Chicago’s World Fair and The Big Wheel - 110 Years Ago

by Terry Hogan

It was the "World’s Columbian Exposition." It was the "World’s Fair." It was the "Chicago World’s Fair." It was the 400th birthday celebration of Columbus "discovering" America. It was one year late. It was 110 years ago (May through October, 1893). It reflected the changes in America and the world — for better and for worse.

It was a bigger-than-life plan that was either to be a great success or a great failure, depending if those in charge could get it done and open on time. It was "great dreams." But great dreams can become great nightmares. The Chicago World’s Fair was a little of both. But it drew Americans by the millions to see, and to feel, the promise of tomorrow. The Director of Works for the Fair, Daniel Burnham, set the guiding tone — "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood." The Fair stirred Americans’ blood and Americans came to see their future. A total of 27.5 million people passed through the gates at a time when America had only about 65 million. It stirred; it inspired; and it survived threats imposed by swampy soils, Midwestern storms, labor strikes, and a bad economy.

The Fair showed glimpses of the future from breathtaking architecture to the use of Westinghouse’s new alternating electric current. Electricity in 1893 was new and exciting. It provided light far superior to gas lamps. It provided a vision of what nightlife would become for villages, towns, and cities throughout America. It drew the sophisticated and the unsophisticated. It drew those from urban and rural lives. Some road the Illinois Central. At least one walked from Texas. But all came to see their future.

The battle for Chicago to get the World’s Fair was fought in Congress. Washington, New York, Chicago, and St. Louis were all vying for the right to host the event. It took multiple rounds of voting but Chicago finally won. It was a bitter fight between New York and Chicago and may never have been forgiven by New York until it was the host city for the World’s Fair decades later in 1939.

The nagging problem for Chicago was the question of what was to be the centerpiece for the Fair — or how to outdo the French and their Eiffel Tower. The French had built the magnificent iron structure for their world’s fair and, with its height, was a demon to follow. Chicago didn’t know what it wanted, except it wasn’t to be a tower. And it was to be greater in imagination than the Eiffel Tower. Chicago was bombarded with various schemes. Most were outrageously impractical. However, one finally caught the eye, if somewhat reluctantly.

The final selection came to the design touted by one George Washington Gale Ferris, born in Galesburg, Illinois and part of the historically well-known Ferris family. His idea, of course, was what was to become known as the Ferris Wheel. The specific site selection for the Fair in Chicago was slow, and the final selection of the Ferris Wheel was also drawn out, leaving a very short time for the Ferris Wheel to be engineered, built, tested, and put into service.

The construction was begun in January 1893. Winter is not an ideal time to construct along Chicago’s waterfront. The ground was frozen and had to be blasted by dynamite. Steam was used to keep soil from freezing and to provide sufficient heat for concrete to set up. Concrete was the essential foundation for the gigantic Ferris Wheel. Steel was ordered from companies around America, as time was so short. No one company would have been able to manufacture and ship all the steel in the required time frame. The Ferris Wheel was to have over 100,000 parts to be manufactured, shipped, and assembled for a fair that was to open in May. It was a Herculean engineering and logistics task. Bethlehem Steel made the center axis for the great wheel and it was, for the time, reported to be the largest one-piece casting ever made. The axis, when assembled with its fittings, weighed a reported 142,031 pounds. This created a new issue of raising something that heavy that high.

The Ferris Wheel components arrived at Jackson Park, on the Chicago waterfront, on five trains, each consisting of 30 rail cars. It was a race to assemble the beast, not in time for the Fair’s opening, as this was impossible, but in time to be operated for as long as possible. The Fair was to close on October 30th, providing little time to recover costs.

The Ferris Wheel was, in essence, two gigantic bicycle wheels tied together, from which the passenger cars were to be hung in such a manner that they would be free to pivot to maintain their position as the wheel made its revolution. Also, not unlike the newly-designed safety bicycle that had two wheels of the same size, the Ferris Wheel was driven by a sprocket chain. However the Ferris Wheel chain weighed 20,000 pounds. The power to move the chain and in turn, the Wheel, came from two 1,000hp steam engines that were located some distance away — for aesthetic reasons. Ten-inch diameter steam lines shipped the steam.

