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
I settled into the chair in my dentist’s office. Before the instruments came out, he asked me if I had any interesting travel coming up. Yes, I replied, I would soon be going to Dayton to visit the Wright brothers’ historical sites. “Dayton?” he said. “I thought they were in North Carolina.”
That’s the kind of exchange to make a Daytonian cringe. While the first piloted heavier-than-air flight took place at Kill Devil Hill on December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers called Ohio their home, not North Carolina. Wilbur had moved to Dayton at the age of four, and Orville was born there. Except for a few years spent in Iowa as children and their forays to the Outer Banks for the seclusion and steady winds to be found there, the brothers tended to remain in Dayton. Both inventors died there, and both are buried there. The Wrights’ gliders and airplanes, including the one that now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum, were designed and built in a Dayton bicycle shop.
That shop still stands—but not in Ohio. In 1936 Henry Ford transported the whole structure to Michigan as part of the open-air historical museum he had built, Greenfield Village. He also took the Wright family home at 7 Hawthorn Street. Ford was thorough; he even took the dirt on which the house stood. Orville approved the transfer. (Wilbur had died many years earlier.) Ford was a friend of his, and Orville clearly appreciated the preservation and attention his old home and shop would be accorded. Perhaps he could also see that they wouldn’t fare as well if they remained in Dayton.
Orville’s laboratory would later be torn down to make way for a gas station, which was never built. Mike Peters, syndicated cartoonist for the Dayton Daily News , pictured a tour bus traversing a terrain of rubble, with the guide intoning, “And this pile of bricks is where the Wright Brothers worked. The pile of bricks on the left is where [the poet Paul Laurence] Dunbar lived. And that pile of bricks is where. . . .” The Daily News columnist Martin Gottlieb called Dayton “The City That Never Much Cared.”
Well, it cares now. Whether it was indifference or Midwestern reserve that kept the city from celebrating its heritage, that reticence is long past. Nearly two dozen organizations—from local, state, and federal governments as well as from the private sector—are involved in showcasing Dayton’s history. Many of these efforts were tied to this year’s centennial of powered flight, but they started well before it, and their impact is likely to endure.
Dayton may have lost the world’s most famous bike shop, as well as that precious Wright house and laboratory, but the city still has plenty to attract the historically inclined traveler. To start with, there’s the recently established and prodigiously named Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, which comprises four primary sites, in separate locations across the city. But don’t stop there. Just as Boston has the Freedom Trail, Dayton has the Aviation Trail. You can pick up one of Aviation Trail, Inc.'s brochures and follow the maps and street signs to 12 listed sites. And there’s more to the Aviation Trail than those 12 sites. Before you can claim that you’ve covered the whole thing, you’ll need to visit all 45 sites described in the Trail’s 144-page Field Guide to Flight: On the Aviation Trail in Dayton, Ohio, by Mary Ann Johnson. If you do, you’ll find that while the Wright brothers started it all, there’s a lot more to Dayton-area aviation history than the Wrights alone. For example, the Trail will take you to where the first guided missile went up as well as to where the first parachutist, bailing out of a stricken aircraft, came down.
At some of the sites there’s frankly not much to see these days, or the property is in private hands. But for the true aviation devotee, there’s satisfaction in just standing on historic ground. For example, at the former location of the transplanted Wright house, there are now wayside signs, an outline showing where the house stood, and a replica of part of the front porch. But even when it was nothing but a vacant lot, visitors would come to stand at the spot. I know because I was one of them. Neighbors smiled indulgently at us pilgrims staring reverently at a nondescript plot strewn with weeds and trash.
This historical tour really requires a car. Fortunately, navigating around the Dayton area is easy, traffic is manageable, and the distances are short. Consider the Wright family’s crosstown trek. When the airplane business began at last to pay off handsomely, they moved from unassuming West Dayton to a mansion they had built in the exclusive neighborhood of Oakwood. It was a huge leap in social station, but only about three miles in distance.
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.
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.
