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 website, 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.


A Chronology of the Trip

The railroad route information that appears in the chronology is drawn from a map/brochure, Chesapeake and Ohio Route to the Springs, Mountains and Sea Shore Resorts (Washington, D.C.: C & O Railway, April 1898), a copy of which is to be found in the Map Division of the Library of Congress. Additional details and train times are from: The Travelers Official Railway Guide (New York: National Railway Publishing Company, 1900). My thanks to Dr. William Withun, an old colleague from the National Museum of American History, for directing me to this universal guide, so familiar to rail travelers of a century ago. The guide in the NMAH collection was issued in January 1900, and is the closest I could find to September-October, 1900. The times do not quite match those provided by Wilbur. Perhaps the train was running late on 9/8/1900. Perhaps Wilbur's notes were a few minutes off. Perhaps the January 1900 schedule had changed slightly by September. In any case, the times listed in the schedule are very close to those given by Wilbur. All quotations are from, Marvin W. McFarland, The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953).


Thursday, September 6 - Friday, September 7, 1900:

"Left Dayton Thurs. Eve. At 6:30 P.M. over Big Four and C. & O. Arrived at Old Point [Comfort] about six o'clock P.M. the next day, and went over to Norfolk via the steamer Pennsylvania. Put up at the Monticello Hotel [Norfolk]." (Papers, pgs. 23-24)

Wilbur probably boarded Big Four (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway Company) train #33 at Dayton's Union Station at 6:08 P.M. on the evening of Thursday, September 6, 1900. That train arrived in Cincinnati at 7:45 P.M. Next best choice would have been train #7, which left Dayton Union Station at 8:00 P.M. and arrived at Cincinnati at 9:55 P.M.

He connected to a C & O train in Cincinnati that evening. It was probably Chesapeake and Ohio train #4, which left Cincinnati at 9:10 P.M., on 9/6/1900. The train that carried him to Old Point Comfort, Virginia, on the edge of Hampton Roads, was known as the "Fast Flying Virginian," or "the Vestibule Limited." It consisted of a "…combined car, day coach, dining car, Pullman sleepers and observation car, assuring all the creature comforts, and affording unobstructed views of the magnificent scenery along the route."

We can assume that the disassembled parts of the 1900 kite/glider, with the exception of the long spars that Wilbur purchased in Norfolk, were safely stowed away in a baggage car. The financial records of the Wright Cycle Company indicate that Wilbur paid $2.50 to ship his first full scale flying machine to Norfolk.

The train was painted "…a bright orange -- the Company's standard color -- from front to rear, presenting a strikingly handsome appearance, and is lighted and vestibuled throughout, and equipped with every appliance for safety, comfort and luxury known to modern railway travel." Travelers were assured that "all meals are served in dining cars." On a typical trip, the train reached Huntington, W.Va., 1:15 A.M. 98; Alderson, W.Va., at 6:05 A.M.; and Clifton Forge at 8 A.M. There was an engine change at Goshen, VA, 9:10 A.M. The train then proceeded to: Basic, VA, 11:19 A.M., Charlottesville, VA, 12:08 A.M., and reached Old Point Comfort, at 6:30 P.M. on 9/7/1900.

Steamers linked to the C & O crossed Hampton Roads to Norfolk regularly. On Friday evening, 9/7/1900, the schedule lists a typical steamer leaving Old Point Comfort at 6:10 P.M. and arriving in Norfolk at 7:10 P.M. Either Wilbur's train was early, or he took the next steamer.


Saturday, September 8, 1900:

" Spent Saturday morning trying to find some spruce for spars of machine, but was unsuccessful. Finally I bought some white pine and had it sawed up at J.E. Ethridge Co. mill. Compston Goffigon, the foreman, very accommodating. The weather was nearly 100 Fahr. And I nearly collapsed. At 4:30 left for Eliz. City…."(Papers, pg. 24)

On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, a Norfolk & Southern Railroad train departed Norfolk at 4:10 P.M. and arrived in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, at 6:00 P.M. Either Wilbur was a bit off on the time, or he took the next train.


Saturday, September 8 - Tuesday, September 11, 1900:

"At 4:30 left for Eliz. City and put up at Arlington [Hotel] where I spent several days waiting for a boat to Kitty Hawk. Nobody seemed to know anything about the place. At last on Tuesday I left." (Papers, pg. 24)


Tuesday September 11:

Wilbur was finally able to book passage across Albermarle Sound, a shallow body of water separating coastal North Carolina from the Outer Banks, aboard the good ship Curlique, a schooner captained by Israel Perry. The trip was more of an adventure than the young Ohioan had bargained for.

"I engaged passage with Israel Perry on his flat-bottom schooner fishing boat. As it was anchored about three miles down the river we started in his skiff 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. The wind became very light making progress slow. Though we had started immediately after dinner it was almost dark when we passed out of the mouth of the Pasquotank and headed down the sound. The water was much rougher than the light wind would have led us to expect, and Israel spoke of it several times and seemed a little uneasy. After a time the breeze shifted to the south and east and gradually became stronger. The boat was quite unfitted for sailing against a head wind owing to the large size of the cabin, the lack of load, and its flat bottom. 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 sprung a leak and this, together with what water came over the bow at times, made it necessary to bail frequently. At 11 o'clock the wind had increased to a gale and the boat was gradually being driven nearer and nearer the north shore, but as an attempt to turn round would probably have resulted in an upset there seemed nothing else to do but attempt to round the North River light and take refuge behind the point. In a severe gust the foresail was blown loose from the boom and fluttered to leeward with a terrible roar. 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. By the time we reached a position even with the end of the point it became doubtful whether we would be able to round the light, which lay at the end of the bar extended out a quarter of a mile from the shore. The suspense was ended by another roaring of the canvas as the mainsail also tore loose from the boom; and shook fiercely in the gale. The only chance was to make a straight run over the bar under nothing but a jib, so we took in the mainsail and let the boat swing round stern to the wind. This was a very dangerous maneuver in such a sea but was in some way accomplished without capsizing. The waves were very high on the bar and broke over the stern very badly. Israel had been so long a stranger to the touch of water upon his skin that it affected him very much." (Papers, pg. 24-25)


Wednesday September 12 - Thursday September 13, 1900:

Israel Perry brought the Curlique safely around the point into the sheltered waters of the North River, where the party spent the night. They did not get underway again until the afternoon of September 12, and finally dropped anchor in Kitty Hawk Bay at 9 o'clock that evening. Wilbur spent the night aboard and finally stepped ashore on the morning of September 13, 1900. He spotted young Elijah Baum strolling along the shore and asked for directions to the William Tate home. The young man offered to guide him down the sandy path to his destination. The journey by rail and boat from the comforts of Dayton to the wild Atlantic shore was at an end.

Tom D. Crouch
Senior Curator
National Air and Space Museum
Washington, D.C. 20560

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