- Historic Sites
The First Season at Kitty Hawk
What the Wright brothers did in a wild and distant place made its name famous around the world. Their biographer visits the Outer Banks to find what remains of the epochal outpost.
April 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 3
Wilbur Wright boarded a Big Four train at the Union Station in Dayton, Ohio, at six-thirty on the evening of Thursday, September 6, 1900. Thirty-three years old, he was setting off on the first great adventure of his life. Other than a trip to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago with his younger brother, Orville, in 1893, Wilbur had ventured no farther than a bicycle ride from his home in more than sixteen years. Now he was traveling southeast through the night toward one of the most remote and isolated spots on the East Coast of the United States.
His destination, a place called Kitty Hawk, was a tiny fishing village that lay midway down the first leg of a 120-mile-long ribbon of sand running south from Norfolk in a great arc paralleling the coast of North Carolina. These were the fabled Outer Banks, a thin chain of barrier sand islands ranging from a few hundred feet at the narrowest point to perhaps three or four miles at the widest. They were broken by a series of channels or inlets that connected the wild Atlantic surf to the shallow inland sounds that separated the inner shore of the Banks from the swampy wilderness of mainland Carolina.
Wilbur had prepared for this journey with his usual care, studying maps of the region and reading what little he could find on the subject in the Dayton Public Library. Already he was captivated by the undeniable romance of the Outer Banks. Even the place names—Currituck, Albemarle, Pamlico, Nags Head, Wanchese, Manteo, Ocracoke—had an exotic ring to the ears of a city boy from Ohio.
He knew that the earliest chapters of American history had been written on the shifting sands and shallow waters of coastal Carolina. Giovanni da Verrazano and the crew of La Dauphine had cruised this coast in 1524. Verrazano passed close by the Nags Head Woods, very near the spot where Wilbur and Orville would be camping. He remarked upon the “sweet savours” of the trees and kidnapped an Indian boy for presentation at the French court.
The English had followed in Verrazano’s wake. Gazing across Kitty Hawk Bay, you can see the lonely pines of Roanoke Island, the site of the first English colony in the New World—the first outpost of Elizabethan empire. It was the Lost Colony, vanished without a trace, and the first English child born in the New World gone with it.
This had been Blackbeard’s country as well. The pirate died in a sea battle fought off Ocracoke in 1718.
Not all the local pirates had operated at sea. Many of the exotic place-names reflected a sinister past. Nags Head and Jockey’s Ridge, for example, recalled the exploits of the eighteenth-century wreckers who ventured out onto the crests of the dunes leading a horse with a lantern tied around its neck. The bobbing light, resembling the sternpost lantern of an inshore vessel, lured mariners onto the treacherous shoals, where their cargoes could be salvaged.
The origin of other local place-names remained a puzzle. By Blackbeard’s time the spot Verrazano had dubbed Arcadia was already appearing on coastal maps as Chickahauk. Whether this was a corruption of chicken hawk or a version of some long-forgotten Indian word is uncertain. Another century was to transform it to Kitty Hawk, and so it would remain.
Wilbur had assured his father that this journey to the remote fastness of Kitty Hawk was a pleasure trip, pure and simple. That was not really true. Prior to boarding he had helped load the parts of a glider into a boxcar at the rear of the train. Wilbur was determined to fly.
It was an odd ambition for a man whom friends and neighbors had simply regarded as completely ordinary. He and Orville were the bachelor sons of a church bishop. They were quiet, well dressed, hardworking, and polite to a fault. But for Wilbur, it was no longer enough simply to be well thought of in the community. Life seemed to be slipping through his fingers. Determined to make his mark before it was too late, he had set off in search of a challenge against which he could measure himself. He found it in the airplane.
Most sensible men and women regarded the flying machine as the very definition of the impossible. By the spring of 1899 Wilbur had decided they were wrong. He had read most of what was available on the subject of flight and discussed it with Orv, whose own interest was now piqued. They argued the issues back and forth between them, drawing a few basic conclusions of their own in the process. That summer they translated what they knew, or thought they knew, into a biplane kite designed to test the validity of their notions of flight control.
It worked, and they immediately pressed forward to the design of a glider/kite large enough to carry a man into the air. The actual construction of the machine would have to wait for a while. As usual, the brothers spent the fall and winter of 1899–1900 constructing the next year’s stock of Wright bicycles. Business at the shop would keep them busy through the following spring and summer. They were, however, able to devote a few hours to the task of selecting a testing ground.