This article appeared in the Journal Herald on December 12, 1943
Make-Believe Trip to Kitty Hawk
By A. S. Kany
Let’s go places. Let’s take a make-believe, but by no means a mythical trip to Kitty Hawk, that far-away dot on the North Carolina coast line long since made famous by our own Orville and Wilbur Wright. That was where for a period of 12 seconds, just 40 years ago Friday, “the first time in the history of the world a machine carrying a man raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, sailed forward without a reduction of speed and finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started,” to put it in Orville’s own words.
The long strip of narrow coast line, with its sand dunes rising to almost young mountain height, has been referred to generally as “bleak and barren” land. It was that when I visited it eight years ago, three years after the beautiful memorial to the Wrights had been erected on the top of Kill Devil hills, from which the first plane took off.
But I learn from my good friend, Capt. W. J. Tate of Coinjock, N. C., in whose home the Wright brothers lived when they first went to Kitty Hawk, that the place is now one of seething activity. There’s a million-dollar base for sub patrol work there now, a blimp base and also the Vultee Aircraft Consolidated is preparing and mounting guns on fighters and four-motored bombers going to other countries on lend-lease.
That section for years has been more “Wright-conscious” than Dayton itself, celebrating the anniversary date every year. Residents of the several communities around the site of the first flight have been responsible for making it possible for motorists to reach the spot by way of a three-mile bridge over Currituck sound.
Friday they will hold a special program, their only regret being that Orville cannot attend. The governor of North Caroline has issued a proclamation that Dec. 17 from now on is to be known as Kitty Hawk day in that state. Josephus Daniels, former U. S. ambassador and ex-secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, now congressman from that district, is chairman of the committee in charge of the program.
Arrived To Speak
Ceremonies will begin at 10 a.m., with Rep. Herbert Bonner presiding. Governor J. M. Broughton will introduce the speakers, General H. H. Arnold and Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Hanley, commanding officer of Maxwell Field, Alabama. General Arnold is well known here. Back in 1911 he was sent to Dayton to receive instructions in piloting a Wright biplane and in later years he served as commanding officer at Patterson Field and executive officer in the materiel division at Wright field. General Arnold’s tribute to Orville Wright is published on page 4 of this section.
The Elizabeth City high school band will play preceding the ceremony, a luncheon will be spread for the notables and a fish fry will be put on for those attending the ceremony, many of them natives of Dare county who were contemporaries of the first flight. A number of the participants will fly to Washington for the dinner President Roosevelt has arranged for Orville Wright in the evening.
But to go back to the trip. Railroad travel, hardly permissible now, what with the government’s admonition to refrain from cluttering up the trains, is impractical, but that would land you at Elizabeth City, some 70 miles from Kitty Hawk. Motoring is the way to go for the pleasure of a real trip, but that’s out until a normal gas and tire situation is once more restored.
Let’s pretend, however, that we are skimming over good roads, have traveled across country and find ourselves at Elizabeth City. The “last outpost” before driving into what will appear to you an entirely new world, Elizabeth City is a strictly modern city, not large, but with a splendid hotel, the Virginia Dare, and many of the aspects of larger communities.
From there you must motor the rest of the way. There’s bus service now three times daily but they tell me that if you can claim any connection or show decided interest in the Wright Brothers’ achievements, the progressive and hospitable Mayor Jerome B. Flora will see that you reach the monument and its attendant sights.
A solid surfaced road built on a corduroy foundation, leads from Elizabeth City through swamp land down the narrow strip of land that points southward between Currituck sound and Albemarle sound. First you come to a little village called Sligo. A few miles further you drive into Currituck and then further down you get to Cainjock, where you find Captain Tate ready to be your genial host and regale you with lore relating to the Wright boys. I will come back to Captain Tate later, for he has many interesting sidelights on the lives of the boys, especially during their stay down there.
A few miles further through three or four small fishing villages and you come to the three-mile bridge crossing Currituck sound. When the Wrights were there, no such bridge existed and the boys laboriously made their way by small rowboat down the sound to the point where they disembarked and made their experimental flights.
Having crossed the bridge, you head south along the narrow strip of land over a well-paved road, some distance back from the ocean shoreline, which makes a bee-line toward Roanoke island, birthplace of Virginia Dare, fist white child born in America.
As you motor along this road you view veritable mountains of sand on your right, while to your left in the waters close to shore rise the remants of ships which were dashed to their doom by the treacherous waves along the rocky coast. There are 17 miles of this hard-paved road along the shore, connecting the memorial bridge with the bridge and causeway over Roanoke sound to Roanoke island, a most picturesque ocean shore drive.
