Celebrated as a technological marvel that rivaled the Eiffel Tower, Chicago's Ferris wheel has stood as an enduring symbol of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. During the past 125 years, the Ferris wheel has inspired imitations, large and small, around the globe: the 443-foot-tall London Eye and the 541-foot-tall Singapore Flyer are two of the tallest contemporary wheels in operation. Designed and promoted as an observation wheel, the Ferris wheel is part of a lineage of urban observation towers built for expositions that includes the 1853 Latting Observatory and the 1889 Eiffel Tower. But the story of the Ferris wheel's rise skyward begins with the dynamics that shaped Chicago during the 1850s.
In 1848, the completion of the Illinois & Michigan Canal, the construction of the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad, and the founding of the Board of Trade ushered in an economic boom. By 1860, Chicago's population had grown almost fourfold, and the physical footprint of the city expanded as commercial and industrial development pushed residential areas further north, south, and west. Most Chicagoans took enormous pride in this urban expansion, extolling the virtues of their city as an ideal place for commerce and industry and bragging about its importance to the nation. Urban panoramas, or bird's-eye views, became valuable tools for those seeking to attract new investors, industries, and businesses, and Chicagoans eagerly embraced them.
Lithographic aerial views of Chicago, typically looking west from an angled position high above Lake Michigan, depicted the city in a three-dimensional manner, focusing on transportation features and industrial capacity and sometimes exaggerating the commercial claims of its boosters. Bird’s-eye views also decreased anxiety by giving Chicagoans a frame of reference for a city that had grown out of their reach. The massive changes in Chicago’s urban landscape and population influx of the 1850s resulted in a space that was physically too large and too complex to comprehend. Although idealized depictions of the city, the views nevertheless helped citizens imagine Chicago as a whole and visualize their place in it.
In 1890, Chicago was awarded the honor of hosting the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, colloquially known as the World's Fair. The selection was a significant achievement in the history of the young city and symbolized Chicago's growing reputation worldwide. Proposals for a grand monument to mark the occasion filled newspapers, and for many, this meant the construction of an observation tower. Notice how this artist's rendering includes such a structure.
Urban observation towers, developed in the 1850s as features of expositions, provided compelling, real-life bird's-eye views. The Latting Observatory, a 315-foot, octagonal-based, iron-braced wooden tower, was built in 1853 to adjoin the New York Crystal Palace, which hosted the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (an endeavor directly inspired by London's Great Exhibition of the Works of All Nations in 1851). Conceived by Warring Latting and designed by architect William Naugle, the tower accommodated 1,500 visitors at a time and provided expansive views of Manhattan, Queens, and New Jersey from three observation levels. It was the tallest structure in New York until a fire destroyed it in 1856.
Undoubtedly, the most spectacular example of a nineteenth-century urban tower is Gustave Eiffel's iron structure, built on Paris's Champ de Mars as the entrance to the 1889 Exposition Universelle. Inspired by the Latting Observatory, Eiffel created a 984-foot-tall lattice tower (1,063 feet today including its television tower), the tallest manmade structure at that time, with three observation levels accessible by elevator. Although originally denounced as an engineering monstrosity—numerous French artists and architects objected to it as a gross aberration among Paris's cherished structures—it earned widespread popular acclaim as an engineering marvel and a unique symbol of Paris and its world's fair.
The Columbus Tower was one of many structures proposed to eclipse the Eiffel Tower and give Chicago a monumental feature for the World’s Columbian Exposition. According to a "Chicago Daily Tribune" article of May 12, 1890, the lattice tower was to be built of steel and stand 1,500 feet tall. Washington, DC, architects Charles Kinkel and G. R. Pohl had already spent two years on the design, which featured four major entrances, an interior space on the bottom floor capable of accommodating 30,000, and a hotel of 4,000 rooms; space for the Chicago Public Library was also being considered. More than 15,000 electric lights would illuminate the exterior balconies. As proposed, the Columbus Tower would cost $2 million to be financed by private investors. Daniel Burnham, director of works for the Columbian Exposition, however, was never keen on plans to “out-Eiffel” Eiffel and his stunning structure. Instead, he advocated for an engineering breakthrough, something completely original that would engage the public and demonstrate American technological superiority.
Here are other examples of potential observation towers for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Among the published ideas were plans for structures that would exceed the height of the Eiffel Tower. Many of them defied practicality, even taxed the power of imagination, and only a few were financially feasible.
