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The Legacy of the Wright Brothers in Kitty Hawk

Throwback Thursday: OBX Style

The Legacy of the Wright Brothers in Kitty Hawk

While just about every American, young and old, knows that the Wright brothers achieved the first successful airplane flight, many are likely unaware that this flight took place in the Outer Banks.  Considering the brothers lived in Ohio, why did they select Kitty Hawk, NC for their flying experiments?  To answer this, we must go back in history to when Wilbur and Orville were young.

The Influence of Family

The brothers were born into a family of abolitionists, temperance movement supporters, and active members of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ.  Their parents were firm believers in intellectual pursuits and encouraged their children to become well educated.  

Milton Wright, Wright brothers father
Milton Wright. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian

 

Susan Wright, Wright brothers mother
Susan Wright. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian

Wilbur and Orville’s mother Susan was especially unusual for a woman in that time period.  She studied literature at Hartville College in Indiana, where she met her husband Milton, and also had considerable mechanical knowledge learned from working closely with her father in his carriage shop.  She built toys for her children and even her own household appliances.  It was Susan who Orville and Wilbur turned to when they needed advice on their flying machines.

The brothers had a variety of individual talents, skills, and personality traits that complemented one another.  Wilbur Wright, of the Wright BrothersWilbur was intellectually motivated, excelled in school, had an extraordinary memory.  His young adult life was especially shaped by an accident when he was 13 years old that left him with lingering heart and digestive complications. A former athlete, his health problems resulted in depression and he isolated himself until he and his brother began working on their aeronautical research.

Orville Wright, of the Wright BrothersLike his brother, Orville was incredibly intelligent and inquisitive.  He was energetic, mischievous, and a practical joker, despite being painfully shy.  He enjoyed conducting experiments, building new inventions, and dismantling things to see how they worked.  Of the two, Orville more closely fit the stereotype of the innovator and scientist.  But Wilbur became the more public figure as he was a gifted speaker and not shy like Orville.

According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, relying on each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses was crucial to the brother’s invention of the airplane. Neither probably could have achieved alone what they did together.  They also were influenced by their only sister Katharine. Katharine Wright, Wright brothers only sisterLike their mother, Katharine pursued her educational and career goals, graduating from Oberlin College and becoming a high school teacher.  Katharine, Orville, and Wilbur had a very strong bond and were more interested in their intellectual pursuits than finding partners and settling down.  None of them ever married.

Dayton, Ohio and Bicycles

The Wright brothers credited growing up in Dayton, OH as stimulating their interest in aeronautical engineering.  In the 1890s, Dayton was a hub for manufacturing and industry, making it a place humming with technological innovation.  This environment, along with their parents’ support, encouraged the boys to tinker and explore.  The brothers’ first experience with flight occurred in 1878, when their father gave them a small rubber band–powered toy helicopter designed by French aviation pioneer Alphonse Pénaud. Intrigued by the toy, Orville and Wilbur made several copies of it in varying sizes.  Their fascination with mechanics continued as they grew and as young men, they established a printing press followed by a bicycle repair shop and factory. These enterprises funded their aeronautical experiments.

While many factors contributed to the Wrights’ success with flight, their familiarity with bicycles played an influential role.  According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, understanding the importance of balance, the need for strong but lightweight materials, the role of aerodynamic shape to combat wind resistance, and the chain-and-sprocket system for propulsion are a few of the lessons they learned from bicycles that would prove essential to their flying experiments.

The Brothers Arrive in Kitty Hawk

The Wright brothers concentrated their early research on simple hang gliders, following the path set by earlier inventors.  They were especially influenced by the German flight pioneer Otto Lilienthal, who made nearly 2000 brief flights in 16 different gliders between 1891 and 1896.  The brothers built upon Lilienthal’s research and between 1899 and 1905, they built and tested many airplane prototypes. The 1900 glider was the first piloted aircraft and was also the first to be tested in Kitty Hawk, NC.

The Wrights needed a number of specific conditions in order to test their glider.  First, they needed steady winds.  Second, they needed a wide-open space with limited obstructions.  Third, they needed something from which to launch their glider, such as high sand dunes.  Lastly, they wanted a place to experiment in peace without a lot of onlookers.  Kitty Hawk fit these requirements perfectly.  

