America’s Eiffel Tower
George W. G. Ferris built his awesome wheel in six months, saw it come to symbolize the achievements of a newly confident America, and died broke and alone three years later
In 1893 George Washington Gale Ferris was the champion of U.S. technology, the engineer who had proved that America could top the Eiffel Tower. That summer, excited tourists waited in line for the ride of a lifetime on Ferris’s big mechanical wheel, which could carry 2,160 passengers at a time to a height equaling that of a twenty-six-story building, in an era when most people had never seen a skyscraper. Although the thirty-four-year-old Ferris was an unlikely celebrity, he quickly became famous as the press recounted his struggle to build the machine that other engineers had said couldn’t be built. There seemed to be no limits to what he could achieve.
Only three years later he was bankrupt and living alone in a hotel in Pittsburgh, estranged from his wife. On November 21, 1896, he died at Pittsburgh’s Mercy Hospital, with no one at his side. Obituaries reported that he had died of typhoid fever, tuberculosis, or a kidney ailment called Bright’s disease. His marital and financial problems gave rise to rumors of suicide, but no real evidence has ever surfaced that he killed himself. Fifteen months after Ferris’s death the crematorium was still holding his ashes, waiting for someone to claim them. Like his famous wheel, Ferris’s career had ascended to exhilarating heights, where anything seemed possible, before coming right back down to earth, where life could be harsh.
Althought little is known about Ferris’s private life, a memorial written by two engineering colleagues perhaps offers a glimpse of his personality. “He was eminently engaging and social,” they eulogized, describing him as an entertaining storyteller who often amused his friends with anecdotes. They portrayed him as an optimist, convinced that he would ultimately overcome any troubles. Even in the darkest times “he was ever looking for the sunshine to come. He had, however, miscalculated his powers of endurance, and he died a martyr to his ambition for fame and prominence.”
Ferris was born in Galesburg, Illinois, on February 14, 1859. His family was prominent in Galesburg, which had been founded two decades earlier by the Reverend George Washington Gale (for whom young George, his father, and the town they lived in were named). Innovation was in his blood; several other Ferrises had shown an inventive streak, including George’s uncle Nathan Olmsted Ferris, who introduced popcorn to Great Britain by preparing a batch for a fascinated Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1846. When George was five years old his family headed west, settling near Carson City, Nevada, when money ran low. Because his parents valued education, or perhaps because he was unruly, he was sent away to school at the California Military Academy, in Oakland. In 1881 he completed an engineering degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. After graduation he worked on road, trestle, and bridge projects in New York, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Then he moved to Pittsburgh and started an engineering firm with some friends from Rensselaer, specializing in inspecting iron and steel for bridges and other structures. Later the firm opened branch offices in Chicago and New York City.
Ferris’s ascent to fame began when he attended a banquet in 1891 or early 1892 for engineers and architects in Chicago, which would soon host the World’s Columbian Exposition—the Chicago world’s fair. There Daniel H. Burnham, the director of works for the fair, gave a speech praising America’s architects for planning beautiful buildings for the exposition’s White City but regretting that America’s engineers had not risen to the challenge of producing a structure to rival the Eiffel Tower, star of the 1889 Paris International Exposition.
Although the fair’s planners had received many proposals, none were novel or daring enough. For want of anything more original, they made half-hearted plans, which were later dropped, to build a tower taller than Paris’s famous landmark, a structure that would be more mimicry than innovation. Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel himself offered to surpass his Paris tower by building a grander one for the Chicago fair, but the committee on buildings and grounds promptly received a letter signed by twenty-five leading U.S. engineers demanding that any tower built for the exposition “be the result of American genius.”
Intrigued by the challenge, Ferris began toying with four or five ideas. Later he told a reporter: “We used to have a Saturday afternoon club, chiefly engineers at the World’s Fair. It was at one of these dinners, down in a Chicago chop house, that I hit on the idea. I remember remarking that I would build a wheel, a monster. I got some paper and began sketching it out. I fixed the size, determined the construction, the number of cars we would run, the number of people it would hold, what we would charge, the plan of stopping six times in the first revolution and loading, and then making a complete turn—in short, before the dinner was over, I had sketched out almost the entire detail and my plan has never varied an item from that day.” Since Ferris made these comments during a lawsuit challenging the originality of his invention, he may have had reason to exaggerate how comprehensive his lunchtime inspiration was.
Ferris envisioned two large, identical, parallel circles connected with struts and revolving on an enormous steel axle, lifting passengers in railroad-style cars high above the fairgrounds. In many ways Ferris’s design resembled a bicycle wheel, but while a bike wheel has a continuous rim, his structure, made of separate segments connected with pins, depended on trusswork for rigidity. His claim of completing the details in one afternoon must have been an exaggeration, because the stresses in the wheel were complex for the time and inspired a lively discussion among engineers even after the wheel was operational. William F. Gronau, one of Ferris’s partners, later said that he himself had solved the problems of safe balance and stressing. There were also reports that Ferris had actually designed the wheel five or six years earlier.
