Major fire at historic Wright Company Factory ‘a blow to the community’

Buildings that housed Wrights’ airplane factory burn; cause unknown, but redevelopment plan takes a hit

DAYTON — It was the nation’s first airplane factory, a symbol of American innovation and a point of pride among Dayton residents more than a century after it was built.

Now its future is uncertain.

The day after firefighters responded to the Wright Company Factory — bracketed by U.S. 35 and West Third Street near Abbey Avenue — it is clear that damage from the fire is very substantial. Scorch marks are visible on the front of Building 1, which Orville and Wilbur Wright opened in 1910, and most of its roof is collapsed.

Building 2, which the Wright Brothers opened in 1911, isn’t faring much better, with about half of its roof gone. Smoke continued to rise from Buildings 3 and 4 Monday morning, where one ladder truck remained to deal with hotspots.

The cause of the fire is being examined by Dayton’s Fire Investigations Unit, the city said.



The city of Dayton, National Aviation Heritage Alliance and National Parks had been “working diligently” for the last 10 years on the redevelopment of the hangars and environmental cleanup at the site.

“It’s just really a blow to the community,” said Veronica Morris, Dayton’s economic development team leader. “A blow for our strategic partners, National Park Service (and) the National Aviation Heritage Alliance ... to say that it’s not would be very disingenuous.”

Morris said the fire was particularly painful because the three entities found themselves “at the finish line” with the project, a place “where things are really getting ready to happen.”

The three entities were working together to redevelop the historic space of Hangar 1 and 2 as part of the National Park footprint, integrating it into the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.

Wright Brothers and automotive history

After first building experimental airplanes at their bike shop, Wilbur and Orville Wright formed the Wright Company. Building 1 off West Third Street became the first airplane factory in the U.S. able to produce four airplanes a month.

The facility produced 120 aircraft before Orville Wright sold it in 1915, according to Randy Zuercher, board member for local nonprofit Aviation Trail, which partners with the National Park Service to promote aviation heritage in the Dayton region.

“That’s a lot of airplanes, especially at that time,” he said. “It wasn’t being done anywhere else like that. The (Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company was) doing things, but not like this.

“(The Wright Company Factory) was really a focus, a center point of aviation at that time.”

In 1919, the factory sites were acquired by General Motors. For most of their existence, they were home to auto parts manufacturing, as part of the massive Delphi/Inland complex where thousands of people worked.

The Delphi automotive complex closed in 2008 and all Delphi structures were cleared away in 2014. That led to significant redevelopment preparation at the site, including the opening of the multimillion-dollar Dayton Metro Library West Branch.

“I want to commend the city of Dayton for the volume of work they were carrying out to prepare the site for redevelopment,” said Mackensie Wittmer, executive director of the National Aviation Heritage Area.

The other three hangars remaining on the site are not part of the joint restoration effort by Dayton, NAHA and the National Park Service, Morris said.

“The city is actually in the process of working with an internal team to talk about the repurposing and redevelopment of Hangars 3, 4 and 5.”



The three entities had been working the last year to secure funding to stabilize and beautify the area.

“We had received some money from the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, so that would have allowed us to do some beautification and some additional stabilization of the historic hangers, in addition to some greening and community amenities on site, like a walking path and some other things,” Morris said.

A six-month process to obtain various U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approvals that would allow the project to move dirt recently wrapped up within the last two weeks with those approvals being granted, she said, “so we were actually preparing to get that stuff on commission’s calendar to approve the almost $3 million to start all that work.”

City of Dayton officials on Monday afternoon released a statement saying they, along with their partners, are “saddened” over the fire.

Dayton’s development team is in the process of contacting stakeholders and partners to convene a meeting to determine next steps for future redevelopment, the city said.



While some smoke may continue to linger in the West Dayton area throughout the day on Monday as Dayton Fire crews continue to address remaining isolated areas of smoldering debris, there are not any significant air quality concerns for the adjacent neighborhoods, the city said. Water quality is not affected by the incident, as the site involved is not near the underground aquifers of the Source Water Protection Area.

The full extent of the damage and what, if anything, can be done to preserve what remains cannot yet be determined, Morris said.

“No one can speak to that until we allow a structural engineer or historic structural engineer to go in and really examine what’s going on,” she said. “We need guidance from the Ohio EPA. We need guidance from SHPO (the State Historic Preservation Office) ... so at this stage, this is truly too soon to talk about what our next steps are.”

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