Dayton History

 Dayton History

Bald eagles raising their young in Carillon Park near historic airplane

By Leo Deluca

Dayton has been synonymous with flight since Wilbur and Orville Wright first flew on Dec. 17, 1903. Over the years the city has honored its most famous sons in myriad ways. But the crown jewel of these commemorations is arguably Orville’s restoration of the original 1905 Wright Flyer III for Carillon Park.

Housed inside Wright Hall, a building Orville helped design, the 1905 Wright Flyer III is the only airplane designated a National Historic Landmark. Serendipitously, in January 2018 two bald eagles began constructing their nest in a towering Sycamore tree behind Wright Hall—a national symbol of flight perched high above a national symbol of flight.

The bald eagles, affectionately named Orv and Willa, arrived in the heart of winter. With the leafless trees against the cold slate sky, the couples’ giant nest was in full view. It was a phenomenal sight.

“I’ve seen grandparents jumping with excitement right next to their grandchildren,” says Carillon Park volunteer eagle expert Jim Weller. “Bald eagles were endangered until June 28, 2007, so people of all ages are seeing them for the first time.”

But this wasn’t always the case. For centuries—long before the Wright brothers’ arrival—flight was commonplace along the Great Miami River.

“When the Second Continental Congress designated the bald eagle as our national symbol on June 20, 1782, an estimated 100,000 nesting eagles inhabited the wilderness of modern-day America,” says Weller. “The Ohio Territory was prime eagle habitat.”

Fast-forward to the early 1960s and that number had plummeted to less than 500. In 1938 Dayton’s last known nest—located at the old Herman Street Bridge near McCook Field north of  downtown—was abandoned. And by 1967 the bald eagle was endangered in 43 of the lower 48 states.

Conservation efforts, stronger federal protection laws and the banning of DDT, a pesticide adversely impacting eagles, all aided recovery. In 2007 the bald eagle was delisted as an endangered species. There are now more than 20,000 nesting bald eagles across the lower 48 states. Here in Dayton, after a 70-year absence, bald eagles returned in 2008.

After their inaugural mating season, it was uncertain whether Orv and Willa would return to Carillon Historical Park. But like clockwork, on the first day of autumn, they began constructing their nest.

Dayton’s favorite feathered couple gave birth to three eaglets at the beginning of April 2019. “It’s been really fun to have the bald eagles. A total surprise,” says Vice President for Museum Operations Alex Heckman. “It’s brought a lot of visitors to Carillon Historical Park to learn about Dayton’s tremendous history. And we’re delighted the return of bald eagles to the Miami Valley is now part of that narrative.”