George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. (1859–96) was born in Galesburg, Illinois, and attended the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, where he earned a degree in civil engineering. His career began in the railroad industry, but he eventually focused on consulting and construction, especially bridge building. He founded G. W. G. Ferris and Co. in Pittsburgh and later opened a satellite office in Chicago. In 1892, he answered Daniel Burnham's call for an original technological breakthrough for the World's Columbian Exposition, committing $25,000 to develop plans and specifications for his revolving observation wheel. He then formed the Ferris Wheel Company, raising $600,000 in capital to manufacture and construct the great wheel. But first he had to overcome objections regarding its safety and financial feasibility as well as competitors' alternative wheel designs. After further refinement of his plans, Ferris eventually won the concession to build his wheel on the Midway Plaisance.
The construction of the Ferris wheel was a Herculean task. The first challenge was excavating the foundations for the two steel support towers, which began in January 1893. During one of the coldest Chicago winters on record, workers created four concrete footings, two for each tower. They pumped steam to thaw the ground, dig the 20 x 20 x 20–foot pits, and set concrete around the steel crossbars to which they would bolt the tower bases. Workers installed dual thousand-horsepower steam engines to turn the wheel (one was a backup), which were connected by ten-inch pipes to boilers placed 700 feet away (located outside the Midway on Lexington Avenue between Sixtieth and Sixty-First Streets). Many of the great wheel's components were manufactured by the Detroit Bridge and Iron Works and the Keystone Bridge Company of Pittsburg and shipped to Chicago. By March 20, one of the steel towers was complete, and its twin was soon in place. The 70-ton axle assembly—45 feet long and 32 inches in diameter, the largest piece of steel forged to date—was made by Bethlehem Iron Company in Pennsylvania at a cost of $90,000. Workers raised the axle 140 feet and fastened it to the top of the support towers in just two hours.
Once the axle was in place, construction of the double wheel structure began. Set 28 feet apart, each wheel included a hub, inner circle, and outer rim. The outer rims were composed of 36 curved square iron beams, each measuring 25 x 19 inches. Set 40 feet inside the rims, the inner circles were made of smaller, lighter beams, called crowns, and held together with trusswork. Each wheel had a large hub at its center 16 feet in diameter. Spoke rods, 2.5 inches in diameter and arranged in pairs, connected the hub to the crowns. Construction began at the bottom and moved upward. Using wooden scaffolding, workers hoisted the final sections of the outer rims 264 feet to complete the circles and then joined the two wheels with struts and rods.
Worried about erecting the wheel in time for the fair’s May 1 opening, Ferris wrote to Luther V. Rice to offer him the position of superintendent of construction and operations even before receiving final approval for the concession. Ferris knew Rice from their work together on the Cincinnati–Newport Bridge, also known as the Central Bridge, which spanned the Ohio River, and he needed someone with Rice’s skills and experience to oversee this monumental task. “Please state what salary you would desire in this connection,” he wrote. Rice accepted the position and arrived in Chicago before the end of the year. He worked with the Ferris wheel for ten years, longer than any other person, and saw it sold and moved to St. Louis.
June 9, 1893, was a critical day for George Ferris and Luther Rice. Their wheel was complete, waiting for its thirty-six cars to be attached. Although Ferris was out of town on business, he instructed Rice to "turn the wheel or tear it off the towers." Steam was admitted into the engines and power transmitted by a triple set of gears, which ran a sprocket chain to turn the wheel. With men monitoring every aspect of its workings, the wheel began to turn, and twenty minutes later it had completed a full rotation. It worked perfectly. Two days later, with six cars attached, the wheel made another rotation carrying its first passengers, including Ferris's wife, Margaret.
The Ferris wheel debuted on June 21, almost eight full weeks after the fair opened. The manufacture and construction of the wheel had cost $400,000. One of the wheel's cars, wrapped in patriotic bunting, hosted the Iowa State Band, playing to a crowd of two thousand gathered for the event. At 3:30 p.m., the speeches began, and Ferris modestly stated that he hoped "the giant wheel might be thought worthy to stand as a representative of the skill and daring of American engineers." Ferris blew a golden whistle signaling that the wheel should begin rotating. It moved deliberately, conductors loading cars with passengers, and began its two rotations, a schedule it would repeat again and again during the next four-and-a-half months.
Resembling a bicycle wheel with spokes (spoke rods) holding the rim in tension around the axle, the Ferris wheel was a striking example of technical prowess and bold engineering. In this view, the outer rims and inner crowns are clearly visible as are the pyramidal-shaped towers that hold the axle. Each tower was 140 feet tall, measuring 40 x 50 feet at its base and tapering to six square feet at its apex. The two legs of each tower were bolted to concrete footings. The Barry Ice Railway concession is seen in the foreground of the wheel.
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