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A Trip Around the Ferris Wheel

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Ferris Wheel at the World's Columbian Exposition Chicago, Ill. Photo by Weber, 1893. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a51890
Ferris Wheel at the World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago, Ill. Photo by Weber, 1893. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a51890

The two people in the photo at right seem stopped in their tracks, much like I was when I saw this image for the first time. As I took in the details, I realized the towering metal behemoth was a Ferris wheel. It would take a bit more research to discover that this is actually the Ferris Wheel – the one that gave this iconic ride its name.

Daniel Burnham, Director of Works of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, wanted American engineers to deliver a marvel to rival the Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, and engineer George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. took up the challenge. Ferris’ answer was a steel wheel 250 feet in diameter, steam-powered and capable of carrying over 2,000 people at one time. It eclipsed every other “pleasure wheel,” the term for much more modest rotating wheel rides, in size, capacity and sheer nerve.

I immediately sought out more images in our collections to see the full scope of this monster ride, and was not disappointed. The Ferris Wheel and a captive balloon were dramatic sights on the Midway Plaisance at the exposition, where 1.5 million people paid 50 cents each for two revolutions on the big wheel. (Another term was coined at this world’s fair, as avenues of rides at all manner of fairs are now known as midways!)

Captive balloon and Ferris wheel, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago. Photo by C. D. Arnold, copyrighted 1893. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b35866
Captive balloon and Ferris Wheel, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago. Photo by C. D. Arnold, copyrighted 1893. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b35866

The Columbian Exposition was open for just over a month before the Ferris Wheel was finished and ready for riders. In the photo below left just six of the thirty six cars are in place. And at right, the wheel is ready to roll!

World's Fair, the great ferris wheel, 280 feet high, Chicago, Ill. Photo copyrighted by B. L. Singley, 1893. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a51888
World’s Fair, the great Ferris Wheel, 280 feet high, Chicago, Ill. Photo copyrighted by B. L. Singley, 1893. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a51888

Ferris wheel at the Chicago World's Fair. Photo copyrighted by the Waterman Co., 1893. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a50979
Ferris Wheel at the Chicago World’s Fair. Photo copyrighted by the Waterman Co., 1893. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a50979

The Ferris Wheel rises above the distant horizon in this 1893 bird’s eye view of the massive exposition:

Bird's-eye view of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. Chromolithograph by Rand McNally & Co., copyrighted 1893. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.09328
Bird’s-eye view of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. Chromolithograph by Rand McNally & Co., copyrighted 1893. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.09328

Years after its rousing success during the Columbian Exposition, the Ferris Wheel was moved and reassembled for the national stage in the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. The next two photos attest to the impressive view fair goers enjoyed while riding the wheel.

Looking down through the ferris wheel at the World's Fair, St. Louis, Mo., 1904. Photo by R. R. Whiting, copyrighted 1904. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s03203
Looking down through the Ferris Wheel at the World’s Fair, St. Louis, Mo., 1904. Photo by R. R. Whiting, copyrighted 1904. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s03203
From ferris wheel down over French garden and building to Brazil, Siam, etc., World's Fair, St. Louis, U. S. A. Photo copyrighted by Underwood & Underwood, 1904. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s03197
From Ferris Wheel down over French garden and building to Brazil, Siam, etc., World’s Fair, St. Louis, U. S. A. Photo copyrighted by Underwood & Underwood, 1904. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s03197

Following Ferris’ landmark creation, which was eventually demolished for scrap in 1906, even grander wheels appeared around the world, including Paris’ reply to the Ferris Wheel, La Grande Roue, at the 1900 Exposition Universelle.

La Grande Roue. Paris, France. Photochrom by Detroit Publishing Company, circa 1900. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.05203
La Grande Roue. Paris, France. Photochrom by Detroit Publishing Company, circa 1900. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.05203

Regardless of future improvements on the design or the development of even larger wheels, this type of amusement ride had a new name after 1893: the Ferris Wheel.

Two world's fair wonders. Hornung M'f'g Co., manufacturers of "Challenge" [and] "Columbus," revolving and reclining barbers' chairs. Chromolithograph copyrighted 1895. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a48392
Two world’s fair wonders. Hornung M’f’g Co., manufacturers of “Challenge” [and] “Columbus,” revolving and reclining barbers’ chairs. Chromolithograph copyrighted 1895. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a48392
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Comments (5)

  1. I wish I could get a book of all the world’s fairs and pictures of their attractions. Including the Lewis & Clark Expo in Portland and fairs of that type. Is such a thing available? I have a few of just individual fairs like Chicago’s, but I would enjoy all of them.

  2. Thanks for the memories…..have a great day…

  3. A fascinating detailed description about the planning and construction of George Ferris’ amazing feat can be found in Erik Larson’s terrific book, The DEvil in The White City, Vintage Books.

  4. Who purchased a few of the original cars with the swival seats from the first ferris wheel? Where are the cars now? Were they made into restaurants? (size of a bus). Also- are any of the swival seats somewhere?

  5. My great-great uncle was G.W.G.Ferris Jr., & I’ve been finding out more & more about him…..quite a guy. Especially interested in his early years in the Carson Valley, Nevada. There is a “Ferris House” in Carson City which is just over the hill from Lake Tahoe where I live.
    For some reason, I seem to be the only one in the family named after him, & I am honored & intrigued.

    Dana Ferris Seymour

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