The Story Behind the Wright Memorial

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Honoring the Wright Brothers

On December 17, 2003 there will be a grand celebration at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, NC to celebrate the first flight that took place there on December 17, 1903. It is being billed as the event of the century. The occasion will include air shows, a hot-air balloon race, and the most exciting of all, an actual flight of an exact reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer.

With thousands of visitors expected to attend the five day event, it will be a boon to tourism. That is exactly what Congressman Lindsay C. Warren had in mind in 1926 when he proposed the memorial in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the first successful powered, heavier-than-air flight, and also as a means of attracting tourist dollars to boost the Outer Banks.

The area needed a boost. Orville Wright once commented that the outer banks were “like the Sahara.”

Today, the memorial, a great 60-foot pylon of Mount Airy granite quarried in NC with wings sculpted into the sides and an aeronautical beacon on top, can be seen for miles at night. Since its dedication in 1932, it has exceeded Congressman Warren’s greatest dream.

The Proposal

Warren’s proposal for a memorial received strong support from the local citizens and NC legislators. Some Dayton citizens were not happy because they wanted the memorial in Dayton. However, before the Ohio delegation could mount an effective campaign, Senator Hiram Bingham of Connecticut, a friend of Warren and the President of the National Aeronautical Society, quickly introduced a $50,000 appropriation bill to build the memorial at Kill Devil Hills. The bill passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Coolidge on March 2, 1927.

Neither the Congress nor the Fine Arts Commission could agree on what the memorial should look like. About 35 designs were presented. Some of the ideas were bizarre. Senator Bingham wanted a Greek Temple made of granite from his home state of Connecticut.

Time was drawing short because the anniversary was in 1928. So, they decided to lay a cornerstone on top of Kill Devil Hill for the anniversary and decide later on the nature of the monument.

At the same time they decided to place a commemorative six-foot granite boulder at the spot where the Flyer took off. There was a problem. No one knew for sure where that spot was. In the intervening twenty-five years, the sands had shifted.

Fortunately, they found three surviving witnesses of the first flight who were willing to help find the spot. Two of them had been from the lifesaving station and one had been a boy who just happened to wander by. On November 4,1928, they met and came to an agreement as best they could as to the exact location.

The Ceremony Became a Calamity

The plan was to hold an International Civil Aeronautics Conference in Washington, D.C. Orville Wright and members of his family would be honored guests. After the conference the 200 attendees would travel to Kitty Hawk, NC for the ceremony.

The Achilles Heel in the plan was the gross underestimation of the difficulty of traveling to Kitty Hawk in those days with that many people.

The road down the Currituck County, NC peninsula was under construction, but not finished. There was no bridge at that time over the sound to Kitty Hawk, and there was only a crude corduroy road in the sand through Kitty Hawk to Big Kill Devil Hill.

On Saturday, December 15, the 200 conference attendees boarded the steamer, District of Columbia, for the trip to Norfolk, VA. The first of many problems presented itself even before they left the dock. A heavy fog delayed departure for four hours until 2 a.m. The continued presence of mist and patches of fog meant slow passage to Norfolk and necessitated a stay on the steamer over night.

The next day they piled into buses for the trip down the Currituck peninsula. That part of the trip went well until they reached the end of the paved road. The buses couldn’t negotiate the rest of the way, so everyone was transferred to a fleet of seventy automobiles. In some places the automobiles had to detour around muddy roads by driving over resident’s front yards and farmlands.

After reaching Point Harbor at the end of the peninsula, they transferred to a ferry. On the ferry trip to Kitty Hawk, one man somehow fell overboard and almost drowned before being rescued.

At Kitty Hawk, another fleet of cars driven by local farmers drove the attendees through the sand to Big Kill Devil Hill. Along the way, the nice ladies of Dare County treated them to lunch.

The last challenge for the attendees was the tough climb up the 90-foot Big Kill Devil Hill for the ceremony.

The ceremony held that December 17 went according to plan except that the high winds that made it almost impossible for anyone to hear the dedication speeches by Senator Hiram Bingham and Secretary of War, Dwight Davis.

Orville Wright placed sealed documents and descriptions of the first flight in a special box in the cornerstone. Orville, typically modest, turned to Congressman Warren, whose idea it was to build the memorial, and said that this whole thing might be a mistake. “To do it now seems like an imposition on the taxpayers.”

Then everyone went back down the hill and reassembled at the spot of the takeoff of the first flight. There, the six-foot boulder was dedicated to mark the event. The famous aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart proclaimed the “Queen of the Air” by the United Press, stood next to Orville during the ceremony.

She was not an official delegate to the aviation conference but she was invited to accompany the 200 delegates on the trip from Washington. She wrote to her mother, “I was considered important enough to be the guest of the government so I am riding and eating free…”

The trip home by the attendees, if possible, was an even worse experience. Many automobiles left early because of the cold, leaving a number of attendees stranded. This caused some of them to miss the returning ferry. They were diverted to a leaking rumrunner patrol boat that proceeded to get lost.

