Literally nothing but a constant rise and fall, today I’m going to tell you about the story of a classic theme park ride: the very first Ferris wheel.
How’s it going, theme park aficionados? Life’s a lot right now, so let’s distract ourselves from it. Today I’m going to go narrow, and tell you the story of a single ride. A beginning, and an end.
So instead of talking about a theme park meeting its tragic end, let’s talk about a beginning. Today, I’m going to tell you about the first Ferris wheel.
Before the Ferris Wheel: the Eiffel Tower
Two hundred and thirty one years ago, a French mob stormed the Bastille Saint-Antoine in Paris, France. This was the flashpoint, beginning the French Revolution, marking a period of extreme social and political upheaval in France over ten years. The French Revolution accelerated the rise of modern republics and democracies, and is widely considered one of the more significant events in human history.
ONE hundred and thirty one years ago, the Exposition Universelle of 1889 was held in Paris, France, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille.
This was a classic world’s fair. As I talked about last time during my Carousel #15 episode, a world’s fair is a generic term used to describe an event where many nations come together to showcase achievements, technology, products, etc.
Consensus is that the first world’s fair was held in 1851 in London, an idea of Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband). It was called “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” and was based on an already-extant French tradition dating back to 1798, titled “Exhibition of Products of French Industry”.
Wikipedia tells me that there have been three periods of world’s fairs so far.
- Industrialization (through 1938), where the fair focused on trade, technological advances, and inventions
- Cultural exchange (1939-1987), where the fair focused on social and cultural themes likes “Building the World of Tomorrow” and “Peace Through Understanding”
- Nation branding (1988-present), where the fair focuses on improving the images of each nation, almost as in an advertising campaign.
Exposition Universelle of 1889
The 1889 Exposition Universelle, then, was about industry, trade, technology, and inventions. The last may strike a chord with you, for an invention is the reason we’re bringing up this particular world’s fair at all.
In interesting trivial tidbit time, apparently all of the European countries with monarchies officially boycotted the fair, since it was celebrating the French Revolution (otherwise known as the overthrowing of the French monarchy). (Despite being officially boycotted, however, the manufacturers from these countries still wanted to participate, and were sponsored by private industry in order to do so.)
The exposition was filled with exhibits of science and technology, many located within the massive Gallery of Machines, a building with the longest interior space in the world at that time. There were showcases of improvements in telephones and phonographs, maritime navigation and military technology, and the elevator, with miraculous new safety brakes from the American Otis Elevator Company.
There was the Palace of Fine Arts, the fountains and the various side streets designed to look like places around the globe. There was good food, there were hydrogen balloons in which spectators could view the fair from on high, there was a train (choo choo, Abandoned Train fans – this one was called the Decauville Railway, which utilized many different narrow-gauge steam locomotives over its short 6-month run).
Gustav Eiffel and the Eiffel Tower
But. All of this stood in the shadows, literally, of the spectacle of the 1889 Exhibition.
The centerpiece for the exhibition was to be simply a three hundred meter tower. At the time, tall buildings were reserved only for religious buildings, and these were half the height of the proposed tower – the Notre Dame cathedral with its 40-meter high spire, for instance, claimed a total height of 151 meters. It was the mastery of iron that allowed something twice this height to even be considered.
The man to do it was Gustav Eiffel, born in 1832. He made a name for himself in France, building highly regarded bridges and aquaducts across the country. He firmly established himself with his successful building of several of the 1878 Exposition buildings. And of course, he was responsible for the metal interior of the Statue of Liberty, around 1881. (Beyond the scope of this story, but worth looking into if you have the time – an incredible amount of engineering went into this structure and it’s one of the earliest examples of “curtain wall” construction!)
By 1884, three men at Eiffel’s company had come up with a design for a novel tall tower, inspired by something from a previous world’s fair, the 96-m tall Lassing Observatory built for the 1853 New York exposition. Eiffel bought the rights to patent the design from his workers, and began to promote the tower’s design in engineering circles.
