There Came A Mighty Swarm

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In Their Own Words

ilbur and Orville arrived in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on July 10, 1901 and spent the first night with the family of William Tate, who had become a close friend. But rather than camp outside of Kitty Hawk, as they did in 1900, they traveled south about 4 miles and set up camp at the base of the Kill Devil Hills which would become their flight laboratory for the next three years. In this letter to his sister Katharine, Orville describes the first few days of their 1901 adventure.

Katharine Wright
Dayton, Ohio
July 28, 1901

This is Sunday evening, six o'clock, and I am writing this letter while Will and Mr. Spratt are washing the dinner dishes. We did not get up this morning till half past seven, and had breakfast at a little after eleven, so 'that our dinner did not come till after five this evening. I have been so busy that I have not at any time had an opportunity to write, having had all the cooking to do besides the work on the machine. We completed it yesterday and spent the afternoon in gliding with some pretty exciting results which I will relate "afer soon." Camping at Kill Devil is a different thing from that at Kitty Hawk. We haven't had a nor'easter yet, though we have been here over two weeks. In spite of the fact that I looked forward to nor'easters last year with some fear, nothing could have been more welcome this year, but it seems nature has been in a conspiracy with our enemy, the mosquito.


We landed at Kitty Hawk two weeks ago Thursday evening, one day after a 93-mile nor'easter which demolished the only re­maining piece of our last year's machine. We slept at Tate's that night on a bed which looked very much like this from the head end. That's Will down in the center and that little fellow hanging on to the side with both hands "is me." When I played out and couldn't stand it any longer, I rolled down into the bottom and made Will crawl up the side. The fellow in the bottom could get along pretty comfortably, for when he was attacked by any foe (which roams at large over most of the beds in these southern places) he had the opportunity of slapping back, but the poor fellow on the side was in a pretty fix, having both hands occupied, and had to endure the attacks the best he could.

The next morning we set out with all our baggage for Kill Devil Hills, selecting our site and pitching our tent in a drenching rain, which had come upon us unexpectedly but continued all day and night. After fooling around all day inside the tent, excepting on a few occasions when we rushed out to drive a few more tent pegs, our thirst became unbearable, and we decided upon driving the Webbert pump, no well where we could get water being within a mile's distance. Well (pun), we got no well; the point came loose down in the sand, and we lost it! Oh misery! Most dead for water and none within a mile, excepting what was coming from the skies. However, we decided to catch a little of this, and placed the dish-pan where the water dripped down from the tent roof; and though it tasted somewhat of the soap which we had rubbed on the canvas to keep it from mildewing, it pretty well filled a long felt want. These troubles were nothing in comparison to what was coming, so I will not relate them further.

We continued our well driving all day Saturday, and Sunday spent the day in making a trip to Kitty Hawk (four miles) and in reading. Sunday night I was taken sick and 'most died, that is, I felt as if I did; and managed to keep Will up the best part of the night. The next day I was all right, and we commenced work on our building. The work went along well and we had the building done in three days. The building is a grand institution, with awnings at both ends; that is, with big doors hinged at the top, which we swing open and prop up, making an awning the full length of the building at each end, and extending out a little over the distance of the porch around our house. We keep both ends open almost all the time and let the breezes have full sway. These breezes, by the way, are a little stronger than that big wind which blew the tops off the trees on our street a few days before we left—the night Ed Sines was over—and continue day and night, coming in turn from all points of the compass.

Mr. Huffaker arrived Thursday afternoon, and with him a swarm of mosquitoes which came in a mighty cloud, almost darkening the sun. This was the beginning of the most miserable existence I had ever passed through. The agonies of typhoid fever with its attending starvation are as nothing in comparison. But there was no escape. The sand and grass and trees and hills and everything were fairly covered with them. They chewed us clear through our underwear and socks. Lumps began swelling up all over my, body like hen's eggs. We attempted to escape by going to bed, which we did at a little after five o'clock. We put our cots out under the awnings and wrapped up in our blankets with only our noses protruding from the folds, thus exposing the least possible surface to attack. Alas! Here nature's complicity in the conspiracy against us became evident. The wind, which until now had been blowing over twenty miles an hour, dropped off entirely. Our blankets then became unbearable. The perspiration would roll off of us in torrents. We would partly uncover and the mosquitoes would swoop down upon us in vast multitudes. We would make a few desperate and vain slaps, and again retire behind our blankets. Misery! Misery! The half can never be told. We passed the next ten hours in a state of hopeless desperation. Morning brought a little better condition, and we attempted on several occasions to begin work on our machine, but all attempts had to be abandoned. We now thought that surely our enemy had done its worst, and we could hope for something better soon. Alas, "how seldom do our dreams come true."

