Great Chicago Wheel of 1893 | World’s Greatest Ride

World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893

The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago was the subject of a book my wife, Melanie, and I discussed. The exposition was in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Columbus. A centerpiece of the exposition was the huge Chicago Wheel 264 feet high, meant to rival the Eiffel Tower. I love science and technology. The idea of this giant wheel being the first Ferris wheel fascinated me.

Rotating wheel rides have been around since the 17th century. They were known as ‘pleasure wheels’. George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.  secured the patents for the larger metal concept which came to be known as Ferris wheels. Ferris was born in Galesburg, IL, in 1859. That is not far from where I grew up. The family moved to Nevada when he was six. He attended college at California Military Academy in Oakland, CA where he graduated in 1876. He graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY in 1881 with a degree in Civil Engineering. He started work in the railroad and bridge industry. Upon moving to Pittsburgh, he started a company to test metals used in the rail and bridge industries.

The book is The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson. It links the lives of an architect of the exposition and a serial killer.

Many details below come from the Chicago Hyde Park Historical Society.

Congress decided in 1890 that the exposition should be centered in Chicago. On April 9, 1890, the State of Illinois licensed the corporation to prepare for it. The planners wanted a centerpiece to rival the 984 foot Eiffel Tower at the Paris Exposition in 1889. They wanted something original and unique, designed and built by American engineers, in order to show off their skills and prowess. George Ferris attended a presentation about the desire to have a world class engineering marvel. He was only 32 yrs old. But, he had a bold plan. He approached the committee in the spring of 1892. At first they thought he was a lunatic… “The Man with Wheels in his Head.” No one thought such a big ‘pleasure wheel’ could be built. If it could, it could not be operated. He persisted and was granted a concession to build the Wheel in Central Avenue on the Midway.

Several firms were contracted to do the various works required. The winter of 1892-93 was severe. Building the piers for the two support foundations was a challenge. Pumps ran day and night. Steam was piped in to thaw the frozen sand. It was also used to keep the concrete from freezing before it had set. Piles were driven 32 feet. Finally, eight reinforced concrete and masonry piers 20x20x35 feet were ready to support the towers which would support the axle.

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

A steam power plant was built off site 700 feet away. Ten inch pipes delivered steam to move the wheel. Westinghouse provided the brakes to hold it still when needed. The exposition opened May 1, 1893. The wheel wasn’t ready until June 21.

By then, it supported 36 gondolas, each 24 feet long, 13 feet wide, and 10 feet high, and weighing 26,000 pounds. Each had twisted wire chairs for 38 of the 60 passengers, plate glass windows fitted with heavy screens, doors at each end with secure locks, and firefighting equipment. The Wheel ran without incident until November 6, 1893. It was fitted with 3000 of Edison’s new incandescent light bulbs. A ride consisted of one revolution for loading-unloading, during which six stops were made. That was followed by nine minutes of nonstop revolution, all for about 50 cents. Riders could see Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan. Even foggy and smokey days were popular.


Below is a view from within a car looking at the axle and across to the cars on the other side.

Looking east toward Lake Michigan…

Looking west…

If you are familiar with 3-D stereoscope viewers, they were popular at the time. I found a couple of pictures of the Wheel. You can see them in 3-D by staring your gaze straight through them as if you were looking through a pane of glass at some distant object. You should see two images, one for each eye. Let your eyes accommodate and merge the two separate images into one centered image. It will be in 3-D if you are successful. Good luck.

An Amazing Photographic Collection

In doing research on this story, I found a fantastic photographic resource by the Project Gutenberg EBook of Official Views Of The World’s Columbian Exposition, by C. D. Arnold and H. D. Higinbotham. This is the cover. It contains 115 images scanned from the originals made by the two photographers. Each image is relatively small in the linked url. Under each image are two links for a 1200 and 4800 pixel wide version for additional size and detail. These are incredible images and worth your time browsing them later. The 4800 are very large. If you have a slow connection, it will take a while.

What Became of the Chicago Wheel?

The Exposition closed on November 1, 1893. The Wheel was unused until April 29, 1894. It was moved to the north side of Chicago next to Lincoln Park. It took 86 days and $14,833 to disassemble it. The Wheel was ready for service by October 1895. It was hoped it would draw restaurants, a band shell, and a Vaudeville theater. There were plans to paint the Wheel and cars. The venture lost money rapidly as people failed to be drawn to it. It was closed down. In June of 1903, the Chicago Tribune reported the sale of the junked Wheel to a bidder at auction for $1800. Workmen dismantled the Wheel for shipment to St. Louis for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. Ninety five men took 72 days to take down the wheel. By July, 1904, the Wheel was operating in St. Louis. It stood unused again after the close of the fair. The Wheel’s end came on the morning of May 11, 1906.

Again, from the Chicago Tribune in 1906…

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.

The Ferris Wheel has become iconic as part of carnivals and fairs all over the world. The most familiar ones are set up in a matter of hours as illustrated in this video.

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