|The Kittyhawk, The Little-Known History of
Orville Wright's Canadian Getaway and His Beautiful Boat
by Harold D. Shield photos by Bev McMullen
hundred years ago this year a lot of very important things were happening,
and many of these important developments were destined to greatly affect
boating, and in one rather surprising and largely unknown way, boating in
Canada. Certainly the most obvious effect of 1903 on Canada was the
developing technology of the internal combustion engine. A vintage boat
built in 1929 by Gidley of Penetanguishene can also be said to be a direct
result of 1903 events, but let’s get the background understood before we
talk about that 1929 vessel that became known as Kittyhawk.
No one person can be said to be “the” inventor of the gasoline-fueled
internal combustion engine but various developments can be traced. A French
engineer, J.J. Etienne Lenoir, working in 1859 managed to construct a
double-acting spark ignition engine, which could be operated continuously
for some time. Dr. Nicholas Otto, a Prussian, born in 1832, developed an
experimental “explosive” engine in 1863, but it was not successful enough to
warrant production. Later, assisted by a Cologne machinery designer named
Eugen Langen, many of its problems were corrected, leading to a successful
model powered by illuminating gas. By 1878, Otto had arrived at the
successful principles of the four-cycle engine, “suck, squeeze, bang, and
blow”, and was granted patents. One year later this engine was being sold in
the United States and several other countries.
In 1885, a tiny 2-cycle engine built by the Sintz Gas Engine Co. of Grand
Rapids, Michigan, was demonstrated in a small boat. It appears to have
followed the design work of Dugald Clerk, a Scottish engineer who had
patented a successful model in the 1870’s.
Late in the century, the Steinway Piano Co. of New York had entered the
yacht-building field, and from 1891 to 1897 built a Daimler engine under
license to power their cruisers.
the expiration of the Otto and Clerk patents in 1895, a veritable explosion
of new builders entered the market to provide gasoline-powered engines for
agriculture, factories, automobiles and boats.
All of which brings us up to 1903, more or less, and sets the stage for
three developments of that year that certainly gave the world, and
particularly the boating world, alot of reasons to celebrate.
Because of the rapid development in gasoline engines, three very important
events occurred in 1903, all three changing our lives in different ways.
First, after two failures, Henry Ford started his third company, which was
to revolutionize the production of automobiles, on its way to completely
changing the world.
Secondly, two Milwaukee neighbors, Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson, had read
stories of European motorized bicycles that had been fitted with a leather
strap to turn the rear wheel. Their company, started in a backyard shed,
became a shining example of manufacturing. Still growing a century later,
Harley-Davidson has become an American icon. Their 2-cycle engine provided
the impetus for Cameron Waterman and Ole Evinrude, among others, to transfer
the power to the transom of a rowing boat, bringing the world to boating
with outboard engines.
Third on my list of 1903 innovations was the first flight of a
heavier-than-air flying machine. On December 17, at Kitty Hawk, North
Carolina, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright launched the Flyer in
27-mile-per-hour winds. With Orville at the controls the flight lasted 12
seconds. Two more flights of about the same duration followed, but by noon a
fourth flight lasted for 59 seconds and covered 852 feet. One important
reason for their success was their design and construction of a lightweight
gasoline engine, something not then available from any manufacturer.
The pioneering achievements of the Wright brothers changed the world,
altering the nature of war, and then transforming civilian life. Nothing
would ever be the same.
Nothing would ever be the same for the inventor brothers
either – their next dozen years went by in a flurry of business
developments, patent disputes, licensing agreements, and bitter
negotiations, little of which was to their liking. Wilbur, the older of the
two brothers was now in failing health. More outgoing by nature, he had
usually taken a leading role in the business negotiations that the more
reclusive Orville disliked. But with Wilbur’s death in 1912, the heavier
responsibilities now fell to Orville alone.
This brings us to the Canadian part of our celebration, and a story that is
quite unknown to most Canadians.
Depressed, worn-out, hating the limelight of celebrity, Orville was falling
into a deep depression. He longed to get away from it all, to just be
himself, to live unrecognized in some simple place. A lifelong friend and
former teacher, Professor W.B. Worthener, provided the answer – a Canadian
vacation in the unspoiled wilderness of Georgian Bay.
Professor Worthener had already vacationed in this beautiful area, planned
to return himself, and could easily make arrangements with a local family to
rent suitable accommodation for Orville. The Great War was underway and
patriotic Canadian families were quite willing to rent their holiday homes,
donating the proceeds to purchase comfort supplies for the troops. Thus,
Orville Wright came to Canada’s Georgian Bay, seeking the healing effects of
an escape to the wilderness. It proved to be exactly what was needed, and
before returning in 1916 he purchased his own island in paradise, Lambert
Island, where he was to spend summers for the next quarter-century, close to
nature, far from public attention, enjoying the low-key pleasures of fishing
The Gidley Boat Co. of Penetanguishene was to provide him with several boats
over the years and, happily, the last of these still exists, now beautifully
restored, and a familiar sight in the Honey Harbour area.