In 1886, a competition was formally announced for the centerpiece of the forthcoming fair, and it was written in such a way (a 300 meter tall four-sided metal tower!) to make the choice of Eiffel’s design the foregone conclusion.
Construction began in 1887. Surprisingly to me, all of the Tower’s 18,037 individual parts were prefabricated at the factory and assembled onsite. Eiffel’s tower was roundly critiqued as it was built, both by people who thought it was not a feasible project and by people who thought it was going to be an ugly eyesore and a blight on the Parisian landscape.
By March of 1889, the structure was complete, and it sounds that critics quickly changed their tune as the popularity of the structure grew. In the short period when the Tower was open to the public but before the elevators were operational, over 30,000 people climbed the twisting stairs up to the top.
In terms of ricky-ticky details: The Eiffel Tower is said to be the most-visited paid tourist attraction in the world. The Tower is 1063 feet tall, or roughly 81 stories, and was the first manmade structure to surpass 300 m.
The Tower was stunning for every visitor to the 1889 Exposition, as well as being incredible advertising for the Expo and for Paris in general.
The Ferris Wheel
As you may be saying, why am I telling you about the Eiffel Tower instead of the Ferris Wheel? The reason we must care about the Eiffel Tower in this context is because of how inspirational it was – without the idea of the Eiffel Tower and how breathtaking it was for the 1889 Exposition, we wouldn’t have the subsequent idea of the Ferris Wheel to try and top the Tower.
There was a guy. He wanted to “Out-Eiffel Eiffel”.
George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.
His name was a real mouthful – George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. He had a very nice mustache in his prime. He was an American, born in Illinois, and he was the guy who invented the Ferris wheel.
George Ferris, because I’m neither going to say nor type all of that, was 32 when he came up with the idea for the Ferris wheel, to really make you feel terrible about your personal accomplishments. He had some very slicked-back hair and a truly spectacular droopy mustache, perfect for his time. Prior to building one of the most iconic rides and structures ever, Ferris was a fairly typical 19th century dude. He went to military school, he went to college for engineering, he was in a frat, and then he started his own company, because they didn’t have podcasts for white guys to start back then.
Ferris’s company inspected metals in bridges, so at least tangentially, he was positioned for his big breakthrough. He also designed and built bridges.
The 1893 Columbian Exposition
1893 saw the biggest World’s Fair held to date at that point, designed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the famous voyage of Christopher Columbus. The primary “Director of Works” for the Columbian Exposition was Daniel Burnham, an architect known for many skyscrapers and shopping centers, including New York’s Flatiron Building. He took primary charge of the fair’s development after his business partner died early in the planning process, and much of the success of the fair is contributed to Burnham’s action and effort alone.
The fair was to be held in Chicago, and the Americans desperately wanted to surpass the Eiffel Tower. That was *so* a few years ago, after all, and the Eiffel Tower was still the star of the global tourism scene.
In 1891, Burnham and his team announced a challenge for American engineers. The challenge was to come up with something which would surpass the Eiffel Tower, *so* two years ago. The directive was “make no little plans”. They wanted something original, daring, and unique, something that would blow the socks off the Eiffel Tower.
A space was left blank in the map for the exhibition’s exclamation point. Ferris, our friend with the long named, took to the drawing board. Or, well, to the paper nakin that accompanied a meal at a steakhouse. In a newspaper interview, he’s quoted as saying ““[B]efore the dinner was over I had sketched out almost the entire detail, and my plan has never varied an item from that day.”” He had an idea for a wheel that would take guests spinning higher than even the Statue of Liberty.
A Ferris wheel in general concept wasn’t new, though.
The Somers Wheel
The thing is, Ferris copied the idea of the Ferris wheel from someone else. Ferris was “just” the guy who made the wheel famous.
