Octave Chanute was one of America's pioneering civil engineers who designed the Union Stock Yards in Chicago in 1865 and was chief civil engineer for the Chicago and Alton Railroad. He also designed the Illinois River Rail Bridge at Peoria and he was a past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Chanute lived in Chicago the last 21 years of his life from 1889 to 1910, where he devoted his time to research in aeronautic principles and to building gliders and flying machines. He became an adviser to Orville and Wilbur Wright on their efforts to build a powered aeroplane starting in 1899. The former Chanute Air Force Base near Rantoul, Illinois was named in his honor as is the current Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum at Rantoul.
Chanute was born in Paris, France on Feb. 18, 1832. His family moved to a Louisiana in 1838 where his father Joseph was Vice President and Professor of History at Jefferson College. The family moved again to New York in 1846 and in 1848 the sixteen-year old Octave took a job as a chainman on the Hudson River Railroad. He started training as a railroad civil engineer in 1849 and became an American citizen in 1854. He married Annie Riddel James in 1857 and was named Chief Civil Engineer of the Chicago and Alton Railroad in 1863. He won the design competition for the Chicago Union Stock Yards in 1865 and also designed the Kansas City Stock Yards in 1871.
Octave Chanute invented many practical aids for engineering projects. He invented a kreosote treatment for telephone polls to help them last longer and put dates on nails for railroad ties so that repair crews in the future would know the date of the tie. He also built the Hannibal Bridge over the Missouri River at Kansas City. The bridge was opened first in 1869 and is still in use in 2006 for train traffic only since cars were diverted to the Broadway Bridge in 1956.
In the early 1890s, Chanute became increasingly more interested in the development of gliders and flying machines. He was financially successful and retired from engineering in 1889, the same year he adopted Chicago as his home city for the rest of his life. In 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he organized a successful International Conference on Aerial Navigation.
In 1894 in published a series of his own articles as a book called Progress in Flying Machines. While he was too old to try flying himself, he worked with several younger men on building gliders and replicating the work of European glider builders with a series of successful flights at the Indiana Dunes near present-day Gary in the summer of 1896. None of the machines had motors but much was learned about how wings should be designed to improve lift and how to manuever in the air.
Orville and Wilbur Wright read his 1894 book and wrote to him about some of their ideas in 1899. Chanute befriended the Wright brothers and made trips to visit their camp at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina between 1900 and 1904. He helped the Wrights with both moral support from other flying machine experimenters as well as publicity and the prestige that came from the approval of a well-known engineer. Chanute took an almost fatherly pride in the achievements of Orville and Wilbur Wright in the first decade of the Twentieth Century.
Early in 1910 while in Paris, Chanute became sick and returned to his home on north Dearborn Street in Chicago. He died in Chicago on Nov. 23, 1910 at the age of 78.