The Big Story

In 1903 the Virginian-Pilot newspaper got one of the biggest scoops ever, thanks to the efforts of a 19-year-old cub reporter and a barrel of Lynnhaven oysters.

“Flying machine soars 3 miles in teeth of high wind over sand hills and waves at Kitty Hawk on Carolina coast.”

This was the page one news that greeted readers of the Virginian-Pilot on the morning of December 18, 1903. The morning before, Wilbur and Orville Wright, of Dayton, Ohio, made aviation history by completing four successive manned and powered flights, achieving what had eluded many other aspiring flyers for years.

How the Pilot got this huge story can be traced back four months before the Wright brothers made those first flights. Harry P. Moore, a 19-year old freelance cub reporter, was sitting in a Norfolk restaurant when he overheard a man from the Outer Banks say that “two crazy loons” were in Kitty Hawk, attempting to fly. The man—whom Moore would later describe as garrulous—told Moore that he was a member of the U.S. Life-Saving Service and had come to Norfolk to buy a barrel of oysters for the inventors: “They wanted to get some Lynnhaven Oysters before they die, and I came [here] to get them,” he explained.

At the time, Moore was trying to get a full time job with the Virginian-Pilot. He had written a number of stories about the Life-Saving Service along the Outer Banks, and enjoyed good relations with many of the men who worked for the U.S. government agency, which grew out of private and local humanitarian efforts to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners and passengers. The Life-Saving Service began in 1848 and was merged into the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915.

Following up on the Lynnhaven oyster tip, Moore made several visits to Kitty Hawk in the ensuing months. William “Will” O. Dough and John T. Daniels, both attached to the Kitty Hawk Life-Saving Station, introduced Moore to the Wright brothers as their friend. The Wrights trusted the men from the Life-Saving Service, and though they were intent on secrecy, they did not suspect he was a newsman. Moore actually observed several glider flights and was able to write a description of the Wright Flyer from observing it in its hanger. He was also able to get a commitment from Dough and Daniels, who agreed “to keep him advised about developments, and if the Wrights did succeed in flying they were to telegraph me at Norfolk,” Moore told the Charlotte Observer in 1951.

The Life-Saving Service men kept their word. Moore said that he got a telegraph “less than twenty minutes after the first flight was made.” The telegrapher at the Norfolk weather bureau, Charles C. Grant, delivered the message in person to Moore at his home in Norfolk at about 11:40 a.m. It stated: “For Harry Moore or any others who may be concerned. Wrights made a short flight this morning and will try again this afternoon.” Recalled Moore: “I got in touch with one of the Life Savers by telephone, and he told me that ‘at last the nuts had flown. One of those fellows flew just like a bird. The two of them put gasoline in the engine in their contraption and after it glided down a hill on a wooden track, it went up. It was Orville that flew and he came down safely.’”

There were five witnesses to this history-making event, Moore went on to point out. In addition to Dough and Daniels, there was also Adam D. Etheridge, another member of the Life Saving Service, along with W. C. Brinkley of Manteo and Johnny Moore, a young boy who lived near Nags Head. Daniels lent a hand in recording the first flight on film. He had been asked by Orville Wright to use the Wright’s camera, a Gundlach Korona box camera, with a 5-foot by 7-foot glass-plate negative, to provide a record of the moment, and also to forestall any future patent claims by other would-be flyers. In the photo, Wilbur Wright is seen running alongside the wing as the plane lifts off the ground. Daniels later said he was so excited at seeing the Flyer rise that he nearly forgot to squeeze the bulb triggering the shutter. He was later injured after the fourth flight had been completed, when a gust of wind flipped the Flyer over.

After collecting what facts he could from Norfolk by telephone, Moore rushed to the Pilot newsroom and gave the Kitty Hawk news to editorial personnel Keville Glennan, Frank S. Wing, and C. G. Kizer, the last head of the news department. According to a later letter from Kizer recounting the newsroom’s reaction, Glennan, the city editor, thought it was “just another glider flight” and tossed Moore’s story into the wastebasket.

