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Wilbur Wright Travels to the Outer Banks
Dayton, Ohio to Elizabeth City, NC,
September 6-September 13, 1900


A number of years ago, a good friend and fellow student of flight history remarked to me that he had always wondered how the Wright brothers got to Kitty Hawk. I told him that they had taken the train to the coast and a boat across Albermarle Sound to Kitty Hawk Bay. That was not enough. My friend was fascinated by the sort of surface transportation that the Wright brothers had taken on their way to the invention of the airplane. He wanted to know precisely how they had gone. What trains had they taken? What boats? When? What had they seen along the way?

In the year 2000, the citizens of Elizabeth City, NC, hosted a wonderful celebration of the centennial of Wilbur Wright's arrival in town on his way to Kitty Hawk for the first time. Invited to participate in the festivities, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to work out the precise details of that first trip to the Outer Banks, finally answering my friend's questions.

It was not that difficult a task. Wilbur's record of the trip included the precise times when trains arrived and departed. A trip to the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress produced a detailed map of the route, and a Chesapeake & Ohio leaflet describing the sights to be seen along the way. Bill Withun, a friend and colleague who supervises the Transportation Division of the National Museum of American History, provided me with a universal railroad timetable for 1900, and photos of C&O locomotives that actually ran on the route that Wilbur took in 1900.

For my curious friend, and other visitors to the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission Web site, we offer the following chronology, together with a precise map of the route. It is interesting to note that Amtrak still runs trains on the old C&O route that the Wrights took during the years 1900-1903. There is a difference, however. Whereas the Wrights left Dayton in the evening, the modern train leaves in the morning. The modern traveler sees what the Wrights missed while traveling on the train at night, and misses what the Wrights saw the next day.

Why Kitty Hawk?

Why did two bicycle builders from Dayton, Ohio, who dreamed of flight, decide to travel to Kitty Hawk, NC to test their first large kite/glider? While considering the design of their glider, they realized that if the machine was to be of reasonable size, they would have to fly it in a considerable wind. Recognizing that their home town was not an especially windy place, Wilbur wrote to Willis L. Moore, Chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau (November 27, 1899), requesting information on winds in various parts of the nation. Moore sent them copies of the August and September 1899 issues of The Monthly Weather Review, which included the wind speeds recorded at Weather Bureau stations across America.

As expected, the windiest places were lakeshore cities like Chicago and Buffalo. The first rural spot on the list was Kitty Hawk, NC, a place with which the Wrights, and most other Americans, were unfamiliar. A few minutes with a map revealed that Kitty Hawk was a remote village on the Outer Banks, a thin ribbon of sand paralleling the coast of North Carolina. Wilbur wrote to Joseph Dosher, who operated the small weather station at Kitty Hawk, asking about the winds and other conditions in the area. Dosher responded with a short note, and passed Wilbur's letter on to his friend William Tate, who responded as well, describing ideal conditions for "scientific kite flying," and closing with an assurance that, "…you will find hospitable people when you come among us." Kitty Hawk it would be.

The Wright brothers had lived in Ohio, Indiana and Iowa while growing up, but they were not well traveled. The longest personal trip they had every taken was a visit to the bicycle displays at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Neither of them had ever seen the ocean. The trip to a remote fishing village on the Atlantic shore would be a great adventure. They decided that Wilbur would blaze the trail, traveling to Kitty Hawk with his luggage, camping gear, and most of the parts of the disassembled kite/glider. He would have to buy the two long pieces of wood for the wing spars at some point on the trip. Orville would follow later, when Wilbur confirmed that conditions were favorable for their experiments.

"We are in an uproar getting Will off," sister Katharine Wright wrote to her father on September 13, 1900. "The trip will do him good. I don't think he will be reckless." The first trip to Kitty Hawk had begun.

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