Wednesday, May 02, 2018

The first Ferris Wheel from the Chicago Expo of 1893- Each of the 36 cars held 60 people for a total of 2160 passengers, at the top of the ride, people were 264 feet off the ground

The 1893 fair organizers and Congress’s goal was to stir men’s blood, to surpass the marvels of the Exposition Universelle produced by France and held in Paris in 1889, which had been so majestic and exotic that no one thought it could ever be equaled. America’s pride as an international power demanded a response, something to eclipse the French exposition and its Eiffel Tower. Alexandre Eiffel, a French engineer, was hired to create the grandest spectacle of all.

The World’s Columbian Exposition was the answer, and four cities—New York, Washington, D.C., St. Louis and Chicago—submitted bids. After several rounds of intense lobbying, Congress awarded the charter to Chicago. Burnham, the director of works for the 1893 world’s fair, spent more than $22 million (almost $600 million in today’s dollars) to make it happen.

Attendance on the fair’s best day, Chicago Day, was 761,942 people, which beat out the best day, by almost half, at the Paris exposition.

the main axle was made by Bethlehem Iron Company, the best around, and weighed 45 tons, 71 tons with the gears added. It was mounted 140 feet high on supports

The wheel was manufactured in Pittsburgh by the Bethlehem Iron Company.

There were 36 passenger cars, each fitted with 40 revolving chairs and able to accommodate up to 60 people, giving a total capacity of 2,160.

The Ferris Wheel took 20 minutes to make two revolutions, the first involving 6 stops to allow passengers to exit and enter and the second a 9 minute non-stop rotation, for which the ticket holder paid 50 cents.  The top of the wheel was 264 feet off the ground, and gave riders a magnificent view

Columbian Exposition crowds were so huge at times that trains, like this one on Cottage Grove Avenue, carried an overflow of passengers on the roofs of their cars.

The Liberty Bell left its home in Philadelphia for only the second time in history to be part of the  1893 Expo. The bell traveled aboard a flatbed rail car

this was the view from the top

The Buffalo Bill Wild West Show was also at the 1893 Expo, in fact, they basically went into residency in Chicago for the summer to capitalize on the influx of tourists, they avoided the Expo's demands to split the ticket sales 50/50, not of profit, but of gross income from tickets, by arriving a month early, and setting up nearlby, not inside the Expo grounds.

The pinnacle of Buffalo Bill's Chicago career coincided with the Expo of 1893. On a city block adjacent to the fair, Cody staged his show, billed by that point as "Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World." There were "450 horses of all countries," trumpeted the ads.

It was "the greatest equestrian exhibition of the century," said the Tribune. "In addition to Indians, cowboys, Mexicans, Cossacks, Arabs, and Tartars are detachments from the Sixth United States Cavalry, French chasseurs, German Pottsdammer reds, and English lancers."

From April 26 to Oct. 31 — a longer run than the Columbian Exposition itself — Cody and his company performed before packed grandstands. Visitors couldn't claim to have seen the fair if they didn't also attend the "Wild West." Anne Oakley was there performing too.

The an annual picnic for poor children was turned into an extravaganza by Cody. "For weeks the boys who sell papers and the boys who black boots have gazed in speechless wonder at the gaudy bill-boards on which are depicted thrilling incidents in frontier life."

And Cody personally made sure everyone had the opportunity to attend: On July 27, he treated 15,000 poor children to a downtown parade, a picnic and a visit to the Western spectacle when on one occasion, fair officials refused a request by Mayor Carter Harrison that the poor children of Chicago be admitted for one day at no charge.

 Ever the consummate showman, Cody immediately announced a “Waif’s Day” at the Wild West. He offered every child from Chicago free train tickets, free admission to his show and free access to roam the Wild West encampment. To top it off, he also gave them all the candy and ice cream they could eat, free of charge. Fifteen thousand children swarmed the Wild West, and Cody was hailed as a “champion of the poor.”

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show closed a day after the Expo. During its run, an average of 16,000 spectators attended each of the 318 performances, for an overall attendance exceeding five million.

Cody cleared about a million dollars in profit (nearly $30 million today).  He used part of the proceeds to found his namesake town, Cody, Wyoming; build an extensive fairgrounds for North Platte, Nebraska; and retire the debts of five Nebraska churches. The balance went toward expanding the panorama of his Wild West extravaganza.

Buffalo Bill left town a hero, and so he remained on each subsequent visit to Chicago: more than 100 performance dates over the next 23 years.

New York Central’s Engine 999 at the World’s Columbian Exhibition, 1893

Built expressly for The railroads Empire State Express Service, Engine 999 became the fastest land vehicle ever, with an unheard of before speed of 112.5 miles per hour, on May 10, 1893. a record it held for a decade. It went on to tour the country and then was displayed at the Chicago Columbian Exposition

Though the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition closed on November 1, 1893, the Ferris Wheel stood idle on the Midway until April 29, 1894, when a new site was found. It took 86 days and cost $15k (today $400k) to dismantle it.

In 1895, a new site for the observation wheel on Chicago's North Side was located, in the Park West neighborhood of the Lincoln Park community, and named it "Ferris Wheel Park."

The ride, which drew complaints in it's new location at Clark Street and Wrightwood Avenue, where it withstood a lawsuit by William Boyce, founder of the Boy Scouts of America, and other local residents who didn't relish an amusement park in their neighborhood created other financial problems, and it was seized by the Cook County Sheriff in November, 1896.

A beer garden was proposed to be added to the site, but locals shot that idea down.

It cost around a half million, was neglected after the expo ended, and no one wanted to operate, own, dismantle (at about 40 thousand dollars to pull it apart) and eventually was sold for scrap, however, the buyer found another expo, this one in St Louis for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904

After the St. Louis Fair, the Ferris wheel was sold for scrap again when a sale to Coney Island amusement park failed to materialize.

It was destroyed with 1 or 2 hundred pounds of dynamite (after several attempts), and the parts taken away for salvage.

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 71 tons, dropped slowly with the remnants of the wheel, crushing the smaller braces and steel framework.

Local legend says the Ferris Wheel's axle was buried with the rest of the fair's rubble in makeshift landfills in Forest Park in St. Louis, Missouri.

It wasn't the only one, another was made in London, and had nearly the same life. Finished in 1895, it had 40 cars that could fit 40 people, and by 1907 was destroyed for no longer being profitable. This other wheel was known as the Great Wheel at the Empire of India Exhibition in London Earl's Court district.


  1. Great post! I'd read about the original Ferris wheel but never found any photos. It's like revolving railway carriages, and must have taken some nerve to ride. The whole world's fair was a tour de force of engineering and architectural achievements, including dozens of Elco electric boats giving rides on the lake, and Westinghouse's game changing use of AC current to light the exhibition...