Today, we all take airplanes for granted. With relative ease and affordability, you can be anywhere in the world. Not within months but within hours. And we have two brothers from Ohio to thank for it. And thank is just what the Wright Brothers National Memorial does.
It honors the technological advancement with a museum and a massive granite tower. And visitors can experience this pivotal moment that forever changed how we live and travel with a visit to the very spot where the brothers left the ground — if only for a matter of seconds.
A Quick History of the Wright Brothers & the Outer Banks
Obviously, the Wright Brothers did not just arrive in Kitty Hawk and take flight. It was a process that the Dayton, Ohio pair spent years working on. And no doubt their mechanical knowledge and expertise came at least partially from their bicycle shop as well as trial and error.
Like many from their time and even before, the Wright Brothers were enamored with the idea of flight. They developed multiple prototypes for their experiments with flying. But the weather conditions of Dayton were not conducive to the lift they needed. At their request, the National Weather Bureau provided a list of potential East Coast locations with a constant, regular wind.
With plenty of sand to provide a soft landing and relative isolation, they settled on Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It isn’t a surprising choice when you consider the giant sand dunes of nearby Jockey’s Ridge State Park and try to envision what the region looked like more than a century ago.
The pair spent three years in the Outer Banks starting in 1900. Their camp consisted of a few simple wooden buildings to provide protection from the blustering wind that was so integral to flying. They trialed a number of different gliders, eventually adding on a motor.
On December 17, 1903, Orville flew for 120 feet in twelve seconds on the Wright Flyer. It was a historic moment. One that was decided by a coin toss. Had a coin the brothers flipped fallen differently, it would have been Wilbur on that fateful flight.
Wright Brothers National Memorial
As early as 1927 a monument was envisioned to mark the sandy stretch where the brothers lifted off. The National Park Service took over in 1933. In the early 1950s, Congress dubbed it the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
Today, the national park is more than 400 acres in Kill Devil Hills, NC. The 60-foot granite monument dominates not only a hill and a skyline otherwise only populated by the occasional bird or some clouds.
But there’s more to the site than just the monument that’s worth seeing. A now historic visitor center houses a museum of real and reproduction tools and models. Plus it offers details on how the pair worked and engineered their flyers.
Visitors can also walk around outside where stone markers denote the distances flown. And you can explore a replica hangar like the one in which the Wright Brothers lived and worked.
Wright Brothers Memorial
If only from an artistic point of view, the Wright Brothers Memorial Tower is pretty impressive and notable. It is the work of architects Rodgers and Poor Dedicated. Wrapping around the base of the tower is the phrase “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.”
It took roughly one year to construct the tower. Perhaps the most difficult part was laying a foundation. The massive structure required a strong foundation, not least because of the sandy ground. Notably, the tower uses North Carolina granite.
At the 1932 dedication of the memorial, Orville Wright was in attendance. (His elder brother, Wilbur, passed away in 1912 at the age of 45.)
Although the tower’s inside is never open to the public, don’t miss the doors! The stainless steel over nickel doors feature art deco-style panels. One section pays tribute to German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal while another references Icarus, who you may recall flew too close to the sun. Another notable feature of the tower is the light that sits atop it. Almost like one of the nearby lighthouses, the memorial makes its presence known whether day or night.
Wright Brothers Museum
A Kitty Hawk museum honoring the duo and their achievement is part of the complex at the national memorial within the visitor center. Admittedly, the Wright Brothers Museum here is rather small. But it’s a real must-visit for anyone not fully versed in the brothers and their time in the Outer Banks. The museum relays its story by way of dioramas, photographs, tools, and more.
The national park rangers who work at the Wright Brothers Museum are very knowledgeable and often give very informative talks and presentations.
What you will not find in the museum is the original Wright Flyer that lifted off just outside of the building. That, unfortunately, is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. There is, however, a full-scale replica that gives you a feeling of what it must have been like on that cold December day.
Tips for Visiting
- The Wright Brothers National Memorial is a dog-friendly Outer Banks attraction. Leashed dogs can explore the grounds of the memorial with their human family. However, it’s important to note that dogs can not go inside buildings, like the museum.
- The memorial is also open year-round, making it a great spot to explore during the Outer Banks fall off-season and spring.
- Tickets are required to visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial. There is a gate as you approach where tickets are sold. Adults older than 15 require a paid ticket. Children that are 15 and younger are free.
The Wright Brothers National Memorial is on N. Croatan Highway, or Highway 158, in Kill Devil Hills at Milepost 7.5. The best way to reach the site is by car.
There are no buses or similar public transit in the Outer Banks. There are, however, private options you can hire as well as car-sharing services like Uber.
You can also reach the national memorial on foot or by bike. There are sidewalks running along 158 as you approach the park. Keep in mind that the sidewalks are limited as you go farther from the park and traffic on the highway is fast and can be heavy.
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All photos, as well as all opinions, are my own. This post contains affiliate links.