Life

The right facts about the Wright brothers' time in Cedar Rapids

Where the family lived - and didn't live - in Cedar Rapids

The Kitty Hawk is shown on its first flight, Dec. 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Orville Wright is at the controls, and Wilbur Wright is at right. The first flight was 12 seconds. The boys lived with their family for three years in Cedar Rapids. (National Archives)
The Kitty Hawk is shown on its first flight, Dec. 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Orville Wright is at the controls, and Wilbur Wright is at right. The first flight was 12 seconds. The boys lived with their family for three years in Cedar Rapids. (National Archives)
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In commemoration of the 115th anniversary of the first successful flight of an airplane, it seems an appropriate time to clarify information about the three years Orville and Wilbur Wright and their family lived in Cedar Rapids.

There have been conflicting reports and inaccuracies written over the years — and repeated — about where the Wright family lived, where the brothers went to school and which Linn County institutions they were involved with while they were here.

FIRST HOME

The Wright family arrived in Cedar Rapids in June 1878 when Orville was 6 and Wilbur was 11. Their father, Milton, was a bishop within the United Brethren Church and frequently moved with his family for church business. The church assigned Wright to Cedar Rapids for three years, partly to oversee construction of new United Brethren churches in Lisbon and Cedar Rapids and to also provide oversight of Western College in rural south-central Linn County, a school started by the church and once located just north of present day Shueyville and the Linn-Johnson county line.

The reasons for the Wright family’s move to Cedar Rapids are documented in Milton Wright’s personal diary.

Wright mentions establishing residence for the family in the “Adams” boardinghouse, described as an “old brick dwelling” in Cedar Rapids. Information from The History Center archives confirms that Elias Adams operated a boardinghouse in an old brick structure listed in the 1878 city directory as being on the “east side of Jefferson Street, third structure south of Greene Street.”

In 1878, Jefferson Street was an early name for what became Fourth Street SE, which also happens to be the railroad track corridor through downtown Cedar Rapids. Greene Street was later renamed Fifth Avenue SE.

This means the first Cedar Rapids home of the Wright brothers was in a structure that faced the train tracks within what would today be the 500 block of the Fourth Street SE train tracks.

This home was demolished by the early 1900s to make way for additional railroad tracks and a coal yard. At the end of 2018, this first Wright home site is the location of the Pepsi-Cola buildings closest to the downtown railroad tracks.

BOYS’ SCHOOLS

For the 1878-79 academic year, Orville and Wilbur Wright would have attended either the original Old Adams Elementary School at the northeast corner of what is now Fifth Street and Seventh Avenue SE, or the original Old Washington School in a three-story brick building in the 400 block of what is now Fourth Avenue SE, south of present day Greene Square.

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In 1878-79, the first Old Washington School building contained both elementary classrooms as well as space for the relatively new Cedar Rapids high school program.

Orville Wright wrote later that it was in 1878 in Cedar Rapids that the brothers got the spark to investigate flying concepts after their father brought home a toy helicopter that could fly on its own.

SECOND HOME

In June 1879, the Wright family moved about a block away from their first Cedar Rapids home.

According to 1880 U.S. Census, Orville and Wilbur Wright, along with two older brothers, a sister and their parents, Milton and Susan, moved to what was then known as 104 Greene St. in Cedar Rapids. Greene Street was changed to Fifth Avenue SE in the mid-1880s and the 104 address was later changed to 404 Fifth Ave. SE.

That means the Wrights’ second Cedar Rapids home was along the “north” side of what is now the 400 block of Fifth Avenue SE and was the second residence east of the railroad tracks.

While living there, both Wilbur and Orville attended classes at the original Old Washington School building in the 1879-80 academic years.

Three facts support this. One, the 1855-built Washington School building stood on the other side of the block where they lived (today the Fourth Avenue SE side). Secondly, the original Old Adams School, a frame structure built in 1868, was being demolished and a new brick-and-stone Adams School building was being built in 1880 to replace it. And finally, Orville Wright’s name is handwritten by his teacher in an 1880 Washington School class register that is in The History Center archives.

