The Society is delighted to present this wonderful description of the Life and Death of Chicago’s great Ferris Wheel of 1893. It was written by Patrick Meehan in 1964 while he was a 4th year Mechanical Engineering student at the University of British Columbia. His paper was published at that time in The UBC Engineer and was discovered for us by our late member and insightful writer, Jim Stronks.


In 1890, the U.5 Congress decided that the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America should be centered in Chicago, and accordingly, on April 9, the State of Illinois licensed the corporation known as the World’s Columbian Exposition to prepare this great event.

The Corporation’s directors, in October, 1890, appointed the rising architect, Daniel H. Burnham, Construction Chief{ and delegated to him autocratic powers. Burnham, architect of the first “skyscrapers,” was a good bet to score a smashing success, both for the Exposition and for himself¬£ At this early stage, he was chiefly concerned at the lack of participation by America’s civil engineers.

Seeking to stir them into action, he arranged to speak before the “Saturday Afternoon Club,” an informal group of architects and engineers who were interested in the Fair. Their gatherings had served as a sort of public opinion poll on many of the architectural and engineering structures of the Exposition.

Burnham’s speech was cleverly contrived to produce immediate reaction: he asserted that the architects of America had covered themselves with glory and enduring fame by their artistic skill and original designs for mammoth buildings, while the civil engineers had contributed very little or nothing in the way of originating novel features or of demonstrating the possibilities of modern engineering practices in America. He called on them to provide some distinctive feature, something to fill the relative position in the World’s Columbian Exposition that was filled by the 984 foot Eiffel Tower at the Paris Exposition in 1889. It was immediately proposed to build a tower 500 feet higher than Eiffel’s, but since this would be playing second fiddle to Eiffel’s genius, this idea was dismissed. Mere bigness was not what was wanted. Something novel, original, daring and unique must be designed and built if American engineers were to retain their prestige and standing.

Seated in the audience was a tall, slight young engineer with a pale, resolute face. This was George Washington Gale Ferris, at that time the senior partner in a firm specializing in building steel bridges. Thirty-two years old, he had been educated at the California Military Academy and Rensseler Polytechnic Institute, where he received an engineering degree in 1881. For several years, he had worked on railroads and mining ventures and was one of the first to make a profession of testing materials and structures.Ferris

The popular story is that Ferris designed the wheel while at dinner with friends in a Chicago restaurant and that it was built without a change being made to this original sketch. There is some evidence, however, that he had designed the Wheel five or six years prior to the Exposition and it is possible that he chose a quiet moment after dinner to reveal these plans.

Ferris decided that this was the proper time and the opportunity he had been looking for to build his Great Wheel and he at once set about this monumental task.

George Washington Gale Ferris

I. Getting the Concession

Designing the Wheel was no easy task, even for experienced engineers. Stresses for such a structure had never been determined … so the theory of design had to be derived from first principles. Difficulties were also met in obtaining financing … for in 1892, the country was in the midst of a severe depression… but Ferris’s quiet yet enthusiastic manner inspired confidence and the Ferris Wheel Company was eventually capitalized at $600,000.

Armed with completed plans and guaranteed financing, Ferris approached the Columbian Exposition’s Ways and Means Committee in the spring of 1892. His ideas were treated as those of a lunatic… and he became known as “The Man with Wheels in his Head.” The engineers and architects of the Saturday Afternoon Club believed he was making a fool of himself as they loudly proclaimed that his wheel could not be built or, if it could, it could not be operated. But Ferris persisted and after much effort, the Committee granted him a concession to build the Wheel, not in Jackson Park, the main grounds, but in Central Avenue on the Midway. By the terms of this concession, granted December 16,1892, The Ferris Wheel Company was to retain $300,000 received from the sale of tickets, after which one-half o the gross receipts were to be paid to the Exposition.

II. Building the Wheel

By the time the concession was granted it was midwinter – only four months until the opening of the Exposition. Since no single shop could begin to do all the work, contracts were let to several different firms, each chosen for its ability to do the particular job entrusted to it. Great precision was required as few of the parts could be assembled until they were on site. Ferris called on Luther Rice, also only thirty-two ( as was Ferris) and only three years out of Engineering School, to become Construction Chief of the project. The foundation work was proceeding slowly in the face of the most severe winter that Chicago had experienced in many years. The frost at the Wheel site was three feet deep and was underlain by twenty feet of saturated sand, which could, when disturbed by construction activities or vibration, suddenly behave like the proverbial quicksand. Pumps were kept running day and night… live steam was piped in to thaw the frozen sand and later to keep the concrete from freezing before it had set. Piles were driven a further 32 feet… to hardpan and upon steel beams resting on these piles were placed the eight monolithic reinforced concrete and masonry piers 20 by 20 by 35 feet which were to support the towers which in turn would support the axle.Axle

On March 18, 1893, the 89,320 pound axle, forged in Pittsburgh by the Bethlehem Iron Company, arrived in Chicago… the

89,320 pound axle, forged in Pittsburgh by the Bethlehem Iron Company


largest hollow forging in the world at the time, it was 45 1/2 feet long, 33 inches in diameter… Four and one-half feet from each end it carried two 16 foot diameter cast-iron spiders weighing 53,031 pounds. On March 20, placing of the first tower post was completed… shortly after came the problem of raising the axle. In an amazingly short two hours, the immense axle assembly was hoisted to the top of the 140 feet high towers and placed neatly in its sturdy pillow blocks.

