- 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
The brothers continued their experiments in the relative privacy of a cow pasture near Dayton in 1904 and 1905, gradually transforming the marginal success of 1903 into the reality of a practical airplane capable of remaining aloft for extended periods of time under the complete control of the pilot. Then followed two more years during which the Wrights refused to fly while they waited for the approval of their patent application and sought to negotiate the sale of their invention.
They burst on the world with their first public flights in the high summer of 1908. All the doubts were swept aside. The Wright brothers were immediately elevated to membership in the pantheon of great American inventors. The enshrinement of Kitty Hawk as one of the nation’s great historic places would take a bit longer, but that, too, was inevitable.
The modern visitor to the Outer Banks no longer faces the hazards of a voyage with Israel Perry. You cross Currituck Sound on the Wright Memorial Bridge and turn south toward the neon-bedecked communities of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head—places that the Wrights once knew but would no longer recognize.
In fact, most of the tourists and summer people never see the Kitty Hawk that Wilbur and Orville knew. There is a strip of shopping centers, real estate offices, and fast-food places bearing that name out on the main road, but to find the old village, you have to turn off to the right and drive a mile or so back toward the sound.
The place has not changed much. The houses, a few of them dating back to the time when the Wrights were here, are scattered along narrow roads that snake through the stunted trees and marshy growth along the edge of the sound. The first American monument to the Wrights, a simple five-foot marble obelisk, stands in the front yard of what was once the local Methodist parsonage. Before that it was the site of the Tate house, where Will and Orv had first lodged.
In 1927, when the federal government announced plans for a great Wright Brothers National Memorial to be constructed at the Kill Devil Hills, where the Wrights flew from 1901 to 1903, the citizens of Kitty Hawk, led by Capt. William Tate, still a leading light of the community, raised $210 to mark this spot where the 1900 glider had been assembled and flown. This, they argued, was the “bona fide cradle of aviation.” There are no road markers leading you to this little shaft. Ask a local citizen for directions to the Wright brothers monument and they will send you four miles north of Kitty Hawk, to Kill Devil Hills, where the grandest of all memorials to the brothers was finally dedicated in 1932.
It is a lovely thing, a great pylon of Mount Airy granite with wings sculpted into the sides. The memorial was conceived in 1926 by Rep. Lindsay Warren as a means of attracting the tourist dollars that would boost the Outer Banks into the twentieth century. At the time, the Banks remained much as the Wrights had left them. The only access to the mainland was by ferry. The only roads were wooden “corduroy” affairs that could move in response to the shifting sands.
North Carolina legislators and the local members of the Kill Devil Hills Memorial Association agreed that Warren’s proposal for a great memorial was a fine idea. The citizens of Dayton were not so sure. A Dayton editor did his best to scuttle the project, pointing out that the Outer Banks remained as remote and inaccessible as they had been in 1903. “Who,” he asked, “will ever visit this monument if it is built in the wind swept dunes at Kitty Hawk?”
That fellow was whistling in the wind. A fifty-thousand-dollar appropriation bill introduced by Warren’s ally, Sen. Hiram Bingham of Connecticut, breezed through committee, passed both houses, and was signed into law by President Coolidge on March 2, 1927. Architects Robert Perry Rogers and Alfred Eastman Poor won the five-thousand-dollar prize for the design of the monument. Warren, Bingham, Orville Wright, and Amelia Earhart dedicated the cornerstone on December 17, 1928, in the presence of two hundred “pilgrims” who had braved a series of difficult bus, automobile, and boat rides to reach the site.
With the preliminaries out of the way, the Army Quartermaster Corps got on with the job of building the structure. The first problem facing Capt. John A. Gilman, who had recently completed work on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery, was the Kill Devil Hill itself. It was not a hill at all, but a ninety-foot sand dune that was moving across the narrow Outer Banks, slowly but surely, at a speed of twenty feet a year. During the quarter of a century since 1903, it had traveled some 450 feet southwest toward the waters of Roanoke Sound. If the dune was to serve as the foundation for a monument, it would have to be permanently stabilized.