion in the lower-left corner. After that, Orville preferred a cropped version, despite the fact that less of the launching area is shown. In the uncropped version, displayed at the museum, even with the chunk missing at the lower left, you can see much more of the rail used to launch the plane and get a better sense of the terrain. You can go to the Wright State University library and look at the full photograph, with all its corners intact. It’s a print made from the negative before the 1913 flood.
The Wrights’ presence is felt in still more places. The family’s mansion, which they called Hawthorn Hill, is now owned by NCR and closed to the public. But Aviation Trail signs point out its location, and you can look at it from the street. At the Engineers Club one of the Wright engines, an experimental model, is on display. It stands on a mirrored surface, so you can study its workings from below. The club’s doors are open to nonmembers who want to see it.
In 1909 Dayton held a huge two-day celebration honoring the Wright brothers, and winged statues lined the broad downtown boulevard, Main Street. Almost 90 years later sculpture honoring the Wrights returned to Main Street in the form of Flyover. Three arcing stainless steel rails trace the 120-foot airborne path of the first powered flight. At intervals along the rails, pairs of white crossbars represent the biplane’s two wings. It’s an imaginative means of visualizing the Wrights’ achievement, but some Dayton residents who aren’t drawn to abstract expression have taken to calling the creation Venetian Blinds or the Dinosaur Tail. For those who prefer their art a bit more literal, there’s another sculpture a few blocks away, next to the Engineers Club. A curved pylon holds aloft a full-size 1905 Flyer rendered in metal, with Wilbur at the controls and Orville running exultantly alongside. A motor keeps the propellers, rudder, and elevator all in motion. Quotes from both brothers are engraved in the plaza below, mostly statements about flight, but also this from Wilbur: “I love to scrap with Orv. Orv is such a good scrapper.”
David Evans Black, the sculptor of Flyover , has also created another, and very different, series of Wright memorials. Each is a simple bronze bench, echoing the wooden one in the 1903 first-flight photograph, and resting on it are two bowler hats. Nine of the quiet, eloquent benches can be found at sites associated with the brothers.
If you are truly captivated by early flight, you may long for the chance to see a Wright Flyer actually take to. the air. If so, visit the Dayton Wright Brothers Airport, a small field south of Dayton and home to the Wright “B” Flyer. It’s a replica, but it’s one that really does fly. In fact, if you’re feeling expansive and crave the full experience, you can go up in it yourself. In terms of dollars per time aloft or distance traveled, it may be the most expensive flight you’ll ever take. But for the true devotee, it’s irresistible.