As you proceed southward you are apt to miss Kitty Hawk itself, since it is a small town tucked away between sound dunes, slightly off the ocean highway. Eight years ago it was nothing more than a post office and a cluster of houses; Capt. Tate tells me it has grown considerably, has a modern high school, while the coast also has built up wonderfully as a summer resort.
In the distance the beautiful Wright memorial gradually grows in size, increasing from a mere dot on the horizon to a majestic pylon 61 feet high, built upon a 91-foot sand hill. This was finished by the government in 1932 and cost $285,000. Triangular in shape, the monument gives the illusion of being just ready to take off in flight. At its top is a beacon light and from a platform there one can see miles in all directions.
The monument stands on a 200-acre reservation and is considered by experts as more nearly typifying what it is meant to commemorate than any other memorial in the country. Before it was built, Orville Wright methodically located the site, Kill Devil hills having shifted through the years, and means were devised for “holding down” the hill by planting suitable vegetation thereon.
Carved in the granite of the west wall is an inscription reading: “From a point near the base of this hill Wilbur and Orville Wright launched the first flight of a power driven airplane Dec. 17, 1903” and on the east wall is inscribed Pindar’s “the long toil of the brave is not quenched in darkness nor hath counting the cost fretted away the zeal of their hopes. O’er the fruitful earth and athwart the sea hath passed the light of noble deeds unquenchable forever.”
How Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil hills received their names is in a degree lengendary. Kitty Hawk is supposedly a corruption of Kills Honk or Killy Honk. What is now Kitty Hawk formerly was a favorite feeding ground and refuge for Canada wild geese. Just across Currituck sound from Kitty Hawk bay is the top of the Currituck peninsula where an Indian village was established, the remains of which are visible to this day.
Legend says that in the late fall of any year when the wild geese came down from the north and began to congregate in the bay, the Indian, borrowing the white man’s vernacular, said: “Killy Honk,” a terse way of saying “I think I’ll paddle my canoe across the sound and kill a honker,” meaning wild goose. And so the place finally came to be called Kitty Hawk.
As to Kill Devil Hills, legend states it was among these sand dunes that smugglers of the eighteenth century traded rum for salt fish, tobacco, and other products of the coast and nearby mainland. The vile quality of the rum purveyed by the smugglers was called “Kill Devil” by the natives and the name still clings to the hills, once the rendezvous of smugglers.
Now we’ve seen the beautiful memorial, walked up the long paved approaches and examined the interior, where there is located a stainless steel map a yard square depicting all epochal flights from 1903 to 1928 and are on our way further south.
Soon you come to a village called Nag’s Head. Interesting, too, how this got its name. It is said to have been derived from the practice of beach combers fastening a lantern to the head of a horse which, as the horse walked at night, would have the appearance of a light on a ship gently moved by the waves, thereby luring vessels to the shore. There was a Nag’s Head on the southern coast of England so named from the same practice.
Shortly you come to another bridge, this one leading over to the beautiful little Roanoke island, rich in historical lore as the spot where the first English settlement was made in America under Sir. Walter Raleigh, from which spot tobacco was taken back and introduced in England and where no trace has ever been found of the “lost colony” which disappeared when left to its own devise for a few years.
Here the settlement of the colonists has been restored, here is the oldest cultivated grapevine in America and here for the several years preceding the war history repeated itself in a great outdoor spectacle written by Paul Green, depicting the settlement of the colony. It will be resumed after the war.
We are now at the end of our trail and either we retrace our path back to Elizabeth City or return across country and two ferries which take you over other waterways into almost equally as picturesque country.
Let us retrace and stop in to see Capt. Tate for he knows more about the Wright Brothers’ early visits to that section than any other man living. The boys came there in 1900—largely on the captains’ insistence for their experiments. The Wrights had made inquiry of the weather bureau for a spot to suit their purposes. That agency had answered briefly, but three days later Capt. Tate went into details about the sandy plains and dunes and he says he “sold” them with the one letter.
“Wilbur Wright arrived at my home Sept. 12, 1900,” writes Capt. Tate, “and stayed with me until Orville arrived Sept. 28. They both stayed with me a few days and then moved into a tent between my home and the Kitty Hawk Life Saving station.
“Before Orville arrived, Wilbur had nearly completed the assembly of the first 1900 model glider which ultimately led to man’s con quest of the air. The work done by Wilbur on that glider was right in my front yard at Kitty Hawk and on my front porch is where the cloth was sewed that covered the wings of the glider. The sewing was done jointly by Wilbur and my wife.
“I have the sewing machine upon which these seams were sewed in my possession today. Many individuals and museums and historical departments of states have tried to obtain it from me. Henry Ford wanted it for his museum in Greenfield village, but I have it yet.