Next came the assembly of the actual wheel a very involved process. Meanwhile, the power plant was being constructed over 700 feet away and completely outside the grounds. Ten inch steam pipes fed two 1000 hp reversible engines one to be used for driving the wheel and the second being held in readiness as an emergency reserve. A Westinghouse air brake was used to control the Wheel and to hold it motionless when desired.

The Columbian Exposition opened on May 1,1893, while the steelworkers barely paused to watch, high on the growing Wheel. By June 9, the Wheel, as yet without cars, was ready for a trial run. At six o’clock in the evening with trusted men stationed at various points, Rice ordered the steam turned on. Slowly, without a creak or groan and only the soft clink of the chain, the great wheel began to turn… in twenty minutes, it had completed one revolution. When he got the word, Ferris, who was in Pittsburgh at the time, immediately ordered the 36 cars hung.

Visitors and participants at the Exposition had viewed the Wheel as an enigma, but the sight of it moving slowly on that summer evening galvanized them into action… from all sides crowds formed, shouting , gesturing… On June 10, one car was hung; by June 13, twenty more had been added and the offices and loading platforms practically completed.

The cars were 24 feet long, 13 feet wide, and 10 feet high, and weighed 26,000 pounds. Each car carried fancy twisted wire chairs for 38 of the 60 passengers. The five large plate glass windows on each side were fitted with heavy screens and the doors at each end were provided with secure locks.. firefighting equipment was carried as a safeguard.. Six platforms were arranged to speed loading and unloading, with a guard at each t9 signal the operator when his car was filled and locked. Conductors rode in each car to answer patrons’ questions or, if necessary, to calm their fears.

On June 11, with six cars hung, Daniel Burnham arrived to take a trial trip and Margaret Ferris, who had often given words of encouragement to workers on the Wheel, also went along~the Wheel’s first woman passenger. At six o’clock on June 13, Rice held a trial trip for the local press who were very enthusiastic in their praise… correspondents, particularly those from foreign countries, began making repeated requests for drawings and data, but Ferris appears to have been very reticent about releasing details. As a consequence, no copies of the original plans or calculations have survived.

III. The Grand Opening and Successful Run

June 21st dawned clear and bright, and for a little while, it seemed to the men who had labored so tirelessly, that the sun rising over Lake Michigan was rotating around the axle of their Wheel. Important investors and various dignitaries dressed in their Sunday best, were gathered about. On the speakers’ platform were the officers of the company and other important persons. The last speaker was Ferris. In this moment of triumph, his happily framed speech drew attention to the fact that he “had gotten the wheels out of his head and made them a living reality.” The final success he attributed to his wife, Margaret, who had encouraged and comforted him in the most difficult times. In conclusion, he dedicated his work to the engineers of America. Mrs. Ferris handed him a golden whistle which he blew as the signal to start up the Wheel. The Iowa State Band struck up “America” and to the cheers of the assembled thousands, the Great Wheel slowly and majestically revolved, towering above them in its magnificence.

The Wheel was opened to the public and ran without the slightest difficulty until November 6, 1893. A trip consisted of one revolution, during which six stops were made for loading, followed by one nine-minute, nonstop revolution.

On a clear day, patrons could not only see the Fairgrounds and City, but miles out onto the lake and the surrounding states of Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. Attendance on dark smoky days was nearly as heavy as on good days, so it seems the Wheel itself was more of an attraction than the unprecedented view it offered. 3000 of Edison’s new incandescent light bulbs were mounted on the Wheel and made it a dazzling sight as they blinked on and off.

Of course, it attracted sensationalists, such as several couples who wished to be married in the highest car. Two couples went so far as to have their invitations printed, inviting their friends to see them married on the Ferris Wheel, but since the Company was not seeking notoriety, they were forced to be content with a ceremony performed in the Company’s offices.

False stories appeared in the newspapers too, such as that of the pug dog leaping to his death through an open window or the story that the Wheel was stopped for some hours with a number of people in the upper cars. The wheel experienced four months of trouble-free operation on, accompanied only by the clink of the driving chain and an occasional exuberant whistle blast from the engine crew.

