Dayton historic sites see huge tourism boost

Carillon Park posts record 257,670 visitors last year.

Carillon counted a record 257,670 visitors last year, a 27 percent jump from the previous year, according to Dayton History President and CEO Brady Kress.

He attributed the growing popularity of Carillon Park to exhibits, such as those on the Great Flood of 1913 and local manufacturing and entrepreneurship, the opening of a brewery, and interest driven by biographer David McCullough’s best seller, The Wright Brothers.

Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park — made up of six sites across the region — reached 73,588 visitors, a 27.6 percent jump compared to 2014, park service figures show.

Cheap gas and McCulloch’s book, published last May, propelled the aviation heritage sites to the second-best showing since the park service started record-keeping on attendance in 1996, said Park Superintendent Dean K. Alexander.

“When I talk to visitors when they come in, when I get that chance, very often many of them will mention that they read David McCullough’s book and wanted to come to Dayton,” he said.

Some Dayton History sites and attractions, such as a 1905 Wright Flyer III on display at Carillon Park and tours to Hawthorn Hill, Orville Wright’s mansion in Oakwood, are counted in NPS figures. Kress said McCullough’s book “was so well-written and did so well, a good percentage of people on tour have read it and want to make a pilgrimage to see the sites.”

The many references to Dayton landmarks are “quite an advertisement for us,” he said.

National Park Service attendance throughout 365 parks in the United States and its territories hit a record of more than 305 million visitors — about a 4 percent rise compared to the prior record set in 2014.

This year’s NPS attendance at sites around Dayton was second only to the 100,616 visitors in 2003, coinciding with the centennial anniversary of the Wright brothers first flight and the opening of two NPS visitors centers.

One center at the Wright Memorial overlooks Huffman Prairie, the wide-open field Orville and Wilbur Wright perfected powered flying in pioneering flight tests in the early 20th century; the other stands on West Third Street where the two brothers had a bicycle shop.

The attendance gains at Carillon and NPS sites were starkly different than the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, which saw a steep double-digit plunge in visitors last year. The museum counted nearly 860,000 visitors versus more than 1.1 million in 2014. NMUSAF officials blamed the decline on patrons waiting until a nearly $41 million expansion opens in June, and the closure of two galleries to move planes to the new building, among other possible causes.

The hardcover version of McCullough’s book has stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for 33 weeks, and USA Today ranked it 33 in the top 100 bestsellers of 2015, according to publisher Simon & Schuster.

“David McCullough is considered America’s historian, and The Wright Brothers is his biggest selling book in a decade,” Simon & Schuster spokeswoman Julia Prosser said in an email. The book was the top best seller for 10 weeks after its release, Prosser said.

Speaking in a recording on the publisher’s website, McCullough talked about his reasons for writing the book:

“I found the life and times of the Wright brothers to be a profoundly American story about two of the most remarkable Americans of all time about whom a great more should be known, and how much more there was to them than what is commonly said or taught,” he said. “They were men of exceptional gifts, but best of all was their inexhaustible curiosity and the desire, the determination to do things right and to not let setbacks stop them in their mission.”

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