Now with our entire world in lockdown, I don’t have a copy of the book I really need, “Ferris Wheels: An Illustrated History” by Norman Anderson. So I’ll have to make do with digital-only references. It seems that Ferris wheels, in fact, go back over a hundred years before even George Ferris. The earliest wheels were apparently in Bulgaria in the early 17th century, and were turned by very strong men while guests rode around. Similar contraptions existed in many different countries.
The connection to the US was said to have been a Frenchman named “Antonio Manguino”, who built a pleasure wheel for his fair in the little town of Walton Springs, Georgia. From here, the wheel caught the eye of a man named William Somers. And with names like Epicyloidal Diversion and the Cycloidal Chariot, why wouldn’t they?
Now, there are at least two patents for Ferris wheel type devices prior to Somers’ wheel, but William Somers was the first American to patent a Ferris wheel type design, sometimes called “vertical swings” or “Roundabouts”. Somers’ first wheel was built in 1891 in Atlantic City, two years prior to his patent. It was called the Observational Roundabout, and it towered over the boardwalk. People loved it – it was the effect of looking down on the world for people who’d never been near a skyscraper before.
Unfortunately, the wheel was made out of nice solid wood, and in June of 1892, caught fire when a gasoline lamp exploded. He rebuilt an even better “double” wheel there in Atlantic City, and then built another at Asbury Park in NJ and another at a little place called Coney Island in New York.
The wheels were unsurprisingly immensely popular, despite their flammability and incredible noise. Being steam powered, Somers’ wheels spewed smoke and were said to be as loud as a locomotive. It’s said that George Ferris rode the Atlantic City Somers Wheel. Some time after his ride, Ferris came up with the idea for the Ferris wheel.
The Chicago Wheel
Ferris’ idea for the Columbian Exposition was a great wheel. The directors weren’t immediately convinced, reportedly fearing that it would topple over in the middle of the park on the guests. Director Burnham took one look at the slender spokes and described the whole thing as “too fragile”.
Additionally, the country was in the middle of a severe financial Depression with 25-40% unemployment, depending on the city, so financing for such a project wasn’t the easiest to come by.
Ultimately, the directors relented, putting their faith in Ferris and his network of connections. Ferris began construction on his massive wheel right away.
And massive it was.
Ferris’s Great Chicago Wheel:
- Was 250 feet in diameter
- Had an 89,000 lb axle, 45.5 feet long
- Carried 36 cars
- Carried over 2,000 people at once
When the directors finally gave Ferris the green light, it was the middle of winter, and Ferris was already under a tight deadline. It was the middle of one of the most severe winters Chicago had experienced in years. The ground there in Chicago was already frozen something like three feet deep, and underneath were another 20 feet of slushy quicksand-like sand, adding another manufacturing dilemma to be solved. And the fair would open in four months.
Engineers used dynamite to begin excavation.
(There’s actually a really great children’s picture book that details the whole process, available in video format from PBS here.)
Pumps were running constantly. Hot steam was piped in to thaw the frozen sand, and to keep the newly-poured concrete from freezing before it set. March 20, 1893: with the tall towers prepped, the massive 89 thousand pound axle, six times larger than strictly necessary for safety reasons, was hoisted 140 feet in the air to its resting place. The wheel was nowhere near complete, but it was a good step.
The power plant which drove the wheel was located 700 feet away from the wheel itself, and the steam to power the wheel’s engine was carried through long pipes. For the wheel, there were many parts to be added before the big wheel would be anywhere near recognizable. And time was ticking, for the 1893 Columbian Exhibition opened to the public on May 1, with the Ferris wheel still incomplete, steelworkers atop the growing structure barely pausing to watch the influx of new crowds nearby.
Parts were manufactured all over: Detroit, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland.
Indeed, it wasn’t until June that the structure was fully assembled, but it was indeed finally complete, and on the evening of June 9th, the great Chicago wheel, san cars, was turned on for the first time. It’s said the wheel moved with only the soft clink of metal upon metal, nearly silent in the twenty minutes it took to make a full revolution.
