Original, daring and unique

In happier times, this week would have fallen right between two of Illinois’ premier late summer events: Springfield’s Illinois State Fair, and downstate’s DuQuoin State Fair; annual gatherings for fun, all-things-fried-and-on-a-stick, agricultural showcases and plenty of rides. With the cancellation this year’s state fairs, and so many county fairs, many Illinoisans are disappointed to miss out on the corn dogs, livestock shows and rides on the Ferris wheel.

Here in Illinois we have a special connection to the Ferris wheel, as it was invented by an Illinoisan and made its first public appearance at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Born in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1859, George Washington Gale Ferris lived throughout the United States in his early years before obtaining his civil engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and going to work building steel bridges for the nation’s burgeoning railroads. Naturally, this career path brought him back to Illinois, which was emerging as the rail hub of the entire nation in the late 19th-century.

Upon learning of the plans for the upcoming World’s Fair, Ferris met with the renowned Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, who had done so much to lead Chicago’s rebuilding after the 1871 fire and who was now one of the fair’s directors. Burnham had been inspired by the architectural centerpiece of the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, the Eiffel Tower, and wanted to see a similar marvel in Chicago, something, “original, daring and unique.”

Ferris took this idea and ran with it. He imagined some sort of elevated viewing platform from which fairgoers could see the vast expanse of the fair’s grounds. But rather than a tower which would depend upon stairs or elevators, he imagined a rotating wheel which visitors could board to enjoy a leisurely ride to the top and back down again, observing the view all the way. Small wooden structures following this basic idea had been around for more than two decades, and the basic concept had existed for more than a century. But Ferris envisioned something much grander. He sketched out his idea and presented it to the fair’s planning committee.

They hated it.

“Too dangerous,” they said. “Too costly.”

But Ferris was confident in his design, and he knew other professionals would be too. The wheel would be similar to a spoked bicycle wheel with steel beams to provide the necessary strength. It would have two 1000 horsepower steam engines for propulsion. He began meeting with prominent Chicago architects to have them review and discuss his plan, winning them over with his technical expertise and knowledge. Over time, Ferris convinced enough of the city’s respected architects of the feasibility of the structure that he was able to line up $400,000 in financing for its construction and operation.

Now they were willing to reconsider. Ferris’ plan was approved and construction soon began.

But work quickly fell behind schedule. Burnham had wanted something unique, and he had certainly gotten it with the Ferris wheel, but that was part of the problem. Because nothing like it had ever been built before, the construction took longer than anticipated. It was not ready for opening day, but instead had its grand opening more than a month later at a cost of $750,000.

This first Ferris wheel was not like the ones you might encounter at your local county fair. Instead of arriving on a single truck, it took 150 freight cars to move the components of the wheel from the manufacturer in Detroit to the World’s Fair site in Chicago. When the Ferris wheel was completed, it stood 264 feet tall. It was made of steel and stood on an axle which weighed 47 tons. Anywhere from 40 to 60 people could ride in each of its 36 cars, which took 20 minutes to make two rotations: one with frequent stops for boarding and unloading, the second a non-stop ride around for viewing.

Ferris and his wife joined Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison and a marching band for the first ride on the wheel.

The Ferris wheel was a hit. Between June and October 1893, more than a million fairgoers paid the 50 cents required for a ticket. As they traveled home from the fair, they shared stories of this marvel which had sat at the very center of the Chicago fairgrounds. It wasn’t long before imitators went to work, and Ferris wheels began appearing throughout the nation.

George Ferris did not live to see the explosion in popularity of his invention. He died of typhoid fever just three years after the World’s Fair. Rensselaer Poly made him a member of its Alumni Hall of Fame in 1998.

The original Ferris wheel continued to operate long after Ferris’ death. It was moved to the north side of Chicago after the World’s Fair, then was taken apart and shipped to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair. The original wheel was demolished in 1906.

But by then its popularity was well known, and had spread worldwide. As smaller Ferris wheels popped up in amusement parks and local fairs, builders engaged in a competition to construct even larger wheels. The 1900 World’s Fair returned to Paris where the “Grande Roue de Paris,” constructed by the Paris Gigantic Wheel and Varieties Company topped out at 328 feet high. When it was dismantled in 1920 it was succeeded as the tallest in the world by a wheel in Austria. It was not until 1989 with the opening of a new 353-foot high Ferris wheel in Yokohama, Japan, that a taller wheel was built.

One of the centerpieces of London’s millennium celebration in 2000 was to be the 443-foot high London Eye, but a series of glitches kept it from fully opening until the following spring. Ferris wheels in China and Singapore have since eclipsed the 500-foot mark. Today the tallest Ferris wheel in the world stands in Las Vegas, not far from where George Ferris briefly lived as a child in between his years in Illinois. The 550-foot High Roller opened in 2014.

Among those dazzled fairgoers who rode the Ferris wheel and observed its machinery in 1893 was William E. Sullivan of Roodhouse in southwestern Illinois. Like Ferris he was a bridge builder, and he believed he could replicate Ferris’ design, but on a smaller scale, making a Ferris wheel that could be moved from one festival to the next. Working with a machinist named James Clements, he unveiled his creation in Jacksonville on March 23, 1900, calling it “Big Eli.”

Photo from the Illinois State Fair Museum. 
Sullivan founded the Eli Bridge Company in 1906 and started producing Ferris Wheels for fairs and festivals all over the country. They diversified in the 1950s into other fair attractions, such as the Scrambler. More than a century after their first creation, the company remains in business in Jacksonville. Eli Bridge still produces Ferris Wheels, including ones which have graced the Illinois State Fair midway in this century. The original Big Eli still stands in the Jacksonville Community Park.

Next summer, when the State Fairs and our county fairs are back in business, thousands of Illinoisans will have the chance once again to ride the Illinois-invented “original, daring and unique” Ferris wheel.