Although Ferris had an excellent professional reputation, many of his colleagues said that his wheel would not work; even if the means could be found to turn so great a mass, it would become deformed when it revolved. Burnham worried that the wheel would not withstand Chicago’s notorious winds, while others wondered who would be foolhardy enough to ride such a contraption.
Ferris persisted, spending $25,000 on plans and specifications. The fair’s directors hesitated, questioning whether the design was feasible. After granting permission in the spring or early summer, they withdrew it almost immediately. Finally, on November 29, 1892, they again accepted Ferris’s idea, with the proviso that he find his own financing, because their construction budget had already been allocated for other projects.
The Eiffel Tower’s builders had received a large subsidy from the French government, but Ferris was on his own. He used his personal credit to begin placing orders for steel and formed a joint stock company, but the sale of shares went slowly until he attracted several prominent investors, including Andrew Onderdonk (a railroad magnate) and Judge William Vincent. Ferris faced another problem the French hadn’t had: time. Eiffel took more than two years to build his tower; because of the directors’ vacillation, Ferris had only twenty-two weeks before the fair’s inauguration on May 1,1893 (as it turned out, he missed the opening). Moreover, he would have to work through a Chicago winter building an untested design. His chances of success seemed slim.
While excavation was under way in Chicago, most of the wheel’s components were being wrought at nine steel mills in Detroit and loaded onto 150 railroad cars for shipment. Other parts were being manufactured in Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, and in Pittsburgh and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Ferris’s first major construction task was to pour concrete footings. He had to do this in January 1893, when the temperature fell as low as ten degrees below zero. The crews dug as fast as they could in the frozen ground, striking quicksand about twenty feet down. When they reached bedrock at thirty-five feet, they began to pour cubic blocks of concrete twenty feet on a side, using steam to keep it from freezing.
The next step was to build the tall towers that would support the wheel’s axle. First, large steel bars were embedded in the concrete to anchor them. The towers were then built of vertical posts and horizontal struts, or braces, which were reinforced with crisscrossed rolled-metal rods. Arched plate-iron girders at the bottom of the towers connected the posts to each other for greater strength and stability.
When the towers were finished, it was time to start putting up the wheel itself. The workmen started by hoisting the forty-five-ton axle—the largest hollow steel shaft ever forged—to rest on bearings at the top. Then they attached spokes to the hubs at either end of the axle and, by linking the ends of the spokes with metal beams, formed two parallel circles. Next, trusswork was attached to these inner circles, and two parallel outer rims were formed with curved, hollow iron beams and connected to each other with iron rods, from which the cars would later hang.
To rotate the monster, the crew installed sprocket wheels and a driving chain underneath it. Notched cast-iron plates on the outer rim of the wheel accommodated the pins of the driving chain, which would engage the wheel on its lower edge. The power came from a thousand-horsepower horizontal coal-fired steam engine; an identical engine was held in reserve for emergencies. A Westinghouse air brake was installed to stop the wheel—if indeed it ever started.
When the moment of truth came, on June 2, Ferris was in Pittsburgh on business. Before leaving, he had ordered his construction chief to “turn the wheel or tear it off at the towers.” Workers, showing both reckless courage and faith in Ferris, perched on the struts and hung on for dear life as the engine churned and the wheel revolved for the first time. Gronau said it made a “most horrible noise” when it began to turn, caused by rust on the brake band, but this was only a temporary problem. What mattered was that the wheel moved!
A jubilant crew began to hang the thirty-six gondolas, working day and night to attach them to their axles. Each car was furnished with forty swiveling stools and had standing room for an additional twenty riders. The cars had doors at both ends, so riders could enter via six platforms of varying heights on one side of the wheel and disembark on the opposite side. Accounts vary, but a ride on the wheel seems to have taken about half an hour: twenty minutes for the first revolution, interrupted by stops to board passengers, and then ten minutes for a second, uninterrupted revolution.
The Ferris wheel officially debuted on June 21, when invited guests listened to speeches and took turns riding. A newspaper reported: “Hundreds of people piled into the cars of the big Ferris wheel at 3 o’clock this afternoon … yelling and shouting, hurrahing and clapping their hands as they went. Members of the Iowa State Band, huddled into one big car, blew inspiring notes through their brass horns, and champagne corks flew in every direction.”
Each car had a uniformed conductor to open the doors, answer questions, and calm nervous passengers during the ride. Through large windows the riders could gaze at the White City, Lake Michigan, and much of Chicago from a height of 260 feet. The windows could be lowered for ventilation, but they were covered with iron grating “to avoid accidents from panics and to prevent insane people from jumping out,” according to a report in Scientific American .