The sight of this great wheel, finally slowly moving on a warm early summer’s evening…it must have been something else for the patrons of the world’s fair and the locals. Two hundred and sixty four feet up in the air, nearly the height of the Statue of Liberty, with two concentric circles. Despite the notion Ferris had liberated from Somers, there was little similarity between Somers’ angular design and Ferris’ sleek circular design – more like a bicycle wheel than the triangular shapes of the smaller design.
Ferris, by the way, was ecstatic about the successful test, and immediately ordered the cars hung. Now when we think of modern Ferris wheel cars, we might think of two to five people per car. Ferris’ wheel? Huge. The cars were like buses, holding upwards of 60 people each. Inside, 40 chairs. Plate glass windows, and steel mesh on the doors. Firefighting equipment, just in case. And a personal conductor was stationed in each car. To speed loading and unloading, platforms were designed and arranged such that six cars were loaded and unloaded at a time. Efficient!
Between June 10th and Jun 13th, the majority of the cars were attached to the wheel. On June 11, when there were only six cars attached, Director Daniel Burnham and Ferris’ wife Margaret took a ceremonial ride on the wheel. By June 21st, all 36 cars were on.
Operation of Ferris’ Chicago Wheel
On June 21st, 1893, with the Columbian Exposition already seven weeks open, the Ferris wheel was given its grand opening. There were speeches galore, the band played, and a golden whistle marked the official opening of this giant wheel.
It was an incredible experience.
As I noted earlier, the cars were gigantic, and you could board at one of six platforms. The ride consisted of a single revolution with six stops, as cars were loaded and unloaded. Then came nine minutes of non-stop revolution.
Guests could see incredible distances. On cloudy or dark days, Edison’s fancy new electric lightbulbs kept the wheel illuminated in cheerful patterns.
And millions rode the wheel. During the roughly six months in operation, approximately 1.5 M people were marked as riding on the wheel, simply enjoying the novelty of the amusement ride, so very high up in the air. It cost the same to ride the Ferris Wheel as it did to even enter the Expo.
Famous people rode the wheel, even our fierce friend Helen Keller, who wrote to a friend of her experience at the fair, saying “I saw a great many of the most wonderful and interesting things at the Fair. ” and “ Of course I rode in the Ferris-wheel. Just think of being swung two hundred and fifty feet in the air ”.
The Columbian Exposition closed after six months of operation, on November 1, 1893. The great Ferris wheel had a perfect safety and mechanical record during this time, despite gale-force winds, storms, and lightening strikes, and reportedly made approximately $400,000 net profit.
Chicago Wheel Post-Exposition
Ferris had high hopes for the future of his wheel. Weather wasn’t on his side yet again, with another Chicago winter coming on. The wheel stood silent and shuttered until the end of April, 1894, after the thaws had begun. From there, it took 18 days and almost $15,000 to disassemble the wheel. The pieces were kept in flatcars off a Chicago railroad siding. (Interestingly, I read that some of this original concrete foundation was still present as late as 2015, according at a Hyde Park History article. Long time!)
It was another year before the company found a new home for their disassembled giant wheel. They began reassembling the wheel in July of 1895, adjacent to Lincoln Park, some 11 miles away from the Expo site on the other side of Chicago’s city center. By October 1895, the wheel was open to guests.
The company’s directors had grand plans for the new site. It was about 20 minutes (at the time) away from railway stations and hotels, and the directors began selling bonds in an attempt to finance additional development. Things like painting the wheel and cars, landscaping the area, adding a bandstand and restaurant, etc.
One contemporaneous article did describe its location as “an amusement park at North Clark Street and Wrightwood Avenue”. I was all set to tell you that I couldn’t find any info on this, but Google made me a quick liar. It was actually called “Ferris Wheel Park” – a name we might think generic today, but pretty groundbreaking back then.