Back at Kitty Hawk, the Wrights determined not to continue their flights on the afternoon of December 17 because of damage to their aircraft. By late afternoon they decided to send a telegraph to their sister in Dayton with instructions on press coverage:

“Kitty Hawk, N. C. Success four flights Thursday morning, all against twenty-one mile wind. Started from our level with engine power alone; average speed through air thirty-one miles; longest fifty-nine seconds; inform press; home Christmas.”

As it later turned out, the Wright’s father, Bishop Wright of the United Brethren Church, sent his oldest son, Lorin, to the Dayton Journal with the telegram, but the editor there was as unimpressed as Glennan. Nothing on the flight appeared the next morning in the Dayton newspaper. However, the telegram from the Wrights to their sister had been relayed through the telegraph office in Norfolk—and, as a result, its contents were “leaked” to the Virginian-Pilot.

Alpheus “Alf” W. Drinkwater was the telegraph operator with the United States Weather Bureau in Manteo in 1903. At the time he claimed to have sent the telegram for the Wrights, though over the years he would change his story twice—later saying that it actually wasn’t him, and then still later reverting to his original claim that he did in fact send the Wrights’ first telegraph. In a December 11, 1949 Virginian-Pilot article, Drinkwater explained the role he played in the unfolding newspaper drama. “After the Wrights made their flight on the 17th, they wrote a message telling their sister about it and gave it to Joe Dosher, the operator at Kitty Hawk, about 8 o’clock that night. His line being down, Dosher called me by telephone, 30 miles away, to relay the message to Norfolk, where it would be turned over to Western Union for transmission to Dayton.”

In that 1949 story, Drinkwater did not mention that the Norfolk Weather Bureau operator, Charlie Grant, showed the Wrights’ telegraph to anyone, but he did say: “I have an idea he laid it where a smart newspaper man could find it. At any rate, after I relayed the Wright Brothers’ message into Norfolk, a flood of inquiries descended on me. The news fellows in Norfolk kept me awake half the night, calling Dosher for more information back in Kitty Hawk and passing on what he could learn from the Life Savers and residents there.”

There are discrepancies about when the Wrights actually sent the telegram to their sister. Orville Wright stated some time later that it was about 3 p.m. No matter: Moore already had gotten the word to the Virginian-Pilot newsroom. Two of the newsmen who were in the newsroom that day, Wing and Kizer, later said that Moore came in around 1:40 p.m. with news of the flight and that the editorial staff was abuzz with excitement.

Despite Glennan’s initial skepticism, Kizer stated in a March 11, 1929 letter to Moore that he had told Glennan “to keep in touch with [you], and if you felt it [the story] were true it was good enough for me.” This was several hours before Edward O. Dean, a Pilot reporter, went to Glennan with the news of the flights. Dean later recalled in an article in the August 6, 1927 Editor & Publisher (a publishing trade paper) that, about 5 p.m. on December 17, he made a routine call to the Weather Bureau and was informed that “they had received over the station’s special wire to the Manteo (N.C.) weather station a dispatch stating that the Wright brothers had made a successful flight of an airplane at Kitty Hawk, nearby.” He then gathered as much information as he could and hurried to the newsroom and reported to Glennan. “I was under the impression that I probably was the first newspaper man to have received the ‘tip’ on a piece of news of world-wide interest and importance, but was quickly dispelled of my delusion by Harry P. Moore.”

At this point the Virginian-Pilot editors decided to go with the story, even though they had only sketchy information, much of which, it was later learned, was not true. But they were right to recognize the worldwide historical significance of the event. “It was largely at my urging,” said Kizer in his 1929 letter to Moore, “that he (Glennan) pulled the story out of the waste basket, under his desk, that night, touched it up to suit his own whim and sent it back to the composing room. I told him to put it on the front page.” The story did not have a byline.

The Pilot’s front-page story was a major coup for the newspaper, but in subsequent years Harry Moore perceived that he was not receiving proper credit for breaking the first-flight story. By late 1928, the 25th anniversary of the Wright flights, he thought that Glennan and Dean were taking more bows for securing the scoop than he was. That rankled Moore, who had become a staff reporter for the Pilot shortly after the story first appeared, and later its Maritime Editor.