While living in their second Cedar Rapids home, Bishop Wright was involved in the dedication of a new building for the United Brethren Church in Cedar Rapids, a fine brick structure built at the “northeast” corner of what is today Fourth Avenue and Seventh Street SE.

This old church associated with the Wright brothers was remodeled in 1910 and later destroyed by fire in the 1960s after being used as a newspaper office. The building was demolished just over 50 years ago, and a parking lot has occupied that corner since.

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The Wrights’ second home at 404 Fifth Ave. SE was destroyed, along with other nearby homes, by the mid-1920s. The site is now part of the parking lot for the Cedar Rapids Public Library. The present day downtown library sits mostly on the site of the Old Washington School the Wright boys attended.

third home

In June 1880, it was time for the Wright family to move to their third and final home in Cedar Rapids. The 1881 Cedar Rapids City Directory confirms that Milton Wright and his family lived at what was then known as 184 Iowa Ave. East. In 2018, this translates to the address of 700 First Ave. NE.

The same city directory also shows that Orville and Wilbur’s older brothers, Reuchlin and Loren, were students at Western College in rural Linn County.

During the 1880-81 school year, it is known that at least Orville Wright attended classes at the Old Jefferson Elementary, which stood nearby at 716 A Ave. NE. That school, a beautiful brick and stone structure, had been built in 1868 and was closed in the late 1920s. It was later used as a Board of Education building and then converted into a Knights of Columbus Hall before being demolished in 1955 to build a new Hall for the Knights. A University of Iowa Community Credit Union building now stands there.

While living in their third Cedar Rapids home, Bishop Wright dedicated a new United Brethren Church building in Lisbon on Jan. 23, 1881. This structure still stands at the southwest corner of West Market and North Walnut streets and is now known as the First Federated Church.

The fate of the third Wright brothers’ home at 700 First Ave. NE is not entirely certain. An 1892 footprint map of the site shows the Wright house gone and a new large home for the Dows family built in its place. Today, the site is a parking lot for a Bank of the West.

It is possible the house at 700 First Ave. NE was moved to a nearby neighborhood between 1881 and 1892. Research is underway investigating this possibility.

moving on

The Wright family left Cedar Rapids in June 1881.

During the three years they lived here, the Cedar Rapids downtown was experiencing tremendous growth. Also during their time here, three significant events occurred: the death of city founder Judge George Greene in June 1880; the opening of the splendid Greene Opera House at 115 Second St. NE in December 1880; and the death of community leader Thomas E. Sinclair in an accident at his packing plant in March 1881.

The Wright brothers would fly their way into history on Dec. 17, 1903, four miles south of Kitty Hawk, N.C., when they made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft. Others had built experimental aircraft, but the Wrights — bicycle mechanics — were the first to invent controls to make fixed-wing flight possible.

Setting the record straight

l Their home: In 1953, at the time of the 50th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903, The Gazette reported that an old brick house at 427 Fifth Ave. SE was believed to be the former home of the Wright family.

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At the time, this information was based only on the memories of older residents of Cedar Rapids who recalled the Wrights living in that area around 1880. The brick house was the only one still standing on this block in 1953, so it was assumed to be the Wright home.

This incorrect information was repeated in subsequent stories in The Gazette well into the 1990s.

l Their school: In the early 1960s, The Gazette had a series of articles profiling Cedar Rapids school buildings.

In a story about the Old Jackson School, which stood at 1052 Fourth Ave. SE, it was stated, incorrectly, the Wright Brothers had attended classes there. The assumption was based on Old Jackson being the oldest school building still operating in the city.

Some older residents at the time had faint memories of the Wright brothers going to a school that started with the letter “J.”

It was assumed that was Jackson when it was actually the Old Jefferson School, which was long since closed and torn down.

It was impossible for the Wrights to have attended Jackson School. The Wrights left Cedar Rapids in 1881, and Old Jackson was not built and opened until two years later, in 1883.

• Mark Stoffer Hunter is a research historian for The History Center in Cedar Rapids. Comments: mark@historycenter.org

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