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Chicago 1893: George Ferris’ Big Wheel

The World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition (named for  Christopher Columbus),  was held in Chicago in 1893. Designed as a miniature city, there were fourteen main “great buildings” centered around a giant reflective pool called the Grand Basin. The stucco neoclassical buildings were painted a soft shade of white and bathed in light at night, giving rise to the nickname “White City.” The White City is largely credited for planting the seeds of modern-day city planning. One major building, the former Palace of Fine Arts, remains, and is now the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI).

1893 Palace of Fine Arts
Present day Museum of Science and Industry

46 countries were represented, among them Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Egypt, Canada, Norway, Russia, and Syria. The exposition hosted the first Indonesian music performance in the United States. Harry Houdini and his brother Theodore performed their magic act at the Midway. Hula dancers familiarized  Americans with  Hawaiian music . A 250-voice Mormon Tabernacle Choir made their first appearance of the Choir outside the Utah territory.  

At the center of the Midway was America’s response to the Eiffel Tower. George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., an engineer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, unveiled a gigantic wheel 264 feet in diameter and 264 feet high. Quickly dubbed the “Ferris Wheel,” it revolved in circular motion with 36 cars, each holding 60 people, for a total capacity of 2,160 passengers.  Illuminated by thousands of brilliant lights, the Ferris Wheel was visible from miles away. It took 20 minutes to complete two revolutions, the first involving six stops to allow passengers to exit and enter, and the second a nine-minute non-stop rotation. Over the course of the fair, more than 1.4 million people paid 50 cents for a ride.

Ferris was not the first to imagine such a wheel. 50-foot wooden wheels called roundabouts were being built in amusement parks by a carpenter named William Somers. But the huge attendance expected at the fair inspired Ferris to think big. He spent $25,000 of his own money on safety studies, hiring of engineers, and recruiting investors.

The Ferris Wheel was a grand success.  But after the fare closed, Ferris became bankrupt. The wheel was dismantled and then the following year it was rebuilt on Chicago’s North Side, near Lincoln Park. It operated there from October 1895 until 1903.  A wrecking company bought the wheel and sold it to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Two years later, it was dynamited into scrap.

Ain Dubai, the “Eye of Dubai,” will be completed in time to coincide with Expo 2020. Standing at over 820 feet high, the structure will be over 200 percent taller than the original Ferris Wheel!

Joan Thompson, Expo Sales Executive
Ya’lla Tours USA

Posted on October 9, 2019


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