In early 1929, Moore contacted several former Virginian-Pilot newsmen who were in the newspaper office on December 17, 1903. He wanted to get on the record, as any good reporter would, their recollections of who was responsible for getting the Wright brothers scoop. He obtained written letters from both Kizer, who was in charge of the Pilot newsroom at the time, and Wing, a member of the news staff, supporting his claim of being the first newsman to learn of the Wrights’ flights, and of his role in producing the front page story. Grant, the Norfolk Weather Bureau telegraph operator, also wrote a letter on behalf of Moore.

T. H. Lamb, who worked at the Virginian-Pilot from 1910 to 1917, was also supportive. In a letter to Harry Moore dated October 28, 1950, he wrote: “Nobody (far as I know) in Norfolk, while I lived there, challenged the validity of your then established position as the man who got the Wright story first.” Lamb continued: “While I knew Keville [Glennan], I never heard him claim for himself or for anybody except you the credit for being first to get the Wright story.”

What is not in dispute is that both Moore and Glennan pooled their reporting, writing and editing skills to produce a solid front-page story, even if they were off on several factual details. Here is how their story began:

The problem of aerial navigation without the use of a balloon has been solved at last. Over the sand hills of the North Carolina coast yesterday, near Kitty Hawk, two Ohio men proved that they could soar through the air in a flying machine of their own construction, with the power to steer and speed it at will.

This too, in the face of a wind blowing at the registered velocity of twenty-one miles an hour. Like a monster bird, the invention hovered above the breakers and circled over the rolling sand hills at the command of the navigator and, after soaring for three miles, it gracefully descended to the earth again, and rested lightly upon a spot selected by a man in a car as a suitable landing place.

While the United States government has been spending thousands of dollars in an effort to make practicable the ideas of Professor Langley, of the Smithsonian Institute, Wilbur and Orville Wright, two brothers of Dayton, Ohio, have, quietly, even secretly, perfected their invention and put it to a successful test.

The article went on for more than a column, making use of Moore’s early and accurate description of the Wright’s flying machine and other details of the brothers’ series of experiments at Kitty Hawk. The July 21, 1934 issue of Editor & Publisher had a story about how the Virginian-Pilot got its first flight, front-page scoop and concluded: “History, if it is to be fair and truthful, must give credit to Harry P. Moore and Keville Glennan for putting into print the first account of the first airplane flight in the country. Each modestly insists that the other is entitled to the lion’s share of the glory. Perhaps there is enough for both.”

Moore later revealed that, after finishing his story for the Virginian-Pilot, he had sent several queries to out-of-town papers in an attempt to sell his story about the Wrights. “Most of them gave me the cold shoulder,” he recalled in the 1951 Charlotte Observer story. “The editors simply did not believe a man had flown, and that I did not know what I was talking about.”

The editor of the Dayton Journal, the Wright’s hometown paper, told Moore, “We don’t want any cock and bull story like that.” They even refused to pay the 22-cent charge for the query telegram. One reason for the skepticism might have been that, just a few days before the Wright brothers’ successful flights, Samuel Langley, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and an aviation pioneer, gave up his quest to achieve manned flight after an aircraft launched from a platform on a barge in the Potomac plunged into the river.

Moore did sell the story to some newspapers. They included The New York American, The Washington Post, Cincinnati Enquirer, Chicago Inter-Ocean and The Philadelphia Record. The New York Journal ordered 300 words and ran it on its front page—a day after the Pilot story ran. “The others all ran short stories that were buried inside the paper,” said Moore. “It was as if they, too, doubted its authenticity.”

In 1930 Moore got a letter from an industrial pioneer as famous as the Wright brothers—Henry Ford. Actually, the letter was from Ford’s secretary, but nonetheless in it Ford offered Moore $1,200 for his original, 11-page, lead-pencil account of the Wright brothers first flight. According to a short item in the February 22, 1930 issue of Editor & Publisher, “The secretary said that was all the funds they had available for the purchase and Mr. Moore decided not to sell.”

It’s not clear why Moore turned down the offer—$1,200 in 1930 was a huge sum of money, but Moore was working at the time, receiving a weekly paycheck, and so he wasn’t desperate for money.

Moore died in March of 1965, at age 81, after working in the newspaper business for 58 years. He wrote and edited a vast number of stories over that stretch, of course, but none was anywhere close to as important as the one he got at age 19, before his career had even, well, got off the ground.

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