Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Kitty Hawk & Roanoke Island, North Carolina


Steve returned from Texas on November 21 very late at night, so the kids spend the night at Grandma’s house that evening so I could drive to the airport to pick him up.  It was nearly 2:00 in the morning before we got to sleep!  I’m getting too old to stay up that late!

We spent the next couple days recuperating from our lack of sleep, then on Sunday we went to church with Grandma. But on Monday, November 25, we drove from our spot in Virginia to a couple of interesting places in nearby North Carolina.

First we visited Kitty Hawk, the place where human flight first took place.  I found it ironic that I had just picked up Steve from the airport a couple of days beforehand, a ritual that is becoming a commonplace occurrence for us. Yet merely a hundred years ago, travel by flight was anything but common.  We saw the Wright Cycle Company when we visited Dayton, Ohio, so this visit to Kitty Hawk completed our Wright Brothers experience.

We spent only a short amount of time at the Wright Brothers National Memorial.  Basically, it is a field.  There is a boulder marking the lift-off point for each flight. Then the field has markers which indicate where each of the first four flights landed on December 17, 1903:

Marker #1 – 12 seconds, 120 feet
Marker #2 – 12 seconds, 175 feet
Marker #3 – 15 seconds, 200 feet
Marker #4 – 59 seconds, 852 feet

While at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, we also saw a reconstructed 1903 hangar and workshop, and we also climbed up one of the Kill Devil Hills to see the Wright Brothers Monument up close.

I find it ironic that I’m typing this blog post while staying at Charleston Air Force Base.  The family campground is at the end of the busy runway, and I can hear giant C-130’s roaring through the air.  In the century since the Wright Brothers first slipped the surly bonds of earth, people have made flying a routine part of travel, heard an aircraft break the sound barrier, and even watched a man walk on the moon.  I wonder if Orville and Wilbur Wright had any idea what their 12-second accomplishment would spark?

After spending an hour or so at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, we drove a half-hour away to Roanoke Island to visit our first historical site that thrusts us as far back as the Elizabethan era: Fort Raleigh. Fort Raleigh’s claim to fame is that it was the first English attempt at establishing a permanent settlement in the New World, even though it was doomed to fail. 

Until this point in history Spain dominated the New World, but England wanted a piece of that pie! So in 1584 Queen Elizabeth sponsored Sir Walter Raleigh on an expedition to explore the coastline of the New World to find a place suitable for a settlement. He and his men spent several weeks on Roanoke Island, establishing good relations with the native Algonquians.  When they departed the island bound for England, they took two natives with them, Manteo and Wanchese.

In 1585, Raleigh sent seven ships with 600 people to the New World to establish a fort in order to lay claim to the land for England and to establish a base to raid Spanish ships.  Together they built an earthen fort, then 107 soldiers and colonists were left behind while the rest of the people headed back to England.  Relations with the natives started off well, but declined as the Europeans relied more and more on the natives for food.  Also, Algonquians started to die from European diseases, unknown to their culture until now.  When the English commander suspected that the natives were plotting a conspiracy to rid the island of English, he led an attack on Chief Wingina and killed him.  And when their supply ship didn’t return by the expected time, the colonists accepted an offer by Sir Francis Drake’s raiding fleet, which happened to be in the area, to return to England.   When the supply ship finally did return, the colonists were gone.  The commander left 15 men behind to maintain a tenuous foothold in America.

In 1587, the true colony was established.  The “Cittie of Raleigh” was planned to be on the Chesapeake Bay; but after the 117 colonists stopped at Roanoke Island to look for the 15 men who were left behind on the last expedition, the pilot refused to take them any farther.  Their only option was to repair and rebuild the fort that was left behind from the previous colonists.  But their troubles quickly mounted.  Remembering their treatment by the English before, the natives were hostile toward the colonists.  Since they couldn’t rely on the natives to help provide them with food this time, the colony’s leader John White returned to England for more supplies. The colonists promised that if they changed their location, they would carve their destination in a tree.

However, John White was not able to provide the help that the colonists needed.  Because England was so involved in fighting the Spanish Armada, every ship was needed in the raiding efforts.  John White wasn’t able to return to Roanoke Island until 1590.  When he did return, he found an abandoned settlement with the word CROATOAN carved in a post and the letters CRO carved into a tree.  When White tried to reach Croatoan Island (now Hatteras Island), a hurricane forced the ship to return to England.  The fate of the colonists remains a mystery to this day.

While Roanoke Island is probably most known for the intrigue of the colonists of Fort Raleigh (after all, who doesn’t like a little mystery?), it is also known for a few other things.  During the Civil War, General Burnside landed on Roanoke with 13,000 troops, overwhelming the Confederate forces on the island.  When word spread that the Union held the island, runaway slaves poured in, and the army established a Freedman’s Colony.  In 1865 almost 3500 freedmen lived in 560 log dwellings they had built, along with a hospital, church, schools, and a sawmill.  The army decommissioned the colony in 1867.

And lastly, in 1901 radio pioneer Reginald Fessenden came to Roanoke Island to further his work on a wireless system for transmitting weather information.  He erected 50-foot radio towers on the north end of Roanoke Island and on Cape Hatteras.  At the same time that the Wright Brothers were testing their gliders seven miles away across Roanoke Sound, Fessenden worked to refine his radio signals.  In April 1902, he had taken a crucial step toward the regulation of electromagnetic signals, called amplitude modulation (AM), which enables clear voice transmissions over radio waves.

While there isn’t much to see at Fort Raleigh other than the small museum, short movie, and remains of the 1585 earthen fort, there is an intriguing history on the island.  We spent our time there, worked on the Junior Ranger badge, then packed up and headed back home for the day.  Two historical spots in one day!