Making history

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Four members of the Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station take a moment to pose in their white hats and jackets, their surfboats at the ready. Theirs was not an easy job, living in a lonely outpost on the stormy North Carolina coast.

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It wasn’t just the isolation or the constant threat of danger that lurked behind every suspicious-looking cloud on the horizon. Perhaps toughest to endure were the long periods of idleness, waiting out the good weather on the beach, away from the rest of the world with only their crewmates for company.

It’s no wonder that the men at Station No. 13 took notice when two brothers from Ohio showed up, built a couple of sheds in the sand and — over a span of about three years — began testing flying machines.

A friendship grew between the lifesavers and the two serious-minded inventors, bicycle makers Wilbur and Orville Wright. The station’s keeper-in-charge, Jesse Ward, gave permission for off-duty crewmembers to help the Wright brothers, and the men, eager and curious, would bring the inventors food, drop off the mail and do other odd work. Eventually the Wrights set up a red flag outside their shed as a signal to any crewman who had time to help carry machines out to the sandy hills for testing.

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In moments of idleness, the brothers were a source of pleasant diversion. “In pretty weather, we would be out there while they were gliding, watching them,” one surfman recalled.

On Dec. 17, 1903, three members of the station came down to help Wilbur and Orville carry their motorized machine out. Orville gave surfman J.T. Daniels his camera, and moments later Daniels snapped what has been called the “photo of the 20th century”: the only photograph of the world’s first flight in a power-driven, heavier-than-air machine.

July 2013 issue