The glider being flown as a kite in Kitty Hawk in 1900
The glider being flown as a kite in Kitty Hawk in 1900. Image courtesy of The National Park Service

At the time, Kitty Hawk was a tiny coastal fishing village of approximately 300 people with ideal average wind speed at 15 to 20 mph.  The Kill Devil Hills, located four miles south of town, provided massive dunes from which to glide, and an abundance of sand to cushion crash landings. While Kitty Hawk was ideally suited for their experiments, it was not without challenges.  The weather was often unpredictable with sudden squalls and constantly shifting sands.  But the brothers persevered.

Before making piloted glides, the Wrights always tested their gliders by flying them as kites. “Kiting” provided valuable data on lift and drag, and enabled them to get a feel for the controls.  Unfortunately, their 1900 glider only produced about half the lift they predicted, so it was back to the drawing board in Dayton, OH.

Wilbur Wright laying prone on glider just after landing in Kitty Hawk in 1901
Wilbur Wright laying prone on their glider in Kitty Hawk in 1901. Image courtesy of The National Park Service

The brothers returned to Kitty Hawk year after year, each time with an improved aircraft.  After collecting massive amounts of data, building a wind tunnel to test models, and over 200 wing designs, the brothers designed the successful 1902 glider.  Orville and Wilbur made between 700 and 1000 glides, some reaching 600 feet in the air.  This success invigorated them and they immediately started working on a powered airplane.

In 1903, they again returned to Kitty Hawk ready to test their aircraft, which they called “The Flyer.”  The first attempt was unsuccessful but the second attempt resulted in a 12-second flight — the very first piloted airplane flight.  The brothers alternated as pilots, and by the end of the day, their airplane had made an impressive 852-foot trip in 59 seconds.  The brothers filed for a patent in March 1903 and it was finally granted on May 22, 1906.

The Wright Flyer lifts off for the first time in Kitty Hawk in 1903. Orville is on board with Wilbur running alongside.
The Wright Flyer lifts off for the first time in Kitty Hawk in 1903. Orville is on board with Wilbur running alongside. Image courtesy of The National Park Service

The Wright Brothers’ Legacy

While Orville and Wilbur had achieved flight, their airplane was not exactly practical.  To successfully market their creation, they had to demonstrate it could turn, fly for longer periods, and fly over more varied terrain than Kitty Hawk’s sand dunes.  By the fall of 1905, the Wrights had built their third powered airplane and on October 5, Wilbur circled a field 30 times in 39 minutes. The brothers had finally proven that flight could be stable and practical.

Interestingly, Orville and Wilbur did not initially do much to popularize their success.  They didn’t fly publicly until 1908, when they started a European tour.  This caused them to become overnight celebrities.  They met with English royalty, were honored with parades, received the Legion of Honor award, and were caricatured by the media.  Both men disliked the attention, but if they were going to sell their airplane, they had to endure it.

The Wright Company secured numerous contracts with the U.S. military, selling The Flyer to the Army in 1909 and the Wright Model B to the Navy in 1911.  They produced a variety of designs until Orville sold the firm and retired in 1915, three years after Wilbur’s premature death.

The Wright brothers’ impact on the 20th century is beyond measure.  All successful airplanes have incorporated the basic design elements of the 1903 Wright Flyer.  Their inventions had an immense impact not simply on the military but on the entire culture, including technology, art, and literature.  They also became an integral part of the Outer Banks’ long history.  In commemoration of their accomplishments, a 60-foot granite memorial was erected in Kitty Hawk in 1932, which you can visit today.


 Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

Nags Head Casino Postcard

Remembering the Nags Head Casino

When you think of the Outer Banks, it’s likely the beautiful beaches are first to come to mind.  A popular attraction for rock and roll musicians is not as likely to be imagined.  But ask any local over the age of 50 about the Nags Head Casino and you’ll be regaled with stories of legendary music acts and dancing the night away.

Originally built as a barracks in the early 1930s for the stonemasons who constructed the Wright Brothers National Memorial, the Nags Head Casino was purchased in 1937 by G. T. “Ras” Wescott.  The two-story building housed duckpin bowling lanes, pool tables, and pinball machines on the first floor while a bar and expansive dance floor occupied upstairs.  Ras was known for his special care of the wood dance floor, waxing and buffing it each day.  To preserve it, he asked patrons to remove their shoes and dance barefoot.  With the top-floor shutters open to the ocean breezes and young people grooving barefoot, the Casino was the epitome of summer fun.   