But tourists don’t have to wait for them or content themselves with just the outline of a Wright shop. A few blocks away there already is an authentic Wright bike shop, open to the public. The shop at 1127 West Third, “the one that got away,” was not the Wrights’ only one. It was just the last of five they used over nearly two decades for their printing and bicycle businesses and the one in which they built the first airplane. The shop that stands nearby at 22 South Williams Street was their previous place of business, from 1895 to 1897. There they had a space large enough to combine their printing and bicycle enterprises under one roof, and there they began to manufacture their own line of bicycles. And it was while they were established at that shop that they learned of the death of Otto Lilienthal, the German aviation pioneer who was killed in the crash of one of his gliders. The news became a challenge to them, suggesting an entirely new field of technological endeavor. Wilbur would later recall, “My own active interest in aeronautical problems dates back to the death of Lilienthal in 1896.” The first airplane may have been built at 1127 West Third, but one could say it began to take shape at 22 South Williams.
The building has a saga of its own. It was saved from demolition by the Aviation Trail organization. Built in 1886, the two-story Victorian was home to the Wrights’ operation for only two years. At other times it was by turns a grocery store, a feed store, a boardinghouse, and a saloon. By the late twentieth century, with the connection to the Wrights largely forgotten and its exterior substantially altered, the building was welfare housing and in sorry shape. City authorities condemned it. But just a week or two earlier, Aviation Trail had acquired the building. There followed years of work to repair and restore it to its 1890s character. The discovery of a single photograph from the time ensured the fidelity of the result. The photo is of a little girl, but the shop, bearing the Wright Company name, is visible in the background. Paint, bay windows, and other additions were removed; the red brick re-emerged. Layers of flooring were pulled up, so when you’re in the shop now, you tread the same boards the Wright brothers stood on. There are few records to tell exactly what the interior looked like when it was in the Wrights’ hands, so it has been restored as a typical late-nineteenth-century bicycle shop. Exhibits profile the brothers during this period as well as the history of the building.
The two businessmen moved their operations a number of times, but they remained in the West Dayton community, generally within a short walk of their home. Prior to the 22 South Williams address, their printing business was just a few steps away, in a building known as the Hoover Block. It also has survived, and the two structures make up the core unit of the national historical park. They have been converted into the park’s interpretive center, complete with information desk, theater, bookstore, interactive exhibits, and a re-creation of Hale’s grocery store, which occupied space in the Hoover Block building a century ago. Next door a new building has gone up, incorporating the preserved facade of an early-twentieth-century structure. That’s now the headquarters of Aviation Trail. Exteriors such as these, with more restored structures to follow, help give a sense of West Third Street as the Wrights knew that commercial corridor.
When Congress passed legislation in 1992 creating Dayton’s historical park, the result was one of the more distinctive units in the National Park Service. First of all, for a single park to comprise noncontiguous places scattered across a city is unusual, if not unique. The sites are set up so you can see them in any order, with exhibit panels at each location directing you to the others. Since some of the sites were previously open to the public, the national park is a partnership between the Park Service, a federal agency, and a number of Ohio-based organizations. Also, the park’s focus on the early twentieth century sets it apart. While the colonial period has its Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Strawberry Banke restorations, this park interprets a far more recent but equally significant era: the beginning of what came to be known as the American Century.
The Wright brothers were not the only figures to lend historical gravitas to West Dayton. This becomes clear as you enter the new visitors’ facility in the converted Hoover Block. It is called the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center. The houses that are being built or restored nearby are part of Wright-Dunbar Village. The Dunbar remembered in each case is Paul Laurence Dunbar, a man of letters and tragedy, a friend and sometime business associate of the Wright brothers, and one of the first African-Americans to gain national and even international recognition for his poetry. A photograph of Dayton’s Central High School class of 1890 shows 27 grave-looking students. Seeming to hide in a doorway at the back, farthest from the camera, is Orville Wright. Nearby, at the upper-left corner of the group, is the sole black face, that of Paul Laurence Dunbar.
While struggling against bigotry, poverty, and illness, Dunbar managed to produce 12 volumes of poetry, 5 novels, and 4 books of short stories, along with librettos, plays, articles, essays, and recitations, all before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 33. He could write in formal, elegant verse or in black dialect. His concerns were at some times universal, at others specific to the African-American experience. The title of Maya Angelou’s best-known book is the concluding line of his poem “Sympathy”: “I know why the caged bird sings!” His memory is preserved in the hundreds of schools, parks, and other institutions named for him, but also in the house that he shared with his mother. Following his death there in 1906, she kept it unchanged in tribute to him until her own death, in 1934. Two years later the state of Ohio took it over. Open to the public as a museum and a memorial for most of the years since, it is now one of the properties in Dayton’s national historical park.
