Ferris Wheel

Galesburg's Big Wheel

by Terry Hogan

One of Galesburg's own has given joy and thrills to millions of people over the years through his creation. Unfortunately, it didn't for him. He died November 21, 1896, bankrupt, living alone in a Pittsburgh hotel. His obituaries reported a variety of causes for death ranging from typhoid to tuberculosis. There were even unsubstantiated rumors of suicide. Shortly after his death, a civil lawsuit judgment went against his company for $84,000. His remains were reported to be unclaimed 15 months after his death.

George Washington Gale Ferris was the creator of the Ferris Wheel that towered over Chicago at the World's Columbian Exposition. It was America's answer to the Eiffel Tower and it challenged the engineering and construction capabilities of the early 1890s. In 1893, thousands of people waited in line to ride into history. The giant wheel could carry 2,160 people at a time, raising them to the equivalent height of a 26 story building. Probably few knew the challenges and uncertainties that had to be overcome in the design and construction of this marvel.

George Ferris was born in Galesburg on February 14, 1859. He came from an old and historically well-known Galesburg family. The Ferris' connection with Galesburg's founder accounts for George Ferris' full name. George also came from a clever family. An uncle, Nathan Ferris, developed a market for popcorn in England by popping it up for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1846. It was a royal marketing ploy.

George and his family moved to Nevada when he was only five years old. He received his engineering degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, providing the technical knowledge that he would soon use. He opened an engineering firm in Pittsburgh that inspected bridges. The firm later opened offices in New York City and Chicago.

Ferris claimed that he developed the concept for the Ferris wheel while at a dinner in Chicago. He reported that by the end of dinner, he had sketched out the details. Some have doubted this story given the complex engineering involved. Those same skeptics also note the existence of a law suit challenging the originality of the wheel. Beyond legal problems, Ferris also had technical doubters and problems raising money for the project. Some worried that the design was insufficient to withstand the strain and the wheel would deform when rotated. Others doubted its ability to withstand the winds of the "windy city."

Ferris used his own credit to begin ordering construction materials. He also formed a new company, selling stock to raise additional funds for the project. Stock sales were slow until "big name" investors became involved. Nine Detroit steel mills were used to produce the components of the wheel. The steel was shipped on 150 rail cars. Because of time constraints, Ferris had to construct the concrete foundations in January, 1893, when temperatures dropped to ten degrees below zero. To add to the difficulties, quicksand was encountered while digging the foundation to bedrock.

The wheel was driven by a thousand horsepower coal-fired steam engine. Sprocket wheels and a driving chain was used to turn the massive wheel. A spare steam engine was on site as emergency backup.

Upon completion of construction, the wheel held 36 gondolas. Each gondola had 40 stools plus standing room for 20 additional paying customers. The fare was a very steep 50 cents, representing a significant portion of an average man's daily wage. Reportedly it took about 20 minutes to completely load the wheel. Once fully loaded, it gave a ten-minute non-stop ride. Its debut at the Exposition was on June 21, 1893, missing the fair's opening day on May 1. Each gondola had a uniformed conductor to operate the doors and to reassure fearful riders. The enclosed gondolas had windows that opened for ventilation, but were designed to prevent passengers from jumping out. The wheel performed flawlessly in Chicago. It is reported that it served 38,000 riders on its peak day.

During July high winds struck Chicago, challenging Ferris' design. Ferris took the opportunity to load himself, his wife, and a reporter onto the wheel and endured 110 mile per hour winds at the top of the wheel. The reporter later wrote of the event:

"As the mad storm swept round the cars the blast was deafening. It screamed through the thin spider-like girders, and shook the windows with savage fury. It was a place to try better men's nerves. The inventor had faith in his wheel; Mrs. Ferris in her husband. But the reporter at that moment believed neither in God nor man."

By the end of the exposition on October 30th, the Ferris wheel had taken in nearly three quarters of a million dollars. But costs had been high and much of the money was due to the fair board. Profits had been small. The seven week delay in opening the Ferris wheel for business cost the inventor dearly. The wheel was disassembled, stored, and later reassembled near Lincoln Park in Chicago. However it failed to generate large crowds and the revenue was inadequate. An imitation of Ferris' wheel was constructed at Coney Island in New York. It was advertised to be the largest Ferris wheel in the world, but in reality it was half the size of the original. The smaller wheel at Coney Island drew 10,000 people a day in 1896 but over time it became less of a novelty.

Ultimately the original Ferris wheel was sold at a bankruptcy auction in Chicago. A salvage firm bought it for $8,150. Rather that being scrapped, the Ferris wheel was shipped to St. Louis and reassembled for one more try. This time its host was the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The Ferris wheel took in over $250,000ã again thrilling its riders. But this failed to even cover the cost of shipment and assembly in St. Louis.

St. Louis proved to be the original Ferris wheel's last whirl. On May 11, 1906, a dynamite blast announced the end of the original Ferris wheel. It had survived its creator by a decade.

But as we know, both the name and the ride live on in smaller versions. Both London and Vienna had Ferris wheels prior to 1900. The Vienna Ferris wheel was featured in the dramatic conclusion of the old film classic, The Third Man. Smaller, more mobile versions began to be constructed. In 1900, at nearby Jacksonville, Ill., a prototype was constructed and tested in Central Park. It proved successful and by 1906, it gave rise to the Eli Bridge Company that manufactures small Ferris wheels. The smaller Ferris wheels can be seen and experienced at county and state fairs, where they cater to those of us who prefer to be thrilled but not scared to death.

When the Ferris wheel arrives at the Knox County fairgrounds it has come full circle-back to the birth place of its creatorã George Washington Gale Ferris.

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