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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Great Scott! It's Wilbur Wright Back in 1909!

Oakwood's Hawthorn Hill was never home to Wilbur Wright. Wilbur succumbed to typhoid fever in May of 1912, and construction of the new home was not completed until 1914. Orville, his sister Katharine, and their father Bishop Milton Wright began the process of moving into the home on April 28, 1914. A century has since passed, and you now find yourself walking these same halls. 

Hawthorn Hill, taken April 27th, 2014, one day before 100th anniversary of move in date by Wrights.

You tour the first and second level with the others in your party, and eventually find yourself again at the basement level near the open vault door. You have been here before, and you wonder. Would it happen again? You turn away from the vault to watch your fellow companions begin to walk back up the stairs to the first level, when suddenly someone or something pulls you backwards into the vault, the door quickly shuts, and you find yourself standing in the darkness. All is silent at first, but then you begin to hear voices. The sound of water nearby. And you know somehow, though you don't understand it, you've just passed through time to another century, another place.
As your eyes begin to adjust, you feel a breeze blowing against your face. You find yourself standing in a field of grass.You sense some activity around you, and then you see two figures, difficult to make out in this dim light. They are in a large wooden shed working on a biplane. Something unusual though about their activity, as they are in the process of attaching a red canoe to the skids of the machine.....and you are suddenly hit with the fear that you have somehow torn the fabric of the space time continuum because of your presence here. Why else would they be doing such a bizarre thing? And then your memory kicks in, and you see a picture in your mind of a canoe in the skids of a flyer that you had observed at Carillon Historical Park in Dayton. "Now I remember!", you think to yourself, "the display at Carillon.....they attached the canoe because Wilbur intended to fly over water, the Hudson River....I'm at Governor's Island, New York! Great Scott! It's Wilbur Wright back in 1909!"

Original canoe on display at Carillon Park. The canoe's original color was red in 1909, which can be seen to the left where green paint has worn away revealing the original underlying red. The canoe had been stored at Orville's Lab.

You find yourself standing amongst a group of reporters, waiting patiently a short distance from the hanger in which Wilbur Wright and his mechanic Charlie Taylor are working. You see a young man walk over to Wilbur and hand him a letter. Wilbur looks at it briefly, and then continues his work. You know this scene. You know what will happen next. Louis Bleriot flew across the English Channel in July of 1909. Wilbur Wright was about to become the second person to fly across a body of water, but this one much more dangerous, due to the unpredictable and unknown characteristics of the air currents and updrafts due to the city environment.
You strike up a conversation with a reporter next to you. He says his name is Smith, works for New York World, and he's having the time of his life. He enthusiastically shares with you his impressions of Wilbur.
"I've spent days with this wonder of the air, waiting for the moment when all should be right for him to leave Governor's Island behind and soar up into the skies. I saw him every hour. I heard everything that he had to say. Yet not once during those eventful days did I hear him make a boast, or brag about the wonderful achievements which have set the world to talking. And of the equally splendid achievements of his brother Orville was he just as silent." (You remember fondly of meeting Orville on your first adventure as told in "A Journey Back in Time- An Interview with Orville Wright". You marvel that you traveled back from 2014 to 1940 to meet Orville, and now in 1909, that meeting won't occur for another 31 years. Your head begins to swim.) The reporter continues talking.
"Don't imagine for a moment that Wright is rude or boorish- that is the last thing in the world one may say of him. Discourtesy is not in his makeup. Ask him a point blank question and he will give you an answer. But his answer is always short. There is no chance for misinterpretation. Nine times out of ten it shuts up the interviewer like a clam- the interviewer who makes his questions annoy Wilbur Wright you find it out. He doesn't like to be annoyed. The minute you meet him you get the impression in some way or other that Wilbur Wright wants to be left alone with his own thoughts.....He likes solitude. 'I'm not a sport', he told me one day. 'I'm making these flights for the good of mankind, for the good of the future. I'm not sport enough to fly for the amusement of people'."
Smith stops talking as he's suddenly drawn to the movements occurring at the hangar nearby. Wilbur and Charlie are beginning to move the Flyer out the shed! You hear him say "It looks like a good day for flying". He points his finger toward your way and the group of reporters you stand amongst, and he says "It'll do you boys good to do a little work after loafing around here for a week." The crowd surrounding you immediately rushes toward the machine, moving it from the hangar several hundred yards over the sand to the starting monorail.