Ferris Wheel Park was…a trolley park. It was the end of the line for the nearby streetcars.
Unfortunately, it seems as though the site was poorly chosen. See, it was in the middle of a residential neighborhood, a wealthy one. And the wealthy neighborhood wasn’t particularly excited to have an amusement park nearby, nor were they big fans of the streetcar owner Ferris had partnered with. “ Charles Tyson Yerkes, Jr., who owned the Chicago Electric Street Railway” was Ferris’ partner in the endeavor. Legal battles held up the project, and community votes banned the sale of alcohol, dooming on of the major sources of revenue in a proposed beer garden.
At the same time, too, we have the legal side of things.
Somers sued Ferris for copyright infringement. The legal suit went on for several years.
Ferris sued (or discussed suing, it’s not clear) the directors of the Columbian Exposition, saying that they’d robbed him of his share of the profits from the fair.
On a personal level, Ferris’ wife left him in 1896. Ferris was said to be hugely depressed as a result, and his life quickly went downhill. He died alone in November of 1896, penniless and bankrupt, effectively ending all his legal battles.
Well, most of them. His ashes stayed in the care of a local funeral director for more than a year, because no one wanted to pay the money for his ashes and funeral.
By 1900, the small Ferris Wheel Park had to file for bankruptcy, now under the ownership of the unpopular Yerkes. Vocal opposition from the community meant that patrons never turned up to the park in the numbers needed to make it a success. The wheel continued to operate even as it went through several rounds of receivership. At one point, local William Boyce, who later founded the Boy Scouts of America, filed a lawsuit against the wheel. This page goes into detail of the various suits, including original newspaper articles.
The wheel lingered there at Ferris Wheel Park, with its quite charming castle facade entrance, as Yerkes tried to wrest control from the locals one way or another. But ultimately, it was put up for sale.
(Interesting sidebar: during its time here, the Lumiere brothers, the famed groundbreaking filmmakers responsible for the first motion pictures, took some footage of Chicago, including the wheel. Their film here was 1896’s Grande roue.)
Chicago Wheel Moves to St. Louis
In July of 1903, the Chicago Tribune wrote a story about the old wheel. Headline: “Ferris Wheels Lives Anew” Subtitle: “Though sold as junk it will revolve again”.
See, the wheel was doing worse and worse and worse. By 1903, the company was $400,000 in debt. All those lawsuits, not enough visitors from a hostile neighborhood.
I liked this quote from the article: “Once the incarnation of a wondrous feat of engineering, the old World’s Fair relic now seems to be inevitably approaching the final dissolution which has threatened it periodically for ten years… A wrecking company has agreed to remove the structure. Immediately? 0 not they-in five months. Sentimental persons who would drop a tear for the passing of the wheel, and other citizens who have procrastinated the adventure of a run about its axle may take heart. It is understood that rural excursionists in search of thrills may still be accommodated if they can guarantee 30 cents in receipts and wait for the engineer to get up steam.”
The wheel was sold at auction for a junk price: $1800. Remember, it made over $400,000 in profit back in the World’s Fair days. But still, it had one more life left in it.
Despite the $1,800 price tag, it’s said to have taken over $150,000 to move the wheel, in pieces, in 178 freight cars, down to its final home.
By July of 1904, the wheel was again turning at a World’s Fair, this time the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition down in St. Louis, MO. The theme for this fair was another celebration, nominally for the centennial of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. It was located on the present-day grounds of Forest Park, near the Saint Louis Zoo and the Saint Louis Art Museum. (In fact, the Saint Louis Art Museum is one of the original buildings from the fair, the former Palace of Fine Arts. Image then and image now. This fair was to a much larger scale than Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, but the great wheel still stood out.
It’s said that the wheel recouped its moving costs handily in less than four months. People loved the wheel once again – there were over 50 weddings performed on the wheel, and reportedly there was enough of a market that they installed a piano in one car for the express purpose of ceremonies. One daredevil named Maud Nicholson actually rode on top of one of the cars as the wheel revolved.
