The Life and Explosive Death of the World's First Ferris Wheel

1893 marked the 400 year anniversary of Columbus' landing in the New World. To commemorate the anniversary, the 51st US Congress of 1890 declared that a great fair—the World's Columbian Exposition—would be held on April 9th of 1893 in Chicago and Daniel H. Burnham, father of the skyscraper, would oversee its construction. If only he could find enough civil engineers to pull it off.

Despite the formation of a group of engineers and architects known as the "Saturday Afternoon Club" that met weekly to discuss the expo's progress and acted as a straw poll regarding architectural and engineering decisions, few civil engineers wanted to actively participate in the work. So Burnham employed an age-old, surefire tactic to drum up volunteers for the project—he bagged on the French. Burnham first chided the club for growing complacent in their success and swaddling themselves in accolades for past deeds rather than striving to exceed their previous triumphs and introduce some—any—novel feature in their architectural works. Nothing "met the expectations of the people," as he put it. Burnham argued that the Eiffel Tower, which was built by Gustave Eiffel for the Paris Exposition of 1889—and centennial of the French Revolution—was leagues beyond anything the gathered crowd had designed in recent memory. It was high time that the Americans launched a cultural counter-punch to reclaim their prestige.

This got the crowd's attention—specifically, the ear of George W. Ferris, a bridge-builder from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and owner of the G.W.G. Ferris & Co., which inspected structural steel used in railroads and bridges. While the group rallied against initial suggestions of just building a bigger tower, Ferris sketched out a revolutionary new attraction on his napkin that would put the Eiffel to shame.

The Life and Explosive Death of the World's First Ferris WheelS

The buttressed steel wheel that Ferris designed was truly original—so much so that the structure's design had to be derived from first principles because no one on Earth actually had experience constructing a machine of this size. By the winter of 1892, Ferris had the acquired the $600,000 in funding he needed but had just four months of the coldest winter in living memory to complete construction before the expo opened. To meet the deadline, Ferris split the wheel's construction among several local machine shops and constructed individual component sets congruently and assembled everything on-site.

Construction crews first struggled with laying the wheel's foundation. The site's soil was frozen solid three feet deep overlaying another 20 feet of sand that exhibited liquefaction whenever crews attempted to drive piles. To counter the effects of the sand, engineers continually pumped steam into the ground to thaw it, then drove piles 32 feet deep into the bedrock to lay steel beams and poured eight concrete and masonry piers measuring 20 x 20 x 35 feet. These pylons would support the twin 140-foot towers upon which the wheel's central 89,320-pound, 45-foot-long, 33-inch-wide axle would rest. The wheel section measured 250 feet across, 825 feet around, and supported 36 enclosed wooden cars that each held up to 60 riders. 10-inch steam pipes fed a pair of 1000 HP engines—a primary and a reserve—that powered the wheel's movement. Three thousand of Edison's new-fangled light bulbs lit up the wheel's supports.

The Wheel opened on time and ran until November 6th of that year. A $.50 fare entitled the rider a nine-minute continuous revolution (which followed an initial six-stop revolution as the attraction was loaded) with views across Lake Michigan and parts of four states. To say that the attraction was a success is a bit of an understatement—the Ferris Wheel raked in $726,805.50 during the Expo. And adjusted for inflation, that amounts to $18,288,894.91. Not bad.

The wheel fell on hard times after the fair, though. It was first moved in 1895 to nearby Lincoln Park, then sold in 1896 when Ferris died of tuberculosis at the age of 37, and then moved to St. Louis in 1904 for the World's Fair. But by 1906, after 13 years of operation, the original Ferris Wheel had fallen into disrepair and was eventually slated for demolition.

As the Chicago Tribune retold,

It required 200 pounds of dynamite to put it out of business. The first charge... wrecked its foundation and the wheel dropped to the ground... as it settled it slowly turned, and then, after tottering a moment like a huge giant in distress, it collapsed slowly. It did not fall to one side, as the wreckers had planned... it merely crumpled up slowly. Within a few minutes it was a tangled mass of steel and iron thirty or forty feet high. The huge axle, weighing 45 tons, dropped slowly with the remnants of the wheel, crushing the smaller braces and steel framework. When the mass stopped settling it bore no resemblance to the wheel which was so familiar to Chicago and St. Louis and to 2,500,000 amusement seekers from all over the world, who, in the days when it was in operation, made the trip to the top of its height of 264 feet and then slowly around and down to the starting point.

Following the blast that wrecked the wheel, but which failed to shatter its foundations, came another charge of 100 pounds of dynamite. The sticks were sunk in holes drilled in the concrete foundations that supported the pillars in the north side of the wheel.

While the original Ferris Wheel did eventually fall, its legacy and the public's love of the attraction continues in carnivals, street fairs and amusement parks around the world.

[Wikipedia - About - Navy Pier - Hyde Park History - Image: Library of Congress]