- 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
Arriving at historic Old Point Comfort at six o’clock on the evening of Friday, September 7, 1900, Wilbur loaded his gear onto the steamer Pennsylvania for the short trip across historic Hampton Roads, where the James and York rivers flow across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay into the Atlantic. He was up and about early the next morning. The lumberyards back in Dayton had been unable to furnish the long pieces of spruce that would be required for the main wing spars of the glider, and Norfolk, the largest city on his route south, was his last chance to get them. Close to collapse after several hours of fruitless searching in the humid hundred-degree heat of Indian summer on the Virginia peninsula, he finally settled for white pine.
But there was no way to travel down the length of the Banks. There were no roads at all, and no bridges across the inlets or the sounds. So Wilbur boarded another train that carried him south to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, situated near the spot where the Pasquotank River entered Albemarle Sound.
He arrived on September 8. After checking into the Arlington Hotel, he visited the city docks, inquiring about the price of water transport on to Kitty Hawk. Wilbur was startled to discover that “no one seemed to know anything about the place or how to get there.” Not until Tuesday, September 11, was he able to find a boatman, Israel Perry, who was willing to ferry him down the sound and across the head of Roanoke Island to the Outer Banks. Perry explained that his boat, a flat-bottomed fishing schooner, was anchored three miles down the Pasquotank, in the relatively deep water midchannel, just inside the entrance to the sound.
“We started in his skiff,” Wilbur wrote, “which was loaded almost to the gunwale with three men, my heavy trunk and lumber.
“The boat leaked very badly and frequently dipped water, but by constant bailing we managed to reach the schooner in safety. The weather was very fine with a light west wind blowing. When I mounted the deck of the larger boat I discovered at a glance that it was in worse condition if possible than the skiff. The sails were rotten, the ropes badly worn and the rudderpost half rotted off, and the cabin so dirty and vermin-infested that I kept out of it from first to last.”
They started down the Pasquotank immediately after dinner in a wind so light that it was nearly dark by the time they entered the sound and turned east toward the Banks. “The water was much rougher than the light wind would have led us to expect,” Wilbur noted. “Israel spoke of it several times and seemed a little uneasy.”
The reason for the skipper’s unease became apparent when the wind shifted to the south and east and began to grow stronger. Even a landlubber like Wilbur could see that Perry’s flat-bottomed scow, with its large deck cabin and light load, was ill equipped to make its way against the growing headwind.
“The waves which were now running quite high struck the boat from below with a heavy shock and threw it back about as fast as it went forward. The leeway was greater than the headway. The strain of rolling and pitching sprang a leak and this, together with what water came over the bow at times, made it necessary to bail frequently.”
By eleven o’clock that night the north winds were driving the boat dangerously close to the shore. Perry was struggling to make his way past the North River Point light, so that he could swing up into the channel of the North River and take shelter behind the point. Just as they drew abreast of the river, a gust blew the foresail loose from the boom with a “terrible roar.” Wilbur wrote in his journal: “The boy and I finally succeeded in taking it in, though it was rather dangerous work in the dark with the boat rolling so badly.”
After some further frightening maneuvers, during which the mainsail also tore loose from the boom, Perry worked the schooner around and back up into the safety of the North River channel. They remained at anchor in the channel, making repairs, until midafternoon of the following day. Unwilling to touch any of the food aboard the schooner, Wilbur subsisted on a single jar of jelly that his sister, Katharine, had packed for him.
When the glider rose to an altitude of about ten feet, Wilbur began screaming to Orville, “Let me down!”
Looking across the choppy waters in the fading afternoon light of September 12, Wilbur could just make out the dark line of trees that marked the sound side of the Outer Banks. It was 9 P.M. when they tied up at the single dock in Kitty Hawk Bay. Venturing ashore for the first time in two days early the next morning, he was met by a young fellow who introduced himself as Elijah Baum and who guided him up a sandy lane to the Tate house. It was a two-story structure, sided with unplaned lumber weathered by the elements to a blotchy slate gray.