The Hyde Park Historical Society,
5529 S. Lake Park Avenue,
Chicago, IL 60637

From Stephen Treffman, Hyde Park Historical Society Archivist

Ferris Wheel followup

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 life, generally.

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).

 


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