The Dunbar House has undergone restoration over the years, but unlike the Wright sites, only about a half-mile away, it didn’t have to face periods of decay, abandonment, and rescue. Not only has the red-brick Victorian survived, but so has a remarkable amount of its contents. Dunbar’s own Wright bicycle, his typewriter, the suit he wore for public appearances, the ceremonial sword presented to him by President Theodore Roosevelt: All these and a great deal more are on display, for viewing by guided tour only. I was perhaps most struck by a single sheet of paper, lying on his desk. It’s an unfinished poem, with penciled doodles in the margins.
At the same time Dunbar was working in ink on paper, the Wright brothers were working in metal, wood, and fabric. Their breakthrough creation, the first practical airplane, is on display in its own exhibit hall in Dayton. Wait, shouldn’t that be Washington, D.C.? It’s true that the Wrights’ 1903 Flyer is the most prominently displayed aircraft in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. But that first airplane, like the first telephone, electric light, and television, only barely qualified for performance success. It had just one day of flying, managing four flights, each of less than a minute. After that came two more years of slow and frustrating experimentation with later models. At last, the 1905 Wright Flyer III became the first airplane that could stay in the air, under the pilot’s full control, as long as the fuel lasted, and then land safely. One of its flights that year covered 24 miles in almost 40 minutes. Orville Wright later called it the most important airplane that he and his brother built. It is now the star attraction at Carillon Historical Park, lush green space with a bell tower and a transportation and industry museum near the banks of the Great Miami River.
The 151-foot Art Deco tower came first, a gift of Edward and Edith Deeds, who so admired a carillon in Belgium that they resolved Dayton should have one like it. Mrs. Deeds herself performed the first concert on the bells in 1942. Colonel Deeds was the chairman of the board of the National Cash Register Company (NCR), the city’s pre-eminent industrial concern. Perhaps inspired by his friend Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, Deeds began developing the now 65-acre site as an open-air museum. He would display the Miami Valley’s transportation and technological heritage with an original lock of the Miami Sc Erie Canal, a gristmill, a steam locomotive, and more, and the centerpiece would be a hall devoted to the achievements of the Wright brothers. Deeds consulted with his friend Orville Wright, who suggested the 1905 Flyer as an exhibit and agreed to supervise its restoration.
Wright did not live to see the work completed. He died in 1948, and the museum did not open until 1950. Still, when you visit the neoclassical Wright Hall today, you see the 1905 Flyer the way Orville Wright intended. Ever the engineer, he wanted visitors to have a clear view of how the machine worked. So it rests in a three-foot pit, surrounded by protective railings. You can walk all the way around the airplane, looking down to see its structure from top to bottom. To the casual eye, the 1905 Flyer looks much like its 1903 predecessor. Both are twin propeller biplanes, with the pilot having to lie prone on the lower wings, but the Wright Flyer III is taller and longer, with a reconfigured elevator, improved engine, and revised pilot controls. These and other enhancements may seem subtle, but they combined to produce the first Flyer that could consistently live up to its name.
To protect the venerable craft, the light is kept low in the hall. That also lends a stark, reverential air to the place. There is little to distract the eye from the Flyer. At the back wall are busts of the two inventors, and in the pit near the airplane stands a large wooden toolbox containing replicas of original tools that traveled with the Wrights.
In the late 1960s Dayton’s mayor led a movement to wrest the Wright house and bike shop back from Michigan. When it became clear the city had no chance of prevailing, Dayton awarded itself a kind of consolation prize. A reproduction of the bike shop was built in Carillon Park, near Wright Hall. When it was completed, in 1972, only the exterior had been made to look like the original. But by now the interior, too, has been rendered as authentic as possible. For this recent project a carpenter was sent to Greenfield Village to take measurements of the original shop and note other details, while the museum staff consulted the inventory of the shop’s equipment and fixtures that had been compiled when the Wrights sold the property. The curators have outfitted the shop to appear as the original did in late 1901, when the brothers were still active in the bicycle business but becoming increasingly interested in aviation. So, for example, there’s not as much stock in the salesroom as there would have been earlier. In the workshop there’s a truing stand for bicycle wheels, but the figure of Orville is working at the lathe, making parts for the 1901 glider.