The Louisiana Purchase Exposition ran until December of 1904.
The End of the Ferris Wheel
After the Exposition, it’s said that there was some talk of moving the Ferris wheel to Coney Island in New York. After all, a huge wheel, a huge amusement area, and the wheel had already demonstrated that it could be moved once.
However, the move ultimately never occurred. It was determined that it would simply be too expensive to move the wheel all the way to New York.
And so, the wheel needed to come down, destined solely for the scrap heap and the metal shop. It was too expensive. It couldn’t stay there, but it had no other home to go to.
From a 1906 Chicago Tribune article titled “Ferris Wheel is Blown Up” we have a blow by blow account: “It required 200 pounds of dynamite to put it out of business. The first charge… wrecked its foundation and the wheel dropped to the ground… as it settled it slowly turned, and then, after tottering a moment like a huge giant in distress, it collapsed slowly. It did not fall to one side, as the wreckers had planned… it merely crumpled up slowly. Within a few minutes it was a tangled mass of steel and iron thirty or forty feet high. The huge axle, weighing 45 tons, dropped slowly with the remnants of the wheel, crushing the smaller braces and steel framework.”
For many years, the whereabouts of the huge axle was unknown. Did they chop it into pieces? Unlikely, it was simply too big – remember that this was the largest single piece of forged steel at the time. Did they drag it to the river? Maybe. Did they just bury it? Maybe. There are two sets of rumors after this point. One story says that the giant axle was put on the train back to Chicago, where it was taken to a scrap shop and cut into tiny pieces.
The other story is that the axle was buried in place, or buried in a nearby landfill. In 2007, a man named Sheldon Breiner decided to put it to the test, building on an earlier 1996 study that just looked for the former Ferris wheel base. He used a cesium magnometer and simply walked around Saint Louis, scanning for anomalies in the ground. Being made of steel (therefore permanently magnetized) and likely being in one piece, the axle would probably register even from such a crude search. And it did. In the middle of a modern day road, roughly 200 feet south of where the wheel once stood, Breiner noted the presence of a 45 foot anomaly, which would correspond exactly to that gigantic hunk of steel. Take a look at the link above for some cool photos showing the original wheel location and the presumed modern axle location, worth checking out.
Though Ferris personally met a disappointing end, his legacy is incredible. Literally everyone knows what a Ferris wheel is, and they stand across the globe as a testament to his attitude in pursuing and expanding on ideas he thought valuable. The original Ferris wheel was 80.4 meters (264 feet); today, the current tallest wheel is the Las Vegas High Roller (167.6 m / 550 ft), over double the height of the original wheel. (Despite the size, the Vegas wheel has a max capacity of 1120 people, compared to the 2160 of the original wheel.)
In a eulogy, his former business partners wrote of Ferris: “He was always bright, hopeful and full of anticipation of good results from all the ventures he had on hand. These feelings he could always impart to whomever he addressed in a most wonderful degree, and therein lay the key note of his success. In most darkened and troubled times… he was ever looking for the sunshine soon to come…”
In a personal note – I know it is a time of uncertainty right now, to say the least. Even if you’re healthy and stable, everything is hard. Do you find things harder to focus on? I do. Everything is harder to focus on – the research for this episode took twice as long as usual.
If you are listening to this or reading this, please know that I am wishing you continued good health and happiness. Remember too that although things might be scary, take time to enjoy yourself, even in the smallest way. Be kind to yourself, follow health guidelines, and take it easy.
Remember that what you’ve read is a podcast! A link is included at the top of the page. Listen to more episodes of The Abandoned Carousel on your favorite platform: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | RadioPublic | TuneIn | Overcast | Pocket Casts | Castro. Support the podcast on Patreon for extra content! Comment below to share your thoughts – as Lucy Maud Montgomery once said, nothing is ever really lost to us, as long as we remember it.
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