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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : December 1999 : Like a bird taking wing, history takes many twists
 

Like a bird taking wing, history takes many twists

 
By Bill Foley, Times-Union columnist
The Florida Times-Union
December 1, 1999

- Suppose the Southeast Landfill site did become a rhinoceros ranch. What if an international airport had been built at Metropolitan Park, of if the zoo had moved to the Gator Bowl?

How would it have turned out if Jacksonville had become home port for the Graf Zeppelin, or if Offshore Power Systems had come to pass, or if the Baltimore Colts had moved here? The course of history is not always straight and true. Paths untaken lead to destinations never known, for better or worse. Yet Monday's loss often is Tuesday's gain . . . Take Orville Wright.

What if Orville Wright had moved to Jacksonville? What if the father of aviation made Jacksonville his home aerodrome? Suppose a huge flying school had started here at the dawn of aviation? A good thing, you say? Maybe yes, maybe no.

The Florida Metropolis reported exclusively in late November 1915 that the Wright Bros. aviation company wanted to move to Jacksonville. Company representatives would be in Jacksonville the following day. The Chamber of Commerce became all a-dither. The Wright brothers were the biggest name in aviation in 1915. Perhaps still are. Flight still was a bit of a novelty. The Wright design for Jacksonville perhaps stretched the imagination.

First would come an aviation school, the Jacksonville evening newspaper reported. At least 1,000 students would converge on Jacksonville. Here they would be trained to 'commercialize' aviation, strange as that may have sounded. The Wright man arrived in Jacksonville Nov. 25. The newspaper figured the deal could be cut the first week of December.

Phillip Boyer was the traveling man, representing the Wright Machine Co. of New York City, which the newspaper identified as the company of Orville and Wilbur Wright, the pioneers of flight, the death of Wilbur in 1912 notwithstanding. (Orville also sold his interest in the Wright company in 1915, most of which was over when the Jacksonville deal was broached, but subtle nuances of this stripe seldom deterred the evening print.)

Boyer huddled with chamber President Charles Mann and Secretary H.S. Kealhoffer. 'It is highly probable that Jacksonville, on account of its direct steamship and railroad lines from New York and the East, will be selected for such a school,' the Metropolis said. Boyer said at least 1,000 pupils and their money would come to Jacksonville if Wright selected Jacksonville for a flying school. Also it would be a top-notch draw for the winter tourist trade, he said. 'We will have 10 machines flying all the time and it really will be a big thing,' Boyer said.

'It is just recently that certain influential businessmen, among them Henry Payne Whitney, W.R. Thompson and officials of the Simplex Automobile Co. have become interested in the Wright company,' Boyer said. 'As a result of the combination of these men, it has been decided to place aviation on a commercial basis. In 10 years I believe the use of the aeroplane will be as common as the use of the automobile for transportation.' John Gilbert, the automobile man, took Boyer for a look at the proposed site.

The location would be ideal, Boyer said. A large hotel would be needed nearby, of course, or at least a boarding house. The city would be expected to provide hangars and perhaps some other little incidentals, like maybe the land. The federal government likely would be glad to lend a hand, seeing as the school would provide aviators for the Army.

Other sites were being scouted. Pensacola was among them, but Boyer suggested the wind velocity there would discourage the school. Consultations with the weatherman in Jacksonville showed the wind velocity here would be just right. Boyer said he also planned to visit Tampa and Havana, Cuba, before returning to New York with his recommendation for the ideal site.

What twist and turn of history yet unrevealed caused Jacksonville not to get a huge and tremendous Wright brothers aviation school remains unspoken, but it never came to pass.

Perhaps just as well. The location Boyer found ideal came in time to be Jacksonville Naval Air Station. Which, of course, was selected by the Navy only after irate Miami homeowners said they didn't want that sort of thing in their back yard. Times-Union senior writer Bill

Foley can be reached by e-mail by going to Jacksonville.com and using the keyword Mail Foley.

 

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