The next night we constructed mosquito frames and nets over our cots, thinking in our childish error we could fix the bloody beasts. We put our cots out on the sand twenty or thirty feet from the tent and house, and crawled in under the netting and bedclothes, Glen Osborn fashion, and lay there on our backs smiling at the way in which we had got the best of them. The tops of the canopies were covered with mosquitoes till there was hardly standing room for another one; the buzzing was like the buzzing of a mighty buzz saw. But what was our astonishment when in a few minutes we heard a terrific slap and a cry from Mr. Huffaker announcing that the enemy had gained the outer works and he was engaged in a hand-to-hand conflict with them. All our forces were put to complete rout. In our desperate attacks on the advancing foe our fortifications were almost entirely torn down, and in desperation, we fled from them, rushing all about the sand for several hundred feet around trying to find some place of safety. But it was of no use. We again took refuge in our blankets with the same results as in the previous night. Affairs had now become so desperate that it began to look as if camp would have to be abandoned or we perish in the attempt to maintain it.

Hope springs eternal; that is, it does the next morning when we begin to recover from the attack of the night before. Remembering the claim of the U.S. Army that safety is in "a superior fire," we proceeded to build big fires about camp, dragging in old tree stumps which are scattered about over the sands at about a quarter mile from camp, and keeping up such a smoke that the enemy could not find us. Mr. Spratt, after getting in bed with the smoke blowing over him, before long announced that he could no longer stand the fire, and dragged his cot out into the clear air. A few minutes later he returned, saying the mosquitoes were worse than the smoke. He spent the balance of the night in retreat from mosquito to smoke and from smoke to mosquito. However, the mosquitoes this night were small in number as compared with any previous night or even our fires would probably have been of no avail. Mr. Huffaker, Will, and I had passed the night in comparative comfort, but Mr. Spratt in the morning announced that that was the most miserable night he had ever passed through. Of course we explained to him what we had gone through, and that we were expecting a repetition of it every night. We nearly scared him off after the first night, but as every night since affairs have been improving, he is now a little less uneasy, and has hopes of enduring the agony a few weeks longer.

Yesterday most of the mosquitoes had disappeared and we had a fine day and wind for testing the new machine. We took it off to the Big Hill, about a thousand feet distant, and began our experiments. Our first experiments were rather disappointing. The machine refused to act like our machine last year and at times seemed to be entirely beyond control. On one occasion it began gliding off higher and higher (Will doing the gliding) until it finally came almost at a stop at a height variously estimated by Mr. Spratt and Huffaker at from 18 ft. to forty feet. This wound up in the most encouraging performance of the whole afternoon. This was the very fix Lilienthal got into when he was killed. His machine dropped head first to the ground and his neck was broken. Our machine made a flat descent to the ground with no injury to either operator or machine. On another occasion the machine made another similar performance and showed that in this respect it is entirely safe. These were the first descents ever made successfully after getting into the above-mentioned predicament. The adjustments of the machine are away off. We expect to get it in good shape in the morning and make more successful attempts. Mr. Huffaker was much pleased with a long glide we made, which he considered the longest ever made, but we think at least three or four better have been made before. Some of our glides were very encouraging.

It is now after bedtime and since very few mosquitoes have shown up we are going to get a good start on them. Tell Carrie I will write to her in a few days, at least at the first opportunity. Tell Mr. Taylor of what is going on, or give him our letters to read. I suspect it is a little tiresome running the shop all alone. I will write again in a few days.

Orville Wright
Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

Orville's doodle showing the sleeping arrangements at the Tate's..

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The Wright Story/Inventing the Airplane/1900 Flight Experiments

Part of a biography of the Wright Brothers
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