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The Kittyhawk, The Little-Known History of Orville Wright's Canadian Getaway and His Beautiful Boat

by Harold D. Shield photos by Bev McMullen

One 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.

With 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 and boating.

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.

Guy 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.

At 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 death.

In 1976, 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 show.

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 Canadian history.

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 Georgian Bay.