Kitty Hawk During the Time of the Wright Brothers


Wright brothers' glider in flight at Kitty Hawk

What would life be like for the people living in Kitty Hawk while the Wright Brothers were testing their gliders and airplanes?


Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, was a small fishing community of approximately 300 residents during the period of the Wright experiments with kites, gliders, and manned aircraft between 1900 and 1908. Located on sandy and marshy beach terrain in the Outer Banks, a narrow strip of land separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Currituck and Albemarle Sounds, and the mainland of North Carolina across the sounds, Kitty Hawk was relatively isolated from much of the modern world.

The closest landing point across Currituck Sound, Point Harbor, was unreachable by large commercial vessels because of a sand bar. The nearest railroad station from Point Harbor was located some 38 miles north in the town of Snowden, where the Norfolk and Southern Railroad stopped. Elizabeth City, some 30 miles northwest up the Albemarle Sound and the connecting Pasquotank River, was known simply as "Town" to inhabitants of the Outer Banks and served as the nearest port town to buy consumer goods, connected as it was by rail with Snowden and points north.

One observer of life in the Banks in the 1880s noted that fishermen and employees of the coastal lifesaving stations often took furloughs during the off-season to "Town" for a fling, usually lasting a day or two, before returning home adorned with current accoutrements of modern life—"a new suit and some jewelry . . . Dyed mustaches, oiled hair, tin-types and [an] oiled shirt." By 1909, gasoline boats made triweekly trips between Point Harbor and Elizabeth City, with small schooners carrying freight and passengers on an occasional basis.

Currituck Landscape

The landscape of Currituck County—in which the village of Kitty Hawk resided prior to its annexation to adjoining Dare County in 1919—was "covered with a growth of short leaf pine, oak, hickory, dogwood, holly, etc.," according to a guidebook published by the state in 1896. The coastal beach area was interspersed with sand dunes with gums and cypresses growing in the damp areas between the dunes, according to a 1912 essay on the physiology of the locality, a study which adds the following to the list of trees in the dunes area: maple, cedar, sassafras, elm, locust, beach, persimmon, and sycamore. After their earliest experiments just outside Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brothers moved a few miles south to Kill Devil Hills to take advantage of sandy beach terrain replete with shifting dunes that reached heights of 100 feet or more from which they could launch their crafts.

There were more hogs than people in Currituck County, with the number of cattle, sheep, and horses about one-half, one-third, and one-fifth, respectively, the number of people, in addition to a smaller contingent of mules and goats. In a letter to his sister, Orville Wright observed, "You never saw such poor pitiful-looking creatures as the horses, hogs, and cows are down here." By contrast, he noted, "The only things that thrive and grow fat are the bedbugs, mosquitoes, and wood ticks."

Kitty Hawk Shipwrecks

Prior to the Wright Brothers fame, Kitty Hawk was noted to the outside world primarily for three reasons: the treacherous nearby Atlantic shoals that posed a threat to passing ships during the violent storms that hit the coastal areas with marked frequency in late summer and fall; the village's lifesaving and U.S. Weather Bureau stations, part of a string of such facilities along the coast that alerted residents and ships in the vicinity of threatening storms and rescued shipwrecked vessels, in addition to collecting and transmitting data on weather conditions; and as an attractive spot for wealthy sports fishermen and hunters of waterfowl.

Numerous shipwrecks occurred over the years near Kitty Hawk, the most well known being that of the war steamer, the U.S. Huron, which ran aground near Kitty Hawk on November 24, 1877 during a hurricane. More than 100 officers and men died in the accident, including crew from the Kitty Hawk lifesaving station. Established in 1874, the station had not been properly manned at the time of the accident because funds appropriated that year by Congress for the operation of stations had not been sufficient and stations in Virginia and North Carolina were temporarily closed.

Shortly thereafter, new telegraph lines were run from Kitty Hawk to other North Carolina stations and a post office was established in the village. In 1900, the year that the Wright Brothers arrived in Kitty Hawk, 15 men living in the vicinity were listed in the U.S. Census as surfmen working 10 months annually for the lifesaving service, with the station keeper employed the entire year.

Mecca for Sportsmen

During the late 1850s, Kitty Hawk Bay, along with the whole of the Currituck Sound, began to acquire a reputation among wealthy northerners as a "Mecca for Sportsmen," in the words of a headline in a Washington, DC newspaper a half century later. After the Civil War, the number of private shooting clubs located along the water and marsh fronts of the sound increased to at least 25, with members arriving during the summers from New York, New England, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. They bought or leased beach fronts and islands, and acquired the exclusive right to hunt and fish in adjacent waters.