On the ferry, Allen Heuth, a New Jersey sportsman who with Frank and Charles Baker had donated the land for the memorial, keeled over and died of a heart attack while talking to the Secretary of War Davis.

Building the Memorial

A great pylon of granite was selected as the winning design for the memorial. Robert P. Rodgers and Alfred E. Poor, New York architects, were the winning architects.

In selecting the design the commission of Fine Arts and the Joint Congressional commission stated that it was “not only the most original and impressive as seen from land, but would also be extremely effective as seen from the air. It strongly manifests the dominant motive suggested in the program, namely, a memorial to the birth of human flight.”

The job of building the memorial consisting of a great pylon of granite was assigned to the Army Quartermaster Corps. In charge was Captain John A. Gilman, who had just completed building the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery. The work on the memorial started in 1929.

The job presented a major engineering challenge. Big Kill Devil Hill was a 90-foot high, shifting sand dune that had to be stabilized. It was estimated that it had moved some 400 to 600 feet since the first flight in 1903.

Gilman began by fencing off the dune to keep out the cattle and pigs. Then, he spread two inches of mulch extending 300 feet up the hill. Next, he planted a hardy mixture of imported grass. Once that took root, he extended it up the rest of the slope.

Along with the grass, a cactus known as Prickly Pear was added. It hugs the ground and grows to the size of a pear. It may have been an effective ground cover but its up to inch long needles can be a pain to walkers. During the ensuing years it has spread throughout the park.

It took about a year for the vegetation to stabilize the hill. Work on constructing the monument itself began in February 1931.

Foundations were sunk 35 feet into the hill. The base on top of the hill consisted of a five-pointed star. Above the star rose a 60-foot high triangular pylon, making the total height of the memorial 151-feet measured from sea level. Marble from Salisbury and Mount Airy, NC were used in the construction.

Dedication

On November 19, 1932, Kill Devil Hills Monument was dedicated. (On December 1, 1953 it was renamed the Wright Brothers National Memorial)

Unlike the trip for the cornerstone laying in 1928, this time the trip for the participants was much easier. The roads to Kitty Hawk were paved and there was a new bridge, appropriately named the Wright Memorial Bridge, connecting the Outer Banks with the Currituck Peninsula.

The weather, however, was another story. A heavy downpour of rain drenched a weather reduced crowd of attendees. A make shift canvas covering stretched over the speaker’s platform as a shelter was torn away by the wind.

The airship Akron was turned away. Airplanes based at the army’s Langley Field were unable to take off, but a Navy biplane and two Coast Guard seaplanes were able to fly over the celebration and dip their wings in salute.

An address by Congressman Warren was cut short. A letter from President Hoover was read by Secretary of War, Patrick Hurley and then handed to Orville, who said a simple “thank you” and placed it in his pocket. The assembled group was not aware that President Hoover thought it was absurd to build the memorial at Kitty Hawk.

Ruth Nichols unveiled the granite pylon as the National Anthem was played by the Coast Artillery Band from Fort Monroe, Va.

By 1931 Ruth Nichols had flown higher and faster than any other woman in the world. She was an early favorite to be the first woman to repeat Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight but failed when her airplane crashed in St. John, New Brunswick on her attempt on June 22, 1931.

An interesting note is that Orville was not listed on the program at his request. When it was time for him to come forward many people in the densely packed crowd did not recognize him and he had to push his way through them.

The inscription around the base of the memorial reads:

“In Commemoration of the Conquest of the Air by the Brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright – Conceived by Genius – Achieved by Dauntless Resolution and Unconquerable Faith.”

Other Wright Memorials

There is another memorial marker at Kitty Hawk that is little publicized. It is a simple obelisk in Bill Tate’s front yard that was dedicated by the citizens of Kitty Hawk in 1928. (See picture at the beginning of this article.)Tate is the one who responded to Wilbur Wright’s letter of inquiry about a suitable place to perform glider experiments and convinced him to come to Kitty Hawk.

On the obelisk is a carved image of the 1900 glider placed above the inscription that states that on this spot is where Wilbur began to assemble the Wright Brothers first experimental glider.

Dayton did belatedly dedicate their memorial to the Wrights on Orville’s 69th birthday August 19, 1940. The first proposal for a memorial in Dayton had been made in 1912. The memorial was to be built on Huffman Prairie where the Wrights conducted some 120 flights after 1903. A fund drive was underway when the great Dayton flood temporarily terminated the effort.

The completed Dayton memorial is a multifaceted thirty-foot shaft of pink North Carolina marble. It stands on a hill with a view of Huffman Prairie in the distance. Both the Monument and Huffman Prairie are now a part of the Wright Patterson Air Force Base complex.

People will again assemble around the memorials in 2003 celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the first flight.

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