I have always wanted to visit Dayton, Ohio after reading David McCullough’s book on the Wright Brothers. The story of the brothers and their quest for flight is captivating. Visiting Dayton was the perfect follow-up trip after seeing the Wright Brothers Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, NC on the Outer Banks.
Dayton was a town of inventors. In the early 1900s it had more patents issued per capita than any city in the United States. It was in this environment that two bicycle shop owners made aviation history.
Our visit started at the Visitor Center near the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop and their boyhood home. Celia and I quickly realized that the history of these two amazing inventors is spread all over town and we needed to try and understand where to visit. Since 2004, the entire collection of historical sites is called the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. The Visitor Center is located at the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center. Confused? We were too. Basically, this location is in downtown Dayton and it has a Visitor Center, the bicycle shop, and the grounds where the brothers’ homeplace was located.
The community around the Visitor Center has beautiful homes and some are identical to the Wright brothers’ homeplace. The original Wright family home was purchased by Henry Ford and moved to Dearborn, Michigan.
We were given a personal tour of one of the bicycle shops that Wilbur and Orville had during their business history. During the 1890s in Dayton, as elsewhere, bicycles became very popular form of transportation. Originally, the brothers had a printing business but realized that bicycles would be more profitable. The boom was on with the invention of the “safety bicycle,” which is the style of bike that we associate with today’s bicycles.
After our tour of the bicycle shop, we spent some time at the Visitor Center’s museum. There are some period exhibits, a replica of the 1902 glider, and other artifacts from their printing press days as well.
Another important Wright Brothers display is located at Carillon Historical Park just a few miles from the Visitor Center. Here there is not only another Wright Brothers exhibit building but a collection of historical buildings and displays related to Dayton history.
The most important item at the Carillon Park is the Wright Flyer III built in 1905. The building itself was built to showcase this plane as well as items from the bicycle shop and other related historical exhibits.
Over the years the Wright brothers had six different bicycle shop sites in the town of Dayton. The success of their business gave them an opportunity to follow their passion related to flight. Their understanding of the balance required for riding a bike helped inform them in their pursuit of aviation advances.
The Carillon Historical Park is worth the visit by itself. There is a transportation center that houses numerous antique trolleys, trains, and buses from the Dayton area. We had a wonderful docent who took us to each display and provided insight about each one. The woodwork, stained glass, and craftsmanship of the train cars is still amazing today.
There is also the “flood building” that provides information, pictures, and other memorabilia from the great 1913 flood that devastated the city. Three rivers intersect in the heart of the town. In spite of warnings, Dayton was not prepared for a major flood. A photograph of townspeople escaping the floodwaters by scaling telephone lines shows the desperation of many to escape the rising water.
This building recounts the amazing story of how one business, the National Cash Register Company (NCR), came to the aid of the city. The president of NCR, John H. Patterson, mobilized the entire business to feed, house, and rescue the townspeople. He even had his employees build 300 flat-bottomed boats to aid the town in its relief efforts. Patterson was also the main contributor to the flood wall that was subsequently built to protect the town.
We had an interesting conversation with one of the period enactors. She said, “This is my life.” Of course, there was a large display of NCR cash registers.
The namesake of the park is a stunning carillon that we were able to see on a beautiful day.
The next day we toured the Wright Brothers Memorial which sits high on a hill within the boundaries of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base which is northeast of town. This is another distinct location for honoring the aviation pioneers. They decided not to place the Memorial at the Huffman Prairie Field site where Wilbur and Orville completed hundreds of test flights after their trips to Kitty Hawk. Both the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Huffman Prairie can be seen from this hilltop location. The grounds around the Memorial are wonderful and we were pleased to learn that Orville Wright was able to witness its dedication. There is a small Interpretative Center at this location as well.
We tried to visit the nearby Huffman Field, which is within the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, but were stopped by an airman who insisted we were in the wrong location in spite of the very large directional sign at the gate. Short on time, we turned around and headed toward the Air Force Museum which is in the same area. The massive five hanger facility requires a separate post!
We wanted to get a better understanding of the life of two true American heroes and Dayton fit the bill. Sons of a bishop, they went on to make history and procure world-wide fame.
There were several other locations in Dayton that we were not able to visit and will have to save for a future trip. These include the Wright Company Factory, Hawthorn Hill house, WACO Field, Huffman Prairie, and the Paul Lawrence Dunbar House. Dayton also has extensive bike trails and rivers to kayak.
If you go…
Remember that the locations are dispersed throughout the city. It is called the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park but that is actually confusing. Even a park ranger had difficulty explaining it. The main areas to visit include:
1. Wright Cycle Company which has the primary Visitor Center. Pick up some maps there.
2. The Wright Memorial that is on the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base but easily accessed.
3. Huffman Prairie Flying Field that is also on the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base but have your map with you with gate numbers.
4. Carillon Historical Park that has a Wright Brothers building with the Wright Flyer III. There is an entrance fee to the park due to the many other buildings on display.
5. Hawthorn Hill which is the Wright Brothers mansion built after they achieved fame. This is one that we did not visit but is located in the south part of town.
6. Air Force Museum is a very large facility with countless planes and other aircraft. It has a 3D theater, two restaurants, and extensive displays. You could spend an entire day here, so wear your walking shoes. It is not far from the Wright Brothers Memorial.
7. Also remember that Henry Ford purchased many of the Wright Brothers’ original artifacts. Many are on display in Dearborn, Michigan.