The Kitty Hawk Bay Sportsmen's Club, formed around 1881, soon became "a monster affair," according to Forest and Stream magazine, spending "large sums of money to acquire "all the desirable points" in the vicinity. The club posted the lands and patrolled them, threatening arrest and rigorous prosecution of local hunters or other poachers. Forest and Stream, which praised the club as a model for its orderly endeavors, charged that during October 1880, thousands of canvas back and redhead ducks had been slaughtered by "natives and market-shooters" only to decompose in barrels before they reached a commercial market.

The magazine viewed the onset of private hunting clubs "as a progressive and timely movement toward the preservation of our choicest varieties of wild fowl and the rarer species of game fish." The clubs functioned, in addition to "afford hunters and anglers rare sport, combined with opportunities for mental repose and bodily invigoration so much needed by the overworked in all our large cities." By October 1881, the Kitty Hawk Club, which most likely was located across the bay from the village of Kitty Hawk, reportedly controlled 300 miles of waterfront and more than 200,000 acres of land.

The "shooting club system," as the newly organized way of hunting came to be known, was responsible for the employment of local residents as employees. Although "plain, everyday sportsmen . . . seldom obtain the privilege" of hunting and fishing on posted property, a 1902 article noted, some local hunters found work as superintendents of the clubs. In October 1881, the Kitty Hawk Club hired about 30 local hunters as waiters and boatmen. In the 1900 U.S. Census, four heads of household living in the vicinity were identified by occupation as "Hunter of Wild Fowl."

Despite the threats of arrest for poaching, Orville Wright indicated that the people living in Kitty Hawk "pay little respect to what few game laws they have." Local historian David Stick related that commercial hunting by locals became "widespread toward the end of the nineteenth century" and remained so until the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 prohibited the sale of migratory waterfowl. William J. Tate, the Wright Brothers' most important contact in Kitty Hawk, believed that in 1911 some 350 to 400 people in Currituck County hunted for a living.

The poet Robert Frost, as a 19-year-old, joined a group of visiting wealthy hunters on a trip to the Outer Banks in 1894, recalling years later that the "rough crowd of—of gentlemen who had invited him "were drinking all the time . . . and shooting in all directions." Frost confessed being "afraid for my life." A short story published in Atlantic Monthly in August 1899 displayed the local hostility to interloping sportsmen with its description of a fishing boat as having been hired as a private yacht for the summer to "predatory tourists who annually invade the beautiful south tidewater regions, armed with rod, reel, and trolling line."

Who Lived on the Outer Banks?

Tourists with more moderate incomes did not flock to the Outer Banks until after 1930, when the Wright Memorial Bridge connected Kitty Hawk with Point Harbor, and state highways were constructed south past Nag's Head leading to bridges that crossed Roanoke Sound and connected Roanoke Island with the mainland. Even with these improvements, the population of Kitty Hawk remained "fairly static" in the decades that followed at around 300 inhabitants.

The 1900 U.S. Census listed 66 households in Currituck County's Atlantic Township, where Kitty Hawk was located. Approximately 55 consisted of two-parent families. Fifteen of the households had no children. For families with children, the median number of offspring then living with their parents was three. Fifty-two households consisted solely of nuclear family members, while 14 housed extended family members, boarders, and in one case, a servant.

Forty-four families shared a surname with at least one other family in the township. The last name of Perry was most common, with nine households and 49 residents, nearly one sixth of the township, sharing that name. Four households were headed by women, all of whom were widows. The median age of male heads of households was 36; the median age of wives or widows was 30. Couples on average had been married 12 years.

The population was overwhelmingly homogeneous in origin. Only six of the inhabitants had been born outside of North Carolina, three of whom were from neighboring Virginia. Only one resident, a 67-year-old woman from England, was an immigrant. Of the rest, only two had a parent who had been born outside the state. Only one head of a household rented. All were white.

Kitty Hawk historian Bill Harris, whose ancestors had lived in the village when the Wright Brothers arrived, stated that while some families were descended from migrants to the area in the 1700s, many had arrived there only during the latter half of the 19th century. He noted that the community was divided by its main road into two sections: the "up the roaders" and the "down the roaders." The first group were Baptists, the second Methodists. Church, Harris related, was the "social center of the community." Each section, in addition to having their own church, had a school and general store.

