Kill Devil Hills History

Kill Devil Hills Area, 1902
Perhaps no other place on the Outer Banks is as widely known as Kitty Hawk, noted as the location of the Wright Brother's famous first flight. However, the history books are mistaken. While many speak of Kitty Hawk, it is a single hill  — Kill Devil Hill — where the Wright brothers experimented and actually made their flights from the ridges of current-day Kill Devil Hills' sand dunes, five miles south of the village of Kitty Hawk.

Aerial View of Kill Devil Hills Today.
The postmaster at Kitty Hawk and soon to be a light-keeper with the U.S. Lighthouse Service at the Currituck Sound Lights, William J. Tate, responded to the Wrights' queries by noting that Kitty Hawk was an excellent place for their experiments. Tate wrote, in a gracious invitation, that: "If you decide to try your machine here and come, I will take pleasure in doing all I can for your convenience and success and pleasure, and I assure you you will find a hospitable people when you come among us." You can see that Tate was also the Outer Banks' first Tourism Director, as well!

When the Wrights first came to the Banks, Kitty Hawk was the primary settlement on the northern end of the barrier island. The Wrights lived in the village with local resident and postmaster Bill Tate while testing their craft. In fact, they built their first glider in the front yard of one resident's home.

Kill Devil Hills Landscape In 1908
1911 Group portrait in front of glider on Big Kill Devil_Hill. Note the stark countryside in the background.
Final Wright Brothers photograph of Big Kill Devil in 1911
In the early 1900s, there was very little vegetation on that section of the Outer Banks. The barrier island from Nags Head to the Virginia line was characterized by a desert-like landscape, with swirling sand and towering dunes that reached over 100 feet in the air. Coupled with the almost constant breeze and privacy from prying eyes, the environment was perfect for the Wright, whose experiments needed soft ground, open space, and a steady wind. Big Kill Devil Hill and the surrounding flats certainly fit the bill on all counts.

The Lifesavers of Kill Devil Hills in 1902
But prior to the Wright Brothers camp, the Kill Devil Hills area had 'residents' other than fishermen and salvagers. The Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station was built in 1878, one of 11 stations erected along the Outer Banks. Life-Saving Stations were facilities set up along the coast to house special rescue workers trained to help with shipwrecks and maritime disasters. The employees were called surfmen because they retrieved shipwreck victims in lifeboats launched and beached through the surf, usually during fierce storms. In Orville Wright's account of the flights at Kitty Hawk, he credits the help the surfmen of the Life-Saving Station at Kill Devil Hills, and cites their names. The Life-Saving Station employees at the Kill Devil Hills Station were the eyewitnesses and helpmates for the flights.

Related: Building the Wright Brothers National Monument


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