Treffman, Hyde Park Historical Society Archivist
In our last
issue, Patrick Meehan recounted the story of the construction
of that great symbol of the World's Columbian Exposition, its
Ferris Wheel. When it was officially closed on November 1, 1893,
the question arose as to where the Ferris Wheel would next be
located. Initially, the wheel remained up on the Midway Plaisance
over that winter and, indeed, some thought was given to keeping
it there permanently. Ambitious proposals were floated to transport
the Wheel to a site in New York City's midtown Manhattan, its
beach at Coney Island or even to London, England. None of these
came to fruition and in the early spring of 1894 it was carefully
dismantled and its parts stored on flatcars on a siding off the
Illinois Central tracks at 61st Street. Some of its original
concrete base remained, however, and has been found just this
year in the course of recent construction on the Midway. In 1895,
the Wheel's inventor, George Ferris, found a new site for it
on Chicago's North Side where it would be accompanied by a restaurant,
beer garden, additional rides and a vaudeville theater. Ferris'
partner in the plan was Charles T. Yerkes, the transit magnate
who owned streetcar lines adjacent to the site. Resistance to
the project arose from the community, however, and delayed, but
did not preclude, its opening in the fall of that year. The community,
nonetheless, was able to vote the area closed to the sale of
liquor, which doomed the planned beer garden.
A panoramic view of the rebuilt Ferris Wheel dominated the landscape
west of Lincoln Park. A reproduction of an admissions ticket
for the ride confirms that, indeed, a vaudeville program had
been introduced as part of the attraction. The address on the
ticket, 1288 North Clark Street, is misleading on two counts
in terms of where the Wheel in the first photo was actually located.
Around 1909 there was a street renaming and renumbering project
undertaken by the city. It was during this time, for instance,
that many of Hyde Park's streets obtained their modern names.
In this case, the street number "1288 N. Clark" from
the year 1895 translates to a location on the west side of the
2600 block of North Clark Street, near Wrightwood Avenue, by
the year 1910. Indeed, the whole strip of land from what is now
2619 to 2665 N. Clark was to be devoted to the enterprise. A
McDonald's restaurant and a large apartment building are now
on that site. The ride, which some have jocularly claimed drew
more complaints and lawsuits than patrons, experienced financial
problems and passed into receivership in 1896, about the same
time that Ferris himself died unexpectedly at age 37. It continued
to run, however. The postcard illustrating the cover of this
issue was mailed by a patron of the north side wheel in 1901.
The wheel had gone through yet another receivership in 1900 but
remained in operation until 1903 when it was dismantled and transported
to the site of what would be its last hurrah.
When the Ferris Wheel was again reconstructed, it was on the
grounds of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis) of 1904
and renamed the Observation Wheel. It did not achieve the same
degree of celebrity there as it had had at the Chicago fair and
was much less successful financially.
When the fair closed, the Wheel was finally demolished by dynamite.
Its boilers and engines were first removed, ultimately for industrial
use in Pennsylvania and its 2700 tons of structural steel and
iron and the plate glass windows and 2000 wire opera chairs in
the passenger cars were sold as salvage.
Coincidentally, the only remaining building from that exposition
still in existence is its Palace of Fine Arts which today serves
as the St. Louis Museum of Art. The major structural relic of
the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, of course, was also its
Palace of Fine Arts, now the Museum of Science and Industry.
What was called here "The Midway" was given the name
"The Pier" in the St. Louis Exposition.
"La Grand Roue" (The Great Wheel), a French version
of the Ferris Wheel, was constructed for the Paris Exposition
of 1900. Although the two appear very similar, when compared
to a photograph of Chicago's Wheel, it can be seen that the Paris
version allowed the cars to stand away from the outer rim thus
allowing a broader view from the cars. In Chicago those rims
blocked views from the sides of the cars as they rotated. The
improved French version also appears to have had more cars, some
40 as opposed to the original's 36.
In historical accounts of the World's Columbian Exposition, the
story of the Ferris Wheel has almost eclipsed that of another
unusual mechanical and quite successful Midway attraction: Thomas
Rankin's Snow and Ice Railway.
Essentially a roller coaster running on an ice paved track, it
was among the earliest coasters constructed in the United States.
It was built on a tract of land 60 by 400 feet upon the southern
portion of the Midway Plaisance near Lexington (later renamed
University) Avenue and consisted of a loop with one high point
of elevation. The ice was manufactured by machinery on site.
There were two trains, each of which was made up of four connected
bobsleds with six seats apiece. The trains would be drawn by
a cable to the high point, then freed and allowed to slide down
the inclines and around the loop. At the close of the Exposition,
the Snow and Ice Railway was moved to Coney Island in Brooklyn
but direct sunlight and insufficient refrigeration quickly closed
the ride. As Cartwell (1987) observed, "It was not the first
idea to be duplicated from Chicago at Coney Island. It would
seem that if certain entrepreneurs had their way, the complete
Midway Plaisance would have been moved to Brooklyn." This
is but one example of the influence the 1893 Columbian Exposition
had on future expositions, amusement parks and American cultural
Two major recent sources on the fate of the Ferris Wheel include:
Norman D. Anderson, Ferris Wheels: An Illustrated History (Bowling
Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1992) and
Perry R. Duis, Challenging Chicago: Coping with Everyday Life.
1837-1920, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998). Our
source on the Observation Wheel in St. Louis is Timothy J. Fox
and Duane R. Sneddeker, From the Palaces to the Pike: Visions
of the 1904 World's Fair. (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society
Press, 1997) and on the World's Columbian Exposition's Midway
Plaisance Snow and Ice Machine: Robert Cartwell, The Incredible
Scream Machine: A History of the Roller Coaster (Fair Oaks, Ohio:
Amusement Park Press, 1987).
To Top of