And there’s been a recent change at the site: As one Carillon Park curator put it, “We’ve added wings to Wright Hall.” The result is a single, connected aviation center, which is a unit of the national historical park. Visitors enter the cycle-shop reproduction, pass from there into the new Wilbur Wright Wing, then into Wright Hall, with the 1905 Flyer , and finally on to the Orville Wright Wing. Carillon Park has always had significant artifacts in its collection, but with the added exhibit space in the two new wings, it can now show those items in some very creative ways.
For example, one of the world’s most universally recognized photographs is the one of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight. Taken on Kill Devil Hill at 10:35 A.M. on December 17, 1903, it shows the Flyer lifting off with Orville at the controls and Wilbur running alongside. Well, the camera that took that photograph is on display in the Wilbur Wright Wing.
I remember visiting Carillon Park as a kid and looking with awe at that camera, inside a glass case. But now, along with its tripod and some of the Wrights’ darkroom equipment, it’s not just a static exhibit; it’s a performer in a compelling sound and light show about the Wright brothers and their achievements. “Many of the images you’re about to see were taken with this,” says a recorded narrator, and a spotlight hits the camera. When the subject turns to the Wrights’ talent for engineering, the brothers’ drafting table comes into view, modified by Orville using bicycle chains and sprockets. Later there appears the sewing machine they used to sew wing coverings. Between shows the theater converts to exhibit space, where visitors can examine the artifacts up close.
After visiting the Wright Flyer III, you can go to the place where it first flew, an open field known then and now as Huffman Prairie. Part of this early flying field is a unit of the national park. The Huffman Prairie Flying Field is the least-developed site, intentionally so. The Wright brothers would find today’s Dayton greatly changed from what they knew, and even North Carolina’s Kill Devil Hill is now covered with grass, not sand dunes. But walk the paths at Huffman Prairie and you’ll see pretty much what Orville and Wilbur saw day after day, spring through fall, in 1904 and 1905.
After the landmark flights of December 17, 1903, the Wrights broke camp at Kitty Hawk and returned to Dayton. For their next flight tests, they would seek an experimental station closer to home. They found what they needed an eight-mile trolley ride from West Dayton. The property was owned by Torrence Huffman, a local banker who gave them permission to use it.
The field was well outside the city, but it was still not as secluded as Kitty Hawk. Neighboring farmers observed the strange craft rising from the prairie, as did riders on the interurban rail line. And the press? There were some newspaper and magazine accounts, but most were highly fanciful. Only one reporter made regular trips to Huffman. He was Amos I. Root, the editor of Gleanings in Bee Culture , an apiary journal. Root was there because his interests extended well beyond beekeeping, and his exuberant accounts give a sense of the drama unfolding in that pasture. When the Wrights achieved the world’s first circular airplane flight, Root called it “the grandest sight of my life. Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and is climbing up in the air right toward you—a locomotive without any wheels we will say, but with white wings instead. . . .”
After the 1905 flying season the Wrights ceased their flights for several years while they worked to secure m patents and customers for their invention. After that they flew in a number of other places, including back at Kitty Hawk. But in 1910 they returned to Huffman Prairie. By this time they had their own aviation company, and it was at the familiar old cow pasture that they flight-tested new models. There they also established a flight school, where 116 men and 3 women learned to fly. Tuition was $250, with the assurance that “contrary to the practice in many aviation schools, the pupil is not held responsible for any breakage to the machine.”
The flying field served as the base for the Wright Company’s flying exhibition team (soon closed by the brothers because the business proved so dangerous, with five out of nine pilots killed in crashes). It was also the starting point for the world’s first commercial flight, carrying 10 bolts of silk to Columbus, for a shipping charge of $5,000, which the customer more than recouped by cutting up the silk and selling the pieces as souvenirs.
Together the Huffman sites form a landmark of natural as well as aviation history. Huffman Prairie is Ohio’s largest remaining tallgrass prairie, a kind of terrain that once extended across much of the region. This was a transitional landscape, full of wildflowers and animal life, between the Eastern woodlands and the vast Western prairies. Go there now to commune not only with the Wright brothers but also with Indian grass and big bluestem grass, bobolinks and sedge wrens, deer, foxes, and woodchucks. The Wrights’ flying field took up only about 84 acres of the prairie. Unlike some neighboring farmers’ fields, this one had inadequate drainage for cultivation, so it served just as a pasture, which was the reason it was available to the Wrights. In later years the mammoth Wright-Patterson Air Force Base grew up all around it, but proximity to runways at the Air Force base and the field’s location in a floodplain still precluded development.
