Ferris Wheel

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George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.'s wheel

The original Ferris Wheel, sometimes also referred to as the Chicago Wheel,[1][2][3] was designed and built by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. as the centerpiece of the Midway at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois.

Intended as an attraction in the same manner as the 1889 Paris Exposition's 324-metre (1,063 ft) Eiffel Tower, the Ferris Wheel was the Columbian Exposition's tallest attraction, with a height of 80.4 metres (264 ft).

The Ferris Wheel was dismantled then rebuilt in Lincoln Park, Chicago, in 1895, and dismantled and rebuilt a third and final time for the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, where it was ultimately demolished in 1906.

The original 1893 Chicago Ferris Wheel
View through the Ferris Wheel
External image
image icon Axle of the 1893 Chicago Ferris Wheel

Design and construction[edit]

The Ferris Wheel was designed and constructed by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He was a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania bridge-builder.[4] He began his career in the railroad industry and then pursued an interest in bridge building. Ferris understood the growing need for structural steel and founded G.W.G. Ferris & Co. in Pittsburgh, a firm that tested and inspected metals for railroads and bridge builders.

Dynamite was used to break through three feet of frozen ground, to create a foundation for the wheel, during the construction of the wheel in Jackson Park during the winter of 1892-3. Jets of steam were used by workers to thaw dirt and prevent poured concrete from freezing. Piles of timber were driven thirty-two feet into the ground, on top of which was laid a grillage of steel, filled with concrete.[5]

The wheel rotated on a 71-ton, 45.5 foot (13.9 meters) long axle comprising what was at that time the world's largest hollow forging, manufactured in Pittsburgh by the Bethlehem Iron Company and weighing 89,320 pounds (40,510 kg), together with two 16-foot-diameter (4.9 m) cast-iron spiders weighing 53,031 pounds (24,054 kg).[2]

There were 36 passenger cars, each fitted with 40 revolving chairs and able to accommodate up to 60 people, giving a total capacity of 2,160.[1]

On June 9, 1893, the wheel was primed for a test run with great anticipation and a good deal of anxiety. The engine that would activate the wheel was fueled by steam boilers whose underground mains rushed steam to propel the pistons of its thousand-horsepower engines. Upon first seeing the wheel which towered over everything in its vicinity, Julian Hawthorne, son of the author Nathaniel, was amazed that anything of such a size "continues to keep itself erect ... it has no visible means of support—none that appear adequate. The spokes look like cobwebs; they are after the fashion of those on the newest make of bicycles".[6]

Both Ferris and his associate W. F. Gronau also recognized the engineering marvel the wheel represented, as a giant wheel that would turn slowly and smoothly without structural failure had never before been attempted.[7]

For its inaugural run, no cars had yet been attached. The workmen however, climbed the structure and settled themselves on the spokes to the accompaniment of cheers from an audience of fair employees who had gathered to watch the momentous event. After the wheel had completed its first rotation, Gronau deemed the test a success. "I could have yelled out loud for joy".[8]

Ferris himself had not been able to attend the launching of his invention, and that evening received a telegram: "The last coupling and final adjustment was made and steam turned on at six o’clock this evening one complete revolution of the big wheel was made everything working satisfactory twenty minutes time was taken for the revolution—I congratulate you upon its complete success midway is wildly enthusiastic".[8]


The Ferris Wheel took 20 minutes to make two revolutions, the first involving six stops to allow passengers to exit and enter and the second a nine-minute non-stop rotation, for which the ticket holder paid 50 cents.

The Ferris Wheel first opened to the public as the centrepiece of the World's Columbian Exposition at Midway Plaisance in Chicago on June 21, 1893, and continued to operate there until after the exposition ended in October 1893.[4]

After the Columbian Exposition[edit]

'Chicago, Grande Roue' (1896) - Lumière Brothers (Catalog no. 338)
The Ferris Wheel in Lincoln Park, Chicago, looking north from Wrightwood Avenue

The wheel itself closed in April 1894 and was then dismantled and stored until the following year, when it was rebuilt in the Lincoln Park, Chicago, neighborhood.[9] The amusement park was located at 2619 to 2665 N. Clark, which is now the location of a McDonald's and a high-rise residential building.[10] The original plan was to include a beer garden and vaudeville show, but the liquor license was not granted.[10] William D. Boyce, then a local resident, filed a Circuit Court action against the owners of the wheel to have it removed, but without success.

In 1896, the Lumiere Brothers, inventors of cinema, shot film (catalogue number 338[11][12]) of the intersection of Wrightwood and Clark which included the Ferris wheel.[13] It is one of the first films of Chicago.

The wheel operated there from October 1895 until 1903, when it was bought by the Chicago House Wrecking Company for $8,150.00.[14]

It was then dismantled for a second time and transported by rail to St. Louis for the 1904 World's Fair, where it earned its owners $215,000. It was finally destroyed by controlled demolition using dynamite on May 11, 1906.[15]

Stereoscopic card showing the Ferris Wheel at the 1904 World's Fair, St. Louis


In popular culture[edit]

  • The hero of Robert Lawson's children's book The Great Wheel is part of the construction crew for the original Chicago Ferris Wheel.
  • The characters of the film Meet Me in St. Louis, attending the 1904 World's Fair, observe the Ferris Wheel and foreshadow its eventual demolition.


  • Larson, Erik (2003). The devil in the white city: murder, magic, and madness at the fair that changed America. Crown Publishers. ISBN 9780609608449.
  1. ^ a b Anderson, Norman D (1992). Ferris wheels - an illustrated history. Popular Press. ISBN 9780879725327.
  2. ^ a b Meehan, Patrick (2000). "Chicago's Great Ferris Wheel of 1893". Hyde Park Historical Society. Archived from the original on 2013-01-18.
  3. ^ "The Kensington Canal, railways and related developments". Survey of London. 42: 322–338. 1986.
  4. ^ a b "Bird's-Eye View of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893". World Digital Library. 1893. Retrieved 2013-07-17.
  5. ^ The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson, pg. 193.
  6. ^ Larson (2003), p. 258
  7. ^ Larson (2003), pp. 258-259
  8. ^ a b Larson (2003), p. 260
  9. ^ "Paradises Lost" by Stan Barker in Chicago History March 1993, p.32
  10. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-05-14. Retrieved 2012-05-26.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Hyde Park Historical Society Ferris Wheel Follow-up
  11. ^ Parrill, William B. (18 December 2006). European Silent Films on Video: A Critical Guide. McFarland. ISBN 9780786464371. Retrieved 16 October 2016 – via Google Books.
  12. ^ "Chicago, grande roue". 1 January 2000. Retrieved 16 October 2016 – via IMDb.
  13. ^ "Grande roue". 3 December 2013. Retrieved 16 October 2016.
  14. ^ The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson, pg. 380
  15. ^ Ulizio, Lindsey (2006). "Ferris, George Washington Gale Jr". The Pennsylvania Center for the Book. Archived from the original on 2010-05-07. Retrieved 2013-04-06.
  16. ^ "That Ferris Wheel in Lincoln Park". Chicago Athletic Association. 2015.
Preceded by
World's tallest Ferris wheel
Succeeded by
Great Wheel