This last vessel was not new, in fact it had been built as a water taxi,
used for one year, but then returned to Gidley due to depressed business
conditions. Built as an open boat, it was now altered with a sedan top,
making it more suitable for Georgian Bay island living where voyages
sometimes have to be made in poor weather. At 32’6” overall and 7’6’’ beam,
this 1931 purchase was to prove very suitable for his needs.
Orville did not name the boat Kittyhawk, in fact he did not name it
anything. In keeping with his desire to receive as little attention as
possible, he just ignored the urging of friends to name the boat. Leader of
the friends group was A.Y. Jackson, the famous Group of Seven artist, who
painted regularly in the area. Realizing that Orville would ignore their
gift of boat letters they conspired to have trusted housekeeper, Carrie
Grumbach, present them to Orville for Christmas, knowing that he could not
disappoint her by ignoring her gift. Orville dutifully accepted the gift of
stainless steel letters and sent them off to Gidley’s with instructions to
install them on each side of the bow and on the transom. Unfortunately he
failed to advise them that the place name of the historic flight was two
words, not one, so the resulting error persists to this day.
In 1940 the hull was re-varnished by Gidley’s, some minor repairs made, and
the paint color of the top and bottom changed from green to blue. A new
8-cylinder Kermath engine was installed by Wilfred France who had been
serving Orville for some years as caretaker/boat keeper. Undoubtedly,
Orville would have assisted in this installation, being unable to resist any
mechanical challenge. He had already invented and installed a fresh-water
system that pumped water to the cottage high above the lake. He had also
devised a luggage-carrying railway that delivered baggage and supplies to
the uphill location. An inveterate tinkerer, he was always trying to make
island life easier.
Johnstone at the helm with author Harold Shield riding shotgun.
When America faced the inevitability of entering the war
in 1941, President Roosevelt asked Orville Wright to serve in Washington as
a special advisor on aviation matters. Orville was never to return to
Canada, but his wonderful vessel Kittyhawk lives on.
Following Orville’s passing in 1946, several of his heirs did try to use
Lambert Island but it was soon sold. Kittyhawk was purchased by Wilfred
France for use in his cottage building and caretaking business. Following
his death in 1970, his daughter, Kathy, purchased the vessel from the estate
as a surprise Christmas present for her husband Guy Johnstone. By this time
the Kittyhawk was in sad condition. Stored ashore at the Franceville home of
her father, awaiting extensive repairs, which Wilfred was unable to execute
due to failing health, the vessel was now crushed by the collapse of her
boathouse. It could easily have been the end of the story but for the
determination of this dedicated pair.
Guy had always admired the vessel and was pleased to undertake the
challenge, but one weekend of sanding and probing was enough to bring the
realization that this was going to require a lot more time than they could
devote to the project. Visiting nearby boatyards brought them to the
conclusion that the Greavette Boat Company in Gravenhurst was the most able
to undertake the extensive restoration project.
the 1973 Toronto International Boat Show, Guy and Kathy met Bruce Wilson of
the Greavette Company. He was not only well experienced in wooden boat
restoration, he was immediately fascinated by the unique history of the
vessel. Soon an agreement was made and the restoration took place over the
winter of 1974-1975.
In June of 1975 the proud vessel, now looking her finest, was relaunched
with appropriate ceremony. The town band played, a telegram from the Prime
Minister was read, one hundred guests applauded as the traditional bottle of
champagne was broken on the bow. Wright family representatives who had
journeyed from Dayton, Ohio, happily presented the stainless steel letters
that had been removed and sent to the Wright Museum at the time of Orville’s
Kittyhawk was honored as a feature exhibit in the Toronto show, named as
antique boat of the year and surrounded by a special backdrop of photo
murals that left no doubt as to her history and her famous owner. This was
probably the first awareness by Canadians that the pilot of that 1903 Flyer
in faraway Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, had lived among us, using a Canadian
boat, savoring the beauty of Georgian Bay summers. Boaters were fascinated;
curious and admiring crowds surrounded the exhibit for the entire ten-day
It also made a profound difference to Guy and Kathy
Johnstone. They had always loved boats and boating, had always understood
the desire to preserve vintage wooden boats. But now they realized that they
were serving in an additional role, that of custodians and caretakers of a
very unique piece of boating history. When Guy climbs into the pilot’s seat
he’s sitting where Orville Wright, the world’s first pilot sat, and that’s
certainly reward enough. But the world of boating is quick to realize that
Guy and Kathy Johnstone deserve a sincere vote of thanks for saving one of
the most important pleasure boats in the world, and a wonderful episode in
The Kittyhawk airplane will occupy a place of honor in the
new Smithsonian aircraft museum in Washington, DC. To be known as the Udvar-Hazy
Center, this huge hangar-type building will house over 300 historic aircraft
in a facility that is actually longer than that historic flight of 852 ft in
December of 1903. Perhaps they should make a little room for the Kittyhawk
boat that the world’s first pilot enjoyed for so many happy years in