The wheel was immediately successful, rivaling the notorious Middle Eastern belly dancers as the most talked-about attraction on the Midway. While many fairgoers professed to be shocked by the North African artistes’ abdominal gyrations, everyone marveled at the smooth operation of the Ferris wheel. One writer said, “Apart from a little rattling of windows and a gentle swaying motion, as of a vessel rocked on a summer sea, there is nothing to unsettle the nerves of woman or child, though on the first voyage many close their eyes.” At night nearly three thousand incandescent lights outlined the rims of the wheel, the supporting towers, and the huge axle.
Despite the fears of Ferris’s colleagues, the wheel ran flawlessly (unlike the fair’s moving sidewalk, which was often closed for repairs). Some laymen expressed concern that the wheel might become unbalanced when the cars were not evenly loaded, but these fears proved groundless, because the passengers’ weight was so minute compared with that of the entire wheel. The construction chief even compared the passengers to “so many human flies.”
Fears about the wind were also unfounded. During July a tremendous gale struck Chicago. Winds reached 110 miles per hour, blowing the rain horizontally; flagpoles and signs were uprooted. As a publicity stunt, Ferris, his wife, Margaret, and a reporter rode out the storm at the top of the wheel, which vibrated but suffered no damage. The reporter’s account stated: “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.”
Although the huge contraption was generally viewed as a great feat of American know-how, some critics said that Ferris had merely reinvented the wheel. An engineering journal pointed out that the tension wheel was not new and described a number of large wheels used for industrial purposes in the United States and Great Britain. Ferris himself recalled being fascinated by a huge undershot waterwheel near his childhood home in Nevada.
Pleasure wheels could be found in places as diverse as Albania, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and Egypt. In Russia fair-goers enjoyed hand-cranked rides that “turned round and round, like a gigantic wheel, with brightly-painted wagonettes filled with tipsy revellers,” according to a nineteenth-century Russian writer. The British were fond of “perpendicular roundabouts,” rides that embodied the idea of the Ferris wheel but were comparatively primitive, and American fairs sometimes had razzle-dazzles, small wheels with buckets or seats for riders. Apocryphal stories circulated of a wooden wheel much like Ferris’s that was built in Minnesota in the late 1880s.
Moreover, Ferris was not the only person to propose building a pleasure wheel for the world’s fair. The exposition rejected H. W. Fowler’s design for a wheel powered by a Dutch-style windmill and W. H. Wachter’s proposal for an electric wheel that would carry 220 people. William Somers, who had built a wooden observation roundabout in Atlantic City, also submitted a design that was rejected. The determined Somers built his wheel anyway, just outside the Chicago fairgrounds. Nevertheless, Ferris’s wheel was remarkable for its size, and it is unlikely that anyone else had dreamed of carrying so many people at one time. Moreover, it accomplished its purpose: it eclipsed the Eiffel Tower and gave Americans something to boast about.
Crowds stood in long lines for a ride on the wheel, which ran from 8:00 A.M. until 11:00 P.M. seven days a week. During the fair the wheel carried nearly 1.5 million paying customers even though the fare was fifty cents—the price of two men’s shirts or a tooth extraction. The record attendance for one day was 38,000 riders. A contemporary magazine said, “Those who go up in the wheel, paying their fifty cents, come down declaring that they would not take ten dollars for their experience.”
When the fair closed, on October 30, the wheel had grossed approximately $713,000, but it was not a windfall for Ferris. He had spent more than $325,000 on construction costs, and half the receipts above $300,000 belonged to the fair board. In addition, he had to pay all the operating costs, including wages for conductors, maintenance workers, and ticket sellers.
On November 1 security guards, Ferris employees, tourists, and the Chicago police engaged in a free-for-all. Although the fair had officially closed the day before, Ferris believed that his contract allowed him to continue operating. After tickets had been sold to some riders, security guards cordoned off the ticket office and tried to keep visitors away. But determined sightseers rushed the guards, breaking through the lines at weak points, and dashed for the platform, where.guards tried to drag them back and Ferris employees tried to pull them under the turnstiles. Guards armed with billy clubs, slingshots, and swords fought with Ferris employees and hauled away at least two of the workers. Even though Chicago policemen were called in to restore order, the melee continued until the wheel closed for the night.
Ferris maintained that the fair wanted to close the wheel because he had refused to give it a share of the last two weeks’ receipts because of a legal dispute. The two parties embarked on litigation, which finally produced a judgment of $84,000.75 against the Ferris Wheel Company in January 1897, two months after Ferris’s death.
During the fair there had been persistent rumors that the wheel would be moved to New York, probably to Coney Island, after the fair closed. George C. Tilyou, Coney Island’s great promoter, rode the wheel and may have negotiated to buy it, but no deal was made. Instead Tilyou hired the Pennsylvania Steel Company to build a wheel half as big and blithely advertised it as “the largest Ferris wheel in the world.” By the time Tilyou’s wheel was assembled, he had sold enough nearby concession space to pay for it.
