Of course, everyone knows that Kitty Hawk is on the windswept sands of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where Orville Wright achieved powered, controlled, sustained, manned flight in heavier-than-aircraft December 17th, 1903. Orville and his brother Wilbur made a number of flights that day.
Yes, that’s all true, but did you know there’s also a Kitty Hawk in Midland, which involved one of the Wright brothers: Orville? Orville, it turns out spent many summers during the 1920s and 30s at his cottage north of Midland on Georgian Bay.
Exhausted and depressed by the early death of his brother Wilbur from typhoid in 1912, Orville visited the Williams family from Kitchener at their cottage on Waubec Island in Georgian Bay in 1916.
Almost immediately he succumbed to an illness from which most of us suffer all our lives – “Georgian Bay fever”. Picnics and good conversations as well as visits with friendly neighbours all worked their spell as Orville morphed into a “Quasi Canadian” and commenced some of the happiest years of his life as he purchased his own island (Lambert Island) in the fall of 1916.
In 1918, Orville undertook extensive renovations to the derelict, abandoned buildings on Lambert, resulting in a main cottage he named Cliff House, a guest house, pump house, ice house, boathouse, a water tower and strange funicular railroad to carry guests and supplies to the top of the 60 foot cliff.
His cottage, although secured by cables (like the one in Newfoundland in the book The Shipping News) to brace it against the autumn storms, eventually had to be relocated to a more sheltered area as winds exceeding 100 mph caused some shifting.
Orville’s usual cottage garb was a dark blue business suit, an over-starched white shirt, shining oxfords, and a spotted bow tie.
In 1931, he purchased a Gidley-Ford 32’ boat, but although he tinkered with the engine he was never quite satisfied until he installed a new and more powerful Hermath engine. He refused to put any name on the vessel but his friend A. Y. Jackson (of “Group of Seven” fame) suggested the name “Kitty Hawk”. Jackson arranged to have the letters made as a Christmas present, which Orville reluctantly sent to Gidley. The workers, not realizing they spelled two separate words, mounted the letters on the hull as one word, where they remain to this day.
Reading between the lines, this writer was left with the impression that the only time Orville was really happy and at ease was on Georgian Bay, perhaps like many of us. Witness the fact he arrived each year as the ice broke up and left just before freeze-up.
Strangely, Orville made a pact with his sister Katharine and brother Wilbur that they would never marry, but spend all of their energy on developing manned flight. When Katharine did get married, it was some years before they spoke again. Orville never married. Too bad. Perhaps one or other of the Wright brothers’ genes might have resulted in another genius or two.
When the Second World War approached, the US government sent representatives to Orville’s cottage to escort him back to the US as it was felt he was a national asset. He never returned to his sacred Georgian Bay refuge, sadly enough, and died from a heart attack in 1948 at the age of 77.
In 1952, Wilf France bought the Kittyhawk from the Wright family for $1000. She became a workboat, water taxi and freighter. Eventually damaged dockside, she lay partly submerged till the fall of 1972 when Wilfred’s daughter Katherine, who married Guy Johnstone, a retail merchant in Midland, arranged to purchase the derelict as a surprise present for Guy.
The boat was restored to exact original specifications and was re-christened on June 29, 1975 by Orville’s niece.
Since retirement in 2001, Guy and Kathy Johnstone are seeking a new home for the Kittyhawk, hopefully where her unique history will be preserved and nourished for all Canadians.
The pictures of Orville and Kittyhawk accompanying this article appear courtesy of the Huronia Museum, which has an extensive display of photographs of Orville’s island paradise and that of his friends, the Williams family.