The Ferris Wheel was constructed and first rotated without the passenger cars attached. The cars were attached and again tested. Among the first passengers on the test run was George Washington Gale Ferris’ wife, Margaret. The great Wheel rotated its passengers safely on Sunday, June 11. At its peak, the passenger car would give its riders a view of Chicago, Lake Michigan, and the Fair from a then-staggering height of 246 feet above ground.

The Wheel took paying passengers, beginning on June 21, 1893. The delay of 51 days was to cost the project dearly in lost revenue. After all, the Fair only had from May through October to dazzle the world and to recover its costs. George Washington Gale Ferris was there for the opening of the Ferris Wheel. The Iowa State Marching Band, the Mayor of Chicago, the City Council, and other local dignitaries were there. It was a glorious day for Chicago. It was an opportunity to show that American construction expertise, imagination, and sheer guts were a match to the French and the Tower that couldn’t move.

Despite fears of the height and fears that the Wheel just didn’t look sturdy enough, it became the center attraction and thousands rode it daily. During the July 3rd week, a reported 61,395 tickets were sold providing revenue in excess of $30,000.

Of course, there were infrequent incidents. One rider discovered a fear of heights and lost control, trying to break his way out of the passenger car. However, a quick-reacting (and perhaps immodest woman for the times) removed her skirt, threw it over the man, and talked to him. The actions calmed the man, perhaps saving him and others on the car from possible serious harm or death.

But the Fair was much more than architecture and the Ferris Wheel. Visitors could see representatives from other cultures, including the very popular belly dancers. Visitors could also see displays of new products, ranging from "Shredded Wheat", to "Cracker Jacks", "Juicy Fruit Gum" and "Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Mix." Visitors could also see new technology — including music played in New York and transmitted to Chicago by telephone. There was even an all-electric kitchen, complete with a dishwasher. Finally, perhaps one of the most practical inventions displayed was something known as the "zipper".

There were also satellite amusement opportunities that were not officially part of the Fair. Clearly the best known was the Buffalo Bill show. After being denied space at the Fair, Buffalo Bill acquired an adjacent 15-acre site and set up his show. It opened about two weeks before the Fair and provided an alternative venue of looking back in time, rather than looking forward. It was known as "Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World." It immediately began filling the 18,000-seat arena. The show included Indians, soldiers from various countries, Annie Oakley and, of course, Buffalo Bill, himself.

On October 30, 1893 the Chicago World’s Fair closed its doors to the public. It was to suffer from social and labor unrest in Chicago. Federal troops were placed in Chicago to respond to labor strikes. Striking laborers blocked Chicago rails and burned railroad cars. Even the World’s Fair was fair game. Arsonists torched seven of the buildings on July 5, 1894.

The Ferris Wheel was removed in the Spring of 1894, relocated to a nearby Chicago northside location. However it did not bring in the revenues needed, and was ultimately sold to the Chicago House Wrecking Company in 1903 for a mere $8,150. The Wheel was relocated and put back together for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904, held in St. Louis. But in the end, it was demolished and sold for scrap.

George Washington Gale Ferris had his dream. He made it a reality and thrilled thousands of Fair-goers in the summer of 1893. But the Wheel and the economy bankrupted him. He lost his money. He lost his wife. He died in Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh on November 22, 1896. He was only 37 years old.

However, his inspiration and engineering lives on. It is hard to imagine a county fair to be complete, in the absence of the Ferris Wheel. Although smaller in scale, the Ferris Wheels have imprinted lasting memories of the thrill of the fair in small communities throughout America and overseas. Even the British, who exercise some reserve about most things American, embraced the Ferris Wheel with their very large and popular "London Eye".

The Ferris Wheel is 110 years old, and still rolling. It truly was an eye on the future at the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893. And it was the vision of one of Galesburg’s own — George Washington Gale Ferris.