Residents farmed and fished for the most part. Thirty of the households were listed as farms. Forty-two men worked as fishermen, most of them unemployed for seven months of the year. Five men were sailors, two were grocers, one a general store merchant, two were farm laborers, one a farmer, two were listed as carpenters, one as a physician, and one as a preacher. One of the widows was a dress maker. The Bureau of Labor Statistics of North Carolina 1899 report included only one business listing for the town of Kitty Hawk, the general merchandise store.

Toward Compulsory Education

Forty-four adults over the age of 21 could not write and 37 could not read. Forty children attended school from one to eight months of the year, with four months the average length. Public schools were free to all children between the ages of six and 21, but not compulsory. At least one school per district was to be maintained for at least four months a year. They were segregated by race, according to the law, which insisted "there shall be no discrimination in favor or to the prejudice of either race."

The lack of a law making school attendance compulsory had become a political issue by that time in North Carolina as well as elsewhere in the South. Parents who objected to such a law argued that it was their right, not the state's, to make decisions concerning their children's education, and many citizens opposed raising the taxes that would be needed to support compulsory education. In 1902, the state superintendent of public instruction reported that more than half of the several hundred schools that had been allocated money in order to keep them open for four months had less than 65 students.

Reformers, including a manufacturers' organization and a child labor committee, pushed for some sort of compulsory school law. In 1902, the State Commissioner of Labor and Printing published a report in which he advocated a law permitting school districts, townships, or counties to adopt a compulsory school law by a majority vote. The report noted that 80% of those queried favored a compulsory school law and included a letter from a school committeeman in Colington, a community across Kitty Hawk Bay, who attested that while his community had hired good teachers in the past, without a compulsory law, they had been hamstrung in their efforts.

The committeeman reported that "for the first few days they have a good attendance and then they begin to drop off until there is scarcely enough to call roll for." Without a law to force children to attend school, he contended, "we might as well have no school." He charged that "not more than one third of the inhabitants in my community can read and write, and the rest are indifferent as to whether their children go to school or not."

In 1907, the North Carolina legislature passed a measure that gave each school district the right to vote for compulsory school laws applying to their own community, in addition to a law that disallowed employment by children under the age of 13 unless they had attended school for four of the preceding 12 months. In July 1919, a statewide compulsory school law took effect that required every child between ages of eight and 11 to attend school for a term of six months each year. In 1924, residents in the Kitty Hawk school district voted for a $7,000 bond issue to build a new combined grammar and high school.

How They Lived

Residents in the area made attempts to mitigate their state of relative isolation from markets elsewhere in the state and country. In 1909, 71 farmers, fishermen, and merchants in Point Harbor petitioned the Army Corps of Engineers to deepen the channel in the sound so that steamboats could enter their harbor and thus "put us in touch with the commercial world." The petitioners characterized the area as "strictly a trucking section, and, as you know, truck (early fruits and vegetables) must be marketed in season or else it is a total loss."

Smaller boats that could enter the harbor were "inadequate to move our truck and only about one-thirty-sixth of our available trucking land is utilized," they argued. In addition, the residents complained that "fishermen often suffer great loss on account of faulty transportation." With an adequately deepened channel, the petitioners speculated, the Norfolk and Southern Railroad would be inclined to extend a branch of their line to Point Harbor in order to compete with water transportation for their business. The Army Chief of Engineers, however, concurred with a report by a major of the Corps "that this locality is not worthy of improvement by the General Government."

Letters that the Wright Brothers wrote from Kitty Hawk offered personal observations about the life of the people they met there. Upon his arrival in the fall of 1900, Wilbur Wright noted that residents "attempt to raise beans, corn, turnips, etc." on land that "is a very fine sand with no admixture of loam that the eye can detect." He noted, however, "Their success is not great but it is a wonder that they can raise anything at all." Wright observed, "The people make what little living they have in fishing. They ship tons & tons of fish away every year to Baltimore and other northern cities."

With regard to living conditions, Wilbur Wright described the house of William J. Tate—whom he identified as the postmaster, notary public, and county commissioner of Currituck County—as "a two-story frame with unplanned siding, not painted, no plaster on the walls, which are ceiled with pine not varnished." Tate, Wright related, "has no carpets at all, very little furniture, no books or pictures." Putting Tate's dwelling into the context of the community, Wright judged, "There may be one or two better houses here but his is much above average." Regarding wealth and income, Wright observed, "A few men have saved up a thousand dollars but this is the savings of a long life. Their yearly income is small. I suppose few of them see two hundred dollars a year." Despite the paucity of income, Wright concluded, "I think there is rarely any real suffering among them."