Wilbur Wright, Governor's Island, October 1909.

This is the moment the reporters, and the local population have been waiting for. You think how we take flight for granted in our century, but in 1909, most people have never seen an airplane fly. In the words of the reporter Smith, "When Wilbur Wright arose from the sands of Governor's Island, soared past the Battery, glided up the Hudson, passed the battle-ships riding at anchor 200 feet below him, and then returned to the starting point, not twenty feet from his monorail, he accomplished the most spectacular flight in American history- probably the most remarkable flight ever achieved by man in the air. People had been waiting days and days to see him fly- as I had. He was taking on a flight for all New York and its legions of visitors to see, hundreds of thousands of them. The word flew round like magic; in cohorts the people rushed to points of vantage along the river front or to the tops of tall buildings. All New York wanted to see this human bird essay the air. All the way up the river, making history with every whirl of the propellers, tooting whistles and rousing cheers greeted this man-bird; guns saluted him, flags were dipped to him. It was an ovation from one end of Manhattan Island to the other for this wonderful man- enough to turn the head of even the best poised of us all."

Wilbur Wright flying at the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, 1909. Wilbur circled the Statue of Liberty September 29th, and flew to Grant's Tomb and back over the Hudson River from Governor's Island, October 4th.

You watch as Wilbur lands. As he climbs out of the seat, you hear him say "I'm mighty glad I came to New York, and I'm glad I was able to do a little something."
"A little something, think of that!" Smith says to you. "After sailing twenty miles through the air at a speed of fifty miles an hour, faster than most railroad trains travel; successfully navigating the unseen eddies and holes in the air that exist nowhere else as they do around sky-scraping Manhattan Island, swooping down from a height of 200 feet to within ten feet of the waters of the Hudson, skirting close to the docks along the shore so that people could get a good view of his craft as it sailed through the air- after performing this most marvelous of aerial feats, to say that he was glad he was able to do a 'little something'!"
The morning turns to the afternoon, and you see Wilbur and Charlie at the propellers, starting the aeroplane for another flight.  Then suddenly, an explosion, causing you to jump.The cylinder head of the engine blows out. Wilbur turns toward you and the reporters and says "I hope that everybody will realize that it is not my fault, and that I would have done the best I could if this accident had not happened. I never saw as ideal flying conditions and I really think I could have done pretty well."
Smith says to you "That's the nearest that I have ever heard the man come to bragging".
You want to meet Wilbur and shake his hand; warn him that he should avoid shellfish while traveling. You follow 20' or so behind him as he heads for and then enters the shed. If you can just convince him somehow, perhaps he'll avoid the deadly meal in early 1912 that gives him typhoid and brings a close to his eventful life. He'll likely think you're a bit odd, and you just might risk "annoying" him, and Smith warned you that Wilbur doesn't take well to being annoyed. As you approach the shed, you hesitate for a few seconds, but then you swing the door open, and step in.

In lieu of the interior of the shed, you find yourself back in the basement of Hawthorn Hill. Turning around, you see the open vault door. Peering back in, just a small room of storage items is evident.

You might be interested-
About Hawthorn Hill, read Wright State University "Out of the Box" blog by Lisa Rickey-  100 Years Ago Today: Wrights move into Hawthorn Hill  Lisa provides links to some interesting early pictures of construction.
For a good chapter on Wilbur's flights at Governor's Island, read "To Conquer The Air" by James Tobin, 2003, chapter 13, "The Greatest Courage and Achievements"

For historical accuracy, quotes from reporter H. M. Smith are taken word for word from his October 17, 1909 article in New York World, "A Week with Wilbur Wright".

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