- 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
Beginning work early in 1929, Gilman spent $27,500 to do that. The area was fenced to keep the hogs and cattle out, then covered with a two-inch-thick layer of straw, leaves and wood mold extending three-hundred feet up the slope. Tough imported grasses—bitter tannic, hairy vetch, and marram—were planted in the artificial topsoil. Once this band of vegetation had taken root, Gilman extended the planting up to the summit on the northeast side, where the prevailing wind struck the dune, then over the rest of the slope.
By the summer of 1930 the once-majestic moving dune had been transformed into an ordinary hill, carpeted with green weeds and shrubs. A few watermelon vines had even found a foothold near the top. Gilman and his crew started work on the monument itself in February 1931. Finished the next spring, the granite shaft stands sixty feet from the five-pointed star at the base to the tip of the beacon. The hill raises the height of the structure to 151 feet above sea level.
On November 19, 1932, another party of distinguished guests made their way to the site. They drove over the new Wright Memorial Bridge and down a concrete highway. Warren’s plan to use the monument to lure tourists to the Outer Banks was an enormous success. Development followed on a scale beyond his wildest dreams.
Today the National Park Service operates the Wright Brothers National Monument. Park Service archeologists conducted a dig on the site in the early fifties, but they failed to locate the precise spot where the Wright camp had been established during the years 1901–03. The old camp had apparently been stripped clean by tourists over the years. The reconstructed hangar and living quarters that you see here today were positioned with reference to a stone that Bill Tate had helped set in place to mark the spot where the world’s first powered airplane left the ground in 1903.
Also on the site is a small museum complete with replicas of the 1902 glider and the 1903 airplane. A team of rangers does a marvelous job of introducing visitors to the story of the Wright brothers. Still, the memorial cannot give you a real feel for the place that Will and Orv knew.
After you have seen the museum, peeked into the reconstructed sheds, and hiked up to the monument on the hill, drive a few miles farther south to a place called Jockey’s Ridge. In 1900 this was the next great sand mountain south of the Kill Devil Hills. It remains one of the largest dunes on the East Coast. Trudging up the long, steep side of the great dune will give you some sense of what it was like tor the Wrights, who made this climb carrying a glider back up the hill for the next launch.
Once on top, you can hike a few hundred feet toward the sound. Out of sight of the highway and the hotels, you are now in an environment that would be very familiar to the Wrights, a place, Orville said, that looks like the Sahara, “or the Sahara as I imagine it to be.”