On your first visit to Chanute, Kansas, you may be forgiven for thinking that it is a cradle of aviation. How else would you explain the biplane sculpture visible from Main Street? This plane and the surrounding park honors Octave Chanute, the town’s namesake, for his achievements in flight and his mentorship of the Wright Brothers. The only catch? He only briefly visited the town, and it was named for him before he began working on aeronautic exploits in earnest. Nevertheless, this unusual memorial offers a photogenic look into early aviation history.
Born in Paris and raised in America, by the 1870s Octave Chanute was one of America’s foremost civil engineers, building bridges and America’s largest stockyards. In particular, he designed the Hannibal Bridge, which was the first bridge to cross the Missouri River, as well as the Kansas City stockyards, which together established Kansas City as the great economic superpower of the prairie. Later, while surveying Neosho County, he suggested the rival communities of Tioga, New Chicago, Chicago Junction, and Alliance consolidate for a better chance of receiving a railroad depot. With the plan a success, the new town was formed and named in his honor on January 1, 1873.
Unbeknownst to those Kansans, Octave Chanute also had a hobby–making things fly. Chanute had a lifelong passion for aeronautics, and would frequently write or visit other experimenters. After his retirement in 1889, he began devoting himself to the craft as a full-time pursuit. In 1894, he wrote Progress in Flying Machines, a compendium of research to that point. By 1896, he was testing a biplane glider with his assistants, eventually reaching flights of hundreds of feet in length. Believing himself too old to fly, and a practitioner of what we would today call “open source” science, he would encourage and share ideas with other enthusiasts, including a now-famous pair of brothers. He began making frequent trips to Kitty Hawk, offering the Wright brothers notes and encouragement as they were leading up to their historic flight.
To honor the city’s namesake for his pioneering and innovative spirit, the Chanute High School Class of 1941 dedicated a sculpture to Octave Chanute in September 2003. The sculpture is a tribute to the Wright Brothers’ aircraft, measuring 20 feet in length with a 23-foot wingspan. It was designed to move with the wind, demonstrating the aeronautic beauty of flight. A series of painted panels proclaim Chanute to be the father of aviation, with a quote from Wilbur Wright that acknowledged his contributions to their success. And across the street, visitors can find the historic train station that led to the founding of the town, and the brief moment that its history intertwined with that of Octave Chanute.