Today the field is officially preserved as a compact historic enclave on the Air Force base’s property, but it’s still open to the public. The plan is to keep it as pristine as possible. The only structure is a replica Wright brothers 1905 hangar. A more imposing memorial can be found on a hill overlooking the flying field. The 17-foot obelisk there is made, fittingly, of pink North Carolina granite, from the same quarry that was the source for the Wright monument at Kitty Hawk. Orville Wright was present when the Dayton memorial was dedicated, on his birthday in 1940. Around the shaft are plaques. One points toward the flying field; one lists the pilots who trained there; one points toward the military base; and a fourth points toward a cluster of early Native American burial mounds. “Thus,” says a publication issued by the Air Force base, “the significance of the memorial truly reaches across the millennia.” The surrounding 27-acre park is an appealing wooded setting, designed by the Olmsted brothers, sons of Frederick Law Olmsted. A new Park Service interpretive center is now open on the hilltop.
The Air Force base offers still another attraction for visitors, and what an attraction it is: the oldest and largest military aviation museum in the world. In contrast to the secluded Huffman Prairie Flying Field, only a short ride away, the U.S. Air Force Museum is host to nearly 1.5 million visitors each year. I grew up in Cincinnati, just 50 miles south of Dayton, so I’ve visited the museum a lot and watched it grow. By now it has more than 300 aircraft and spacecraft on display. Thanks to its location on the base, the museum has plenty of room for that growth to continue. Just this year a 200,000-square-foot hangar was added to house exhibits devoted to the Cold War era.
People visit aviation museums to see airplanes, and this museum doesn’t disappoint with the quantity and quality of its aircraft collection (see sidebar on pages 62-63). But for me some of the most evocative attractions are the smaller artifacts. The 1903 Wright Flyer may be at the Smithsonian, but the light cotton muslin that covered the left half of its lower wing is here in a climate-controlled glass case. The world’s first fatal airplane accident was in 1908. The pilot, Orville Wright, was seriously injured, and his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, was killed. The cause of the crash was traced to a split propeller, and here are pieces of that propeller.
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.
The “B” was the Wrights’ first production model. A little over 20 years ago a group of retired aviators, mostly military, completed work on a flying replica of the aircraft. To meet current safety standards and FAA requirements, they had to depart from several aspects of the original design. For example, today’s “B” Flyer has a stronger frame and a more powerful engine than the one that flew at Huffman Prairie in 1911. But it still cruises at 60 miles per hour or less. For a $150 donation to the organization that operates and maintains the airplane, you can strap in alongside the pilot, with goggles, helmet, and headset. As you taxi out, the wind and noise are fierce—and thrilling. The flight itself is brief. Because of insurance requirements, the operators say, you must take off, fly, and land all while still over the runway. From the ground it appears that the aircraft doesn’t go that high. But the view from on board, with nothing separating you from the slipstream, makes for a very different, and lasting, impression.
A fitting end to a Dayton journey is where the Wrights ended theirs. Woodland Cemetery is an inviting place, established as an arboretum as well as a burial ground. It’s rocky and hilly, the highest point in Dayton, with the city’s skyline stretched out below. Jim Sandegren, director of horticulture for the cemetery, speaks with authority about the rich flora of the grounds and the site’s geology and history. But he also refers knowingly to the principles of three-axis control in flight. That reflects the breadth of his knowledge, but it’s an indication as well of how Daytonians now understand and appreciate what the Wright brothers achieved.
Most of Dayton’s better-known residents are buried at Woodland, including Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edward and Edith Deeds, and the humorist Erma Bombeck. Dunbar’s grave marker includes some lines from one of his dialect poems. “Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass,” it begins, “Whah de branch ’ll go a-singin’ as it pass.” And Jim Sandegren has heeded the poet by planting a willow tree near his grave. At the Wright family plot, Wilbur and Orville lie with their sister Katharine between them. The gravestones are unadorned. A monument bears the Wright name, and individual markers give only names and dates. There’s nothing on the stones to indicate that the people buried there accomplished anything unusual, but as I stood there paying my respects, I heard the loud whine of jet engines. I looked up to see a big C-141 military transport headed for the Air Force base that bears the same name as the one I saw before me.