“To those who question matters closely I would say that the original 1900 glider with which the Wrights first experimented here in Kitty Hawk was built complete in Dayton and shipped to Kitty Hawk in knock-down form. It was complete with one exception. Wilbur, or the boys, designed the glider to be of 20-foot wing spread and intended to obtain two wing spars in Norfolk, Va., from our native juniper or spruce, both woods celebrated for their strength and comparative lightness.
“Upon Wilbur’s arrival in Norfolk he learned he could not get this in 20-foot lengths and had to substitute 16-foot lengths. This necessitated a change in the wing coverings which were also cut and sewed in Dayton. Wilbur’s first intention was to cut out the four feet in the center of the already made coverings and sew the two remaining pieces together, reducing it to 16 feet, but on later thought he feared a puckering or poor fit and finally decided to cut and make entirely new coverings.
“That is why Mrs. Tate had the honor of having helped to sew the coverings of the wings of the Wright Brothers’ first experimental glider.”
Through the years the friendship between the Wrights and Capt. Tate ripened and he has been one of their most enthusiastic boosters. He headed a movement that resulted in putting a small marker on the spot where they began the assembly of their first glider which antedates anything ever erected in the United States to the boys.
Capt. Tate has been told also, that it is the first marker anywhere on the earth erected soley to the genius of the brothers.
The one at Le Mans, France, erected by the French government after the First World War carries an inscription, “To the genius of those two Americans and the early French aviation engineers,” thus sharing honors. The story is told by a Frenchman that the first intention was that the Le Mans monument was to be to the Wrights alone but French politics got into the matter and resulted in its being dedicated to the early French pioneer aviators as well.
Capt. Tate’s interest in the Wright Brothers’ experiments was such that he continually quizzed them and he recalls many serious conversations with Wilbur before Orville arrived on the scene. He says he even had the temerity to argue with him about certain stated facts and “I also distinctly remember that when this occurred, the cold logic which he delivered on the matter convinced me that I was out of the running in the argument.
“My early impression of the brothers was that they were one of the finest pair of men I had ever met,” Capt. Tate tells me. “I soon learned to look upon them as a pair of well balanced individual mental units that correctly dovetailed together as one. They seemed to think in unison even though they differed many times in their conclusions.
“Orville, the younger, could produce machine gun rapid-fire ideas. Wilbur, the older, was the rifled cannon of their dual mentality which reached out long distances and struck heavier blows with that powder of cold logic which he used so masterfully. This tribute to Wilbur is not intended to detract one whit from the part Orville played, for most certainly Orville kept Wilbur primed with good ideas with which to set off the long-reaching projectiles of logic.
“I soon awoke to the fact that I was very fond of these two brothers and although, like the rest of the world, I was at first a bit skeptical, it was not long until I had a feeling there was a possibility they might succeed.
“I distinctly remember that when my neighbors and friends indulged in ridicule in the subject of flying and I would put in a demurrer I said on one of these occasions: ‘Just as wonderful and as strange things have happened and will go on happening as time rolls on; these men have studied on this question for years and none of us had studied about it seriously five seconds in a lifetime, why should any of us appoint himself as committee of one to state what will or will not happen?’
“The reply was, ‘Bill, you are a damn-site crazier than they are.’ (Damn-site then was a favorite localism to emphasize the limits to which one could go.)
“I soon became convinced that they conscientiously believed that man was on the very brink of conquering the air, the belief became contagious in the atmosphere and their germ got into my system and still is there.
“I aided and helped these men in every way I could in my humble way. I kept them posted as to local matters, I hauled the lumber to Kill Devil hills for their first camp there, I made trips to Elizabeth City for them, bought them camp necessities, brought the first drop of gasoline to Kitty Hawk that ever was there for their use in a gasoline cook stove after they began living in a tent. I regret that I was not able to do more.
“When I think of the frail first, second and third glider used by the Wright Brothers from 1900 to 1903 and the frail contraption and engine weak in horsepower with which they made their first world flight, I am not only dumbfounded but I am left incapable of grasping the wonderful development made in a short 40 years. I can only content myself by saying, ‘What a wonderful thing the genius of man has given us’ and then I ask myself this question, ‘Will anything ever come through the inventive genius of man that will make as much progress in 40 years as has aviation?’”
Only two men are now living who saw the actual first flight, J. T. Daniels and John Moore. They saw it at close range. Daniels was then member of the life guard service which later merged with the revenue cutter service forming the coast guard. He has long since retired and resides at Manteo on Roanoke island. John Moore at the time was 18 years old and was just a passerby on his way from Nag’s Head, where he lived, to Kitty Hawk, when he ran into a greater thrill than any boy possibly has experienced in ages. He is now living at Collington, N. C. just one mile west of where the first flight was made.
“I did not witness that first flight –and that is the greatest regret of my life!” laments Captain Tate.