The Wheel weighed 2,079,884 pounds and when carrying the maximum live load of 2,160 passengers a weighing, say, 140 pounds each, the total weight in motion would have been 2,382, 244 pounds or 1,191 tons. The capacity of the Wheel was never taxed, even on Chicago Day, when there were 34,433 paid admissions… The supper hour was heaviest during the summer months but in the fall, as many people were carried in the early morning as in the late afternoon.

By November 6th, 1,453,611 paid admissions had been received with possibly a thousand or more free trips having been given to various important people. The gross earnings were $726,805, of which $513,403 was retained by the company, giving them a profit of $395,000.

IV. The Ferris Wheel Park Fiasco

Though the Exposition closed on November 1, 1893, the Wheel stood idle on the Midway until April 29, 1894, when a new site was found. It took 86 days and cost $14,833 to dismantle it. In July, 1895, re-erection was begun and the Wheel was ready for service by October. The new site, adjacent to Lincoln Park, was only 20 minutes from the city’s principal hotels and railway stations and the Directors sold bonds hoping to landscape the grounds, build a restaurant, a band shell, a Vaudeville theater, to paint the Wheel and Cars… It is doubtful if many of these improvements were made…the company began to lose money rapidly, as patrons failed to materialize.

Shortly after the bonds were placed on sale, George Washington Gale Ferris, age 37 years, died of tuberculosis on November 22, 1896.

On June 3, 1903, the Chicago Tribune reported:


Though sold as junk it will revolve again

Brings $1800 at receiver’s sale. Attorney H. M. Seligman representing buyers of Old Truck, being the successful bidder.

Debts of $400,000 outstanding

There is an opening in Chicago for a bright young executioner who will undertake to put the Ferris Wheel out of existence and dispose of the remains. Experience in the destruction of cars is considered requisite. For yesterday the Ferris wheel turned up with a new life-the ninth and last, it is declared, though this is by no means certain. The wheel passed under the hammer for $1800, and thereby sank into the category of junk.

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 auction was a touching scene, marked with the usual reminiscences of past glory. The chief mourner appeared in the person of Receiver Rice. The judge called for a bid from anyone present… a representative of the Chicago House Wrecking Company, after glancing all about, offered $800, bidding in cautious tones as if awed by his own temerity. There was another long silence and then a voice: “I’ll bid $1800. “It was Attorney H. M. Seligman, representing a junk firm… and the judge declared the wheel “going, going, once, twice-gone, and sold to the gentleman on the right.”

Receiver Rice drew a long face and exclaimed:

“It’s a shame, a terrible shame! Why, that engine alone is worth $10,000, and the boilers $7000,and then there are 2000 pounds of steel.”

“Yes, but just think! It’s going to cost us $30,000 to take the wheel down.” replied Seligman.

“What will we do with all that $1800?” exclaimed Receiver Rice, whose grief was melting away in the humor of the situation.

“Well, I’ll tell you, ” responded Attorney Seligman. “I’ll call a stockholders’ meeting, apply the sum on the indebtedness and declare a dividend.” Then the party filed out of the courtroom with Mr. Seligman in the lead.

V. The Last Days

Some months after the sale, crews of workmen began dismantling the Wheel for shipment to St. Louis for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. Ninetyfive men spent 72 days building the falsework towers and taking down the wheel .. .by July, 1904, the Wheel was in operation in St. Louis.

Nothing is known about the profits made during the Exposition, but it is probable they were not as great as they were expected to be. The company’s failure to remove the Wheel after the close of the fair brought complaints from many who considered it to be an eyesore. Again in neglect, the Wheel’s end came on the morning of May 11, 1906.

From the Chicago Tribune:


Blown to pieces by a monster charge of dynamite, the Ferris wheel came to an ignominious end yesterday at St. Louis, after a varied career of thirteen years. At its ending it was unwept and unsung. The Wheel first was a treasure of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Then for a long period of monumental and unprofitable inactivity, it towered in an amusement park at North Clark Street and Wrightwood Avenue. It finally was removed to St. Louis to form for the second time the huge mechanical marvel of a great exposition.

The old wheel, which had become St. Louis’ white elephant died hard. 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. When the mass stopped settling it bore no resemblance to the wheel which was so familiar to Chicago and St. Louis and to 2,500,000 amusement seekers from all over the world, who, in the days when it was in operation, made the trip to the top of its height of 264 feet and then slowly around and down to the starting point.

Following the blast that wrecked the wheel, but which failed to shatter its foundations, came another charge of 100 pounds of dynamite. The sticks were sunk in holes drilled in the concrete foundations that supported the pillars in the north side of the wheel.

The wheel was the wonder of two continents by reason of its cost, its dimensions, and its utter uselessness. It was the rival of the Eiffel Tower of Paris. Chicago was glad to get rid of it and St. Louis is said to have witnessed its destruction with satisfaction.

Ferris and his great wheel were gone but he had left, as a legacy to generations of entertainment-seekers, the World’s Greatest Ride.