On the date of December 17, 1903, mankind as a species made one of the greatest leaps forward in our never-ending quest to push the boundaries of science and innovation. On that day, the first self-propelled aircraft soared free in the skies above the windswept dunes of Kitty Hawk, thanks to the genius and hard work of Wilbur and Oliver Wright. At long last, humanity was no longer bound to terra firma. Imposing mountain ranges and scorching deserts that could turn a short trip into a dangerous journey could now pass below us in a matter of minutes. The only limit now were the stars themselves!
That first glorious flight lasted a mere twelve seconds. Throughout the day, three more flights were completed. Results improved somewhat, with the Wright Flyer’s final foray into the skies wrapping up just under a minute and spanning 852 feet. There’s no denying the fact that this was the first time in human history that mankind had flown, but it was obvious that some modifications were needed to make aircraft even remotely useful. While North Carolina may lay claim to that first eventful flight, it was in the Wright Brother’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio, that they truly mastered the art of flying.
Dayton Aviation National Historic Park is a patchwork of museums, historic brick streets, and open prairies spread across much of the Dayton area. These individual units tell the story of the Wright Brothers from their early days as bike shop owners all the way through their final flight. Paul Lawrence Dunbar, a prominent poet, author, and playwright of the era also hailed from Dayton and was a personal friend of the Wright Brothers. His home is also included in the historic park to further tell the rich history of the region.
When visiting the park, it’s best to first stop by the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Complex to plan your visit with the friendly rangers on duty. They can assist with providing directions to the park’s six individual units and give valuable advice to make your visit more enjoyable. Rangers Jay Yocum and Kathleen Walters were very friendly and knowledgeable about the park and what would be best to visit on our short trip. Don’t forget to have your National Park book stamped!
Continue past the ranger desk to explore the museum. Here visitors will learn about the Wright Brothers’ childhood and early careers, as well as that of Dunbar. A wonderful video presentation gives a complete overview of the history behind the park and lives of the three men presented here. A portion of the museum is located in a historic building where the Wright Brothers operated one of their print shops. On the second floor, a temporary exhibit explores the history of parachutes, a critical part of aviation’s development. We could have spent hours here, but don’t linger too long! There’s so much more of this park to explore.
Adjacent to the interpretive center sits the Wright Cycle Company, a charming historical building which housed Oliver and Wilbur’s fourth bicycle shop. Inside visitors may explore historical remnants of their business and also learn of the bicycle’s importance during the turn of the century. We would like to give a shoutout to Ranger Raterman for providing us with great information on our stop here. Also just a few blocks away sits the Paul Lawrence Dunbar House Historic Site. The famed author’s home has been meticulously renovated and returned to its former state, complete with authentic historical furniture. This site is only available to visit on weekend days, so call ahead to inquire about scheduled tour times. We were unable to visit this area on our visit, but plan to return and cover it in a future adventure.
Carillion Historical Park lies across the Great Miami River and is home to the Wright Flyer III, the third and most successful iteration of the Wright Brothers’ famous plane. The park is a wonderful gem and covers a great deal of southwestern Ohio history. It can take a day to explore all on its own. Here visitors can sign up to take an official tour of Hawthorn Hill, Orville Wright’s mansion which he and Wilbur constructed after they became world-famous. Both these sites are run by Dayton History instead of the National Park Service and require a small admission fee.
Our favorite areas of the park are located on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on the eastern reaches of town. The Huffman Prairie Flying Field and Interpretive Center focuses on the aviation advances the Wright Brothers made in the following months and years after their famous Kitty Hawk flight. Another visitor center here houses a museum which elaborates on their exploits and the numerous advances in the field of aviation which followed in years to come. Once again, the friendly rangers (this time Craig Campbell and Adesola Daboiku) were more than willing to answer any questions we had.
Down in the valley sits the Huffman Prairie Flying Field. This is where Wilbur and Oliver put the Wright Flyer III through its paces and mastered the art of flying. Interpretive signs explain different points of interest as well as the reconstructed maintenance shed and launch strip. A hiking trail meanders around the former airfield as well.
Don’t leave without visiting the nature exhibit here, as it preserves one of the largest portions of native tall grass prairie in the state of Ohio. Native wildflowers and grasses abound, which in turn harbor beautiful songbirds and hummingbirds. A short grassy trail weaves its way through the field and allows an intimate look at the thousands of blossoms. This ecosystem once thousands of square miles but was destroyed to make way for agriculture.
With the complexity of this national park, we highly recommend that visitors make a plan before visiting so they can make the most out of their day. As we already mentioned, a portion of the park is operated independently of the NPS, while the Paul Lawrence Dunbar home has very limited hours. Visit www.nps.gov/daav and www.daystonhistory.org for more information on the historical park.