Nags Head Casino Birds Eye View
Bird’s eye view of the Casino. Image courtesy of Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum: www.oldnagshead.org

During the 1930s and 1940s, big band music reigned, drawing crowds of up to 1000 people to the Nags Head Casino!  During this time, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman are a few of the acts who played.  As doo-wop, Mowtown, and rock and roll gained popularity in the 1950s and 60s, bands like The Platters, Fats Domino, The Four Tops, Bill Deal and the Rhondels, and The Temptations entertained.  According to Carmen Gray, founder of the Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum, “anybody who was anybody played at the Casino.”  Until the 1970s, bands continued to make the trek to Nags Head to put on a show.  And on nights when no band played, a Wurlitzer jukebox provided the music.

Nags Head Casino Music Poster for Johnny Alligator

Unfortunately, the fun came to an end when Ras Wescott sold the building in the mid 1970s and soon after, the roof collapsed during a winter storm.   Jockey’s Ridge Crossing shopping center now occupies the site of the beloved Casino.  But Nags Head locals still reminisce about the raucous music, 25 cent PBRs, Wednesday night boxing matches, and walks on the beach after a night of dancing.  For their generation, it truly was the place to be for both patrons and musicians.  Bill Deal, from The Rhondels, remembers that “it was always packed. We never worried about having a crowd.  The Casino certainly opened doors for a lot of groups. If you played the Casino, you’d made it.”  For many, the time, the place, and the music will never be replicated, but the Casino will always be remembered.


Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

Mystery of the Lost Colony

For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a time to enjoy family, food, and football.  But life for the first English settlers was not always so festive, especially for the members of the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island.  

What Do We Know?

On June 22, 1587, John White and 118 English colonists arrived at Hatteras Island.  They quickly decided the area was not suitable for settlement and migrated around the Pamlico Sound to Roanoke Island.1  This group was the third of Sir Walter Raleigh’s expeditions to arrive in North Carolina but the first attempt at settlement.  Day-to-day life for the 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children must have been difficult as they attempted to farm the land and interact with the Native inhabitants.2   John White soon needed to return to England for supplies but, due to the Anglo-Spanish War, could not get back for three years.3   

He finally arrived at Roanoke Island in 1590 but found the settlement completely deserted.  Not a single person remained.  The only traces left by the colonists were mysterious words “Cro” and “Croatoan” carved into a tree and gate post.4  What were the settlers trying to communicate?  Did they leave the island?  Did they die from an epidemic?  Research conducted by Dennis Blanton from the College of William and Mary and David Stahle from the University of Arkansas may illuminate the mysterious disappearance of the Lost Colony.

The Mystery of the Lost Colony
John White discovers the word Croatoan carved on the Roanoke fort gate post. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 Is the Truth in the Trees?

According to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Blanton and Stahle looked at the rings of centuries-old cypress tree trunks along the rivers of the Virginia-North Carolina border. Every year, trees grow by adding layers of wood cells.  The width of the tree ring indicates how much the tree has grown in a particular growth season.  The wider the ring, the better the conditions for growth. The research team discovered the tree rings were significantly smaller than average during the years 1587-1589.5  This discovery, along with other environmental data, indicates the settlement of Roanoke Island coincided with the worst drought of the past 800 years!6  

Has the Lost Colony Been Found?

Historians hypothesize that the colonists dispersed, searching for more hospitable environments, perhaps trying to cohabitate with Native American tribes.7  Some scholars believe the colonists traveled 50 miles south to Hatteras Island, then known as Croatoan Island.8  Is that the reason Croatoan was carved into a gate post at the site of the original colony?  Were they trying to tell John White where they had gone?

The mystery was further compounded in 2012 when the British Museum uncovered a tantalizing clue on one of John White’s maps.  Using X-ray spectroscopy, a four-pointed X or star was uncovered underneath a paper patch that had been secured on the map.  The X marked a spot at the western end of Albemarle Sound near the outlet of the Chowan River, which corresponds to an area White mentioned in testimony he gave after returning to the colony.9

Map of the Lost Colony
A paper patch on the map covers an X shape, visible when backlit, that might be a “lozenge”, a symbol that represents a fort. Image from the Trustees of the British Museum.

The James River Institute for Archaeology and the First Colony Foundation, as well as British archaeologists, have been excavating sites near the Albermarle Sound attempting to find traces of the settlers.  While they have discovered artifacts dating back to the 16th century, there isn’t yet enough evidence to say for certain that the colonists ended up there.  It’s possible we will never know exactly what happened to the “Lost Colony” but scholars will persevere.  As Eric Klingelhofer, professor of history at Mercer University, said:

“We need to know more.  This whole story is a blank — a blank page, a blank chapter of history, and I think archaeology is the only way to come up with answers.”10


Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company

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