The community seemed resistant to consumer culture. Orville reported that "Mr. Calhoun, the groceryman," a man who had come to the area to recover his health, "is striving to raise the tastes of the community to better goods, but all in vain. They never had anything good in their lives, and consequently are satisfied with what they have. In all other things they are the same way, satisfied in keeping soul and body together." Calhoun soon sold his store, calling his decision to come to Kitty Hawk "the greatest mistake of my life." Wright stated that Calhoun had not been "greatly beloved by Kitty Hawkers."

The "Bankers," William Tate later wrote in a reminiscence, were a "practical, hard-headed lot who believed in a good God . . . a hot hell . . . and, more than anything else, that the same good God did not intend man should ever fly!" Prior to their arrival in Kitty Hawk, Tate had assured Wilbur Wright that he would find "a hospitable people when you come among us." The Wrights indeed found the people to be "friendly and neighborly," as Wilbur reported. Orville agreed, noting to his sister that "Every place we go we are called Mr. Wright."


House. Committee on Rivers and Harbors. 61st Congress, 1st session, Document No. 78,Point Harbor Channel, North Carolina. Letter from the Acting Secretary of War Transmitting, with a Letter from the Chief of Engineers, Report of Examination of Point Harbor Channel, North Carolina, in House Documents, vol. 7, March 15&#150.

August 5, 1909 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1909).

John Bronson, "The Quaint Ways of Dare County," Forest and Stream, 25 August 1881, 65; State Board of Agriculture, Raleigh, North Carolina, North Carolina and Its Resources (Winston: M. I. & J. C. Stewart, 1896), 328–29.

William Bullock Clark, "The Physiology of the Coastal Plain of North Carolina," in Clark, et. al., The Coastal Plain of North Carolina (Raleigh: E. M. Uzzell, 1912), 33; National Geographic Magazine 17, no. 6 (June 1906), 310–17, quoted in Clark, 33.

The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Including the Chanute-Wright Letters and Other Papers of Octave Chanute, ed. Marvin W. McFarland (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953; reprint, 2001), 25–26, 30, 31, 33, 40.

David Stick, The Outer Banks of North Carolina, 1584–1958 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1958), 174, 179–80, 265.

"Currituck Sound: The Mecca for Sportsmen," Washington Times, 3 December 1902, 5.

John Bronson, "The Sportsman Tourist," Forest and Stream, 20 October 1881, 225; Forest and Stream, 1 December 1881, 344.

"The Kitty Hawk Bay Club," Forest and Stream, 28 April 1881, 243.

John Bronson, "In Currituck and Dare," Forest and Stream, 27 October 1881, 244–45; Gary S. Dunbar, Historical Geography of the North Carolina Outer Banks, supervised and ed. by Fred Kniffen (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1958), 62, 71.

Robert Frost, "A Trip to Currituck, Elizabeth City, and Kitty Hawk," North Carolina Folklore 16, no. 1 (May 1968), 3–9, quoted in William D. Crouch, The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), 194.

Elisabethe Dupuy, "In a Mutton-Ham Boat," Atlantic Monthly 84 (August 1899), 197.

Bureau of the Census, Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900 (Washington: National Archives and Records Administration, 1900); census place: Atlantic, Currituck, North Carolina; roll: T623 1191; pp. 1A–3B.; Chris Kidder Aloft at Last: How the Wright Brothers Made History (Nags Head, NC: Nags Head Art, 2002), 67–68, 70, 75.

Twelfth Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics of North Carolina (Raleigh: Guy V. Barnes, 1899), 119.

Atlanta Constitution, 31 March 1902, 6; Atlanta Constitution, 25 October 1902, 5.

Sixteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Printing of the State of North Carolina for the Year 1902 (Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton, 1903), vii, 282–83.

Outlook, 20 April 1907, 870; Christian Science Monitor, 20 June 1919, 9.

William Tate, "I Was Host to the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk," U.S. Air Services (December 1943), 29–30, quoted in Crouch, Bishop's Boys, 196.

Fred C. Kelly, ed., Miracle at Kitty Hawk: The Letters of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1951), 26.

About the Author

Historian Alan Gevinson is an author and professor. His PhD is from Johns Hopkins University and he has taught history there and at George Mason University. Alan specializes in American cultural history, media history, film history, and other forms of popular culture.