Ten thousand people a day rode the Coney Island wheel in 1896. By 1910 the wheel was old hat, and the fare had to be reduced from a dime to a nickel. By 1914 it was just one of the twenty-five “big attractions” included in a twenty-five-cent ticket. Nevertheless, Tilyou was always proud of his brightly lit wheel, which could be seen miles out at sea. Immigrants arriving from Europe saw the Coney Island Ferris wheel before they caught their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.
Back in Chicago, plans were made in 1894 to move the original Ferris wheel to Broadway and Thirty-seventh Street in New York City, where it would be part of an attraction called Old Vienna, but this idea was abandoned. Instead the wheel was disassembled and stored at a railroad siding. In 1895 Ferris reassembled his wheel next to Lincoln Park on North Clark Street in Chicago. Because of objections from the park’s neighbors, he was denied a liquor permit and thus the wheel failed to draw big crowds. Because tickets were too expensive and the view couldn’t compete with the lovely White City and the exotic Midway, the wheel languished in its new location, even though stoves were installed in the cars so it could operate year-round.
The Ferris Wheel Company regrouped and sold additional bonds, but it still ended up more than $400,000 in debt. At a bankruptcy auction the Chicago House Wrecking Company outbid another salvage firm, taking the wheel for a mere $8,150. For unknown reasons, the company decided against selling the steel for scrap, and the wheel enjoyed one final hurrah. During the winter of 1903-04 the Chicago House Wrecking Company prepared to ship Ferris’s creation to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. A crew of ninety-five men worked for more than two months building the necessary falsework and derricks and dismantling the wheel for shipment. By the time it was operational in St. Louis, the costs had reached $265,000.
At the exposition the wheel was placed in a desirable location overlooking the French Garden’s flowers and fruit trees. It once again became a major midway attraction, competing with the likes of a simulated submarine trip, large plastic models of Civil War battles, and an exhibit where sightseers could stare at twenty-four premature infants living in incubators. The wheel grossed $257,156.09, an amount less than the cost of moving it to St. Louis. With no real prospect of making money on the wheel, the Chicago House Wrecking Company decided to destroy it. On May 11, 1906, a hundred-pound charge of dynamite crippled the big white elephant. Then holes were bored in the foundation, and a second blast finished the job.
Despite its sad ending, the Ferris wheel was a success. And success almost always breeds imitators. The first was probably the Firth wheel, built for the California Midwinter Exposition in San Francisco. During the Chicago fair a group of Californians had hit upon the idea of moving some of the better exhibits from Chicago to their home state during the winter, when most of the United States was too cold for outdoor entertainment. Their fair opened on January 27, 1894. Since the Ferris wheel wasn’t available, a smaller wheel was built to carry 160 passengers in sixteen cars. The design borrowed heavily from Ferris’s, although a different method of bracing was used for the outer rim.
London’s 1895 Oriental Exhibition boasted a 276-foot wheel, and a 209-foot Ferris wheel opened in Vienna’s Prater Park in 1897. Orson Welles and Joseph Gotten rode this wheel during a climactic scene in The Third Man (1949). Although one of the last skirmishes of World War II destroyed much of the Prater, the wheel survived, and it has become an enduring symbol of Vienna.
For the Paris International Exposition of 1900 the French built a wheel with a diameter exceeding three hundred feet, which carried twelve hundred people in forty cars. The design, which had been patented in 1893 by James Weir Graydon of the U.S. Marine Corps, used a steam-powered cable system to turn the wheel. It resembled Ferris’s wheel, but with the inner rim much closer to the outer one.
Then there was William E. Sullivan of Roodhouse, Illinois, a young bridge builder who rode the original Ferris wheel at the Chicago world’s fair. He went home with an idea: to make small, portable wheels for parks and traveling carnivals. In 1900 he built a prototype and tested it in Central Park in Jacksonville, Illinois. He took his wheel to other parks that summer, making enough money to build a second one. In 1901 he operated two wheels, in 1903 he expanded to three, and so on, until he had six In 1906 he founded the Eli Bridge Company, putting “Bridge” in the name to humor stockholders who feared that the Ferris-wheel business wouldn’t last and that Sullivan would be forced to return to his former line of work. Today the Sullivan family still operates the Eli Bridge Company, making both stationary and portable models with prices ranging from $45,000 to $350,000. Eli’s major competitor is Chance Rides of Wichita, Kansas, which makes larger wheels costing from $375,000 to $795,000. Its newest model is called the Century, to commemorate the centennial of the Ferris wheel and pay tribute to the man who created something that is as much a part of every fair and amusement park as cotton candy.