Mentor to the Wright Brothers
(Feature photo: View from the top of a dune, Miller (Gary), Indiana)
By Karen Rodriguez
Imagine leaping from the top of a Lake Michigan sand dune strapped to a glider. Wind just right, the bird-like glider would skim the sand toward the beach below. Precursors to airplanes, gliders were originally designed by the fathers of flying machines, including Octave Chanute.
French born, Chanute immigrated with his family to Louisiana as a child, learned all he could about the new discipline of engineering as a young man, and became famous in his later years in the latter part of the 19th century for his engineering and mathematical knowledge. Mentor to the Wright Brothers, Chanute built railroads and adjacent towns across western prairies; bridged the Missouri River; and, designed the Chicago stockyards. He was one of the first to recognize that forests were being depleted for use in these endeavors. His hobby: designing gliders to mimic birds in flight.
Chanute and his fellow flight enthusiasts—men daring to believe humans could mimic birds but not quite envisioning flight as anything but a recreational pastime—tested gliders at the present-day Northwest Indiana community of Miller, a part of the city of Gary.
“On Monday morning, June 22, 1896, they [Chanute’s team] met at the Chicago Tie Preserving Works and carried gear and supplies for the next two weeks to the nearby Englewood Station. The Lake Shore train left at 7:24 A.M. and arrived at Millers an hour later, causing a hum of excitement among the locals. It was a colorful group stepping off the morning express train: Chanute, a distinguished-looking man with a gray mustache and imperial, his son Charley, Avery, Butusov, and Herring with his two dogs. Each person carried odd-looking luggage over the mile-long path to the dunes. After pitching their tents, they assembled the Lilienthal glider.”*
Why the shore of Lake Michigan? Because they had no motors, early gliders needed to be launched from high places and wind was needed to sustain any flight. The southern shore of Lake Michigan had sand dunes that were high enough and plenty of wind. Chanute lived in Chicago and as the primary funder for glider projects, found the Indiana dunes convenient.
Although no one flies gliders from the dunes anymore, the 24 miles** of public access to Lake Michigan in Indiana offer recreational opportunities rare for a region that shares the shoreline with heavy industry and small communities. The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park, with beautiful beaches and campgrounds, boating and bird watching opportunities, and miles of hiking, cross country ski, and horseback riding trails, attract thousands of visitors every year.
People living in the region commemorate Octave Chanute with a statue at the Miller Aquatorium and one restaurant. The Octave Grill is located in a narrow storefront in the Duneland community of Chesterton a couple of miles from Lake Michigan. With background music by indie-style artists like Modest Mouse, scanty furnishings of old, scruffily-painted tables and chairs, and two-bladed overhead fans, black and white photos that show Chanute’s gliders soaring from the dunes decorate the walls. The cuisine: a menu with entrées like “Buff,” the name for a hamburger of tallgrass beef, blue cheese and French fries accompanied by nuggets of fried sweet potatoes waiting to be dipped in a delicious mustard sauce. Yes, French fries; the meal is a gastronomic tribute to Octave Chanute and his Lake Michigan sand dune gliders.
*page 211. Locomotive to Aeromotive. Lilienthal was a French scientist who designed a glider that Chanute modified.
**Marquette Greenway Plan. Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC). www.nirpc.org
McCullough, Davis. The Wright Brothers. Simon and Schuster; 2015. An easy-to-read biography about the Wright Brothers’ acclaimed first airplane flight, this book reaffirms their historical stature. Of interest are the references to other men of flight prominent at the time. Octave Chanute is affirmed as a friend and mentor.
*Short, Simine. Locomotive to Aeromotive, Octave Chanute and the Transportation Revolution. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press; 2011. The details about the life of Octave Chanute described in this well written book may be a bit tedious for many readers. However, the book’s importance in documenting the life of an influential engineer during the late 19th and early 20th centuries elevates Chanute to a prominent place in United States history.
Octave Grill, 137 South Calumet Road, Chesterton, Indiana
Duneland—Northwest Indiana, the southernmost shore of Lake Michigan
Duneland communities include Chesterton and Miller Beach (Gary)
Content and all photos copyright 2017 Karen Rodriguez