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