George Washington Ferris

The Untimely Death of George Washington Ferris and the Fate of the Original Wheel

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By Ken Zurski

In June of 1893, the 264-foot high Ferris Wheel opened to great fanfare at the Chicago World’s Fair.

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The man who created it, George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., had told doubters that it would work flawlessly on every spin.  But when the Fair opened on May 1, 1893, Ferris’ wheel wasn’t ready. A delay in construction keep the ride closed at least initially.  When the wheel finally took it’s inaugural spin, Ferris was right. It worked flawlessly every time.

“Then it revolved and 1,000 people rose and fell with its majestic sweep,” the Chicago Tribune reported. Ferris was there to blow the “golden whistle” and watch from the ground as the wheel turned for the first time. “A modest young man in a gray suit with a drooping mustache covering his determined mouth,” the Tribune described. Ferris dedicated the wheel to the profession of modern engineering.

Born in Galesburg, Illinois, the Ferris family moved to Carson City, Nevada when George was five. In 1876, he came east, began his schooling, and graduated from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York with a Civil Engineering degree.

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In 1891, Ferris moved to Chicago and took up the challenge as did others to come up with a structural design that would make the Fair stand out, like the Eiffel Tower did for Paris, France in 1889 . Although initially rejected due to safety concerns the wheel was eventually chosen and construction began just four and half months before the Fair open. “The design was a novelty and so absolute and original that the powers of the fair hesitated to so much as give it recognition,” newspaper dispatches would later report. But Ferris’ persistence paid off.  He also offered to raise the money needed to build it.

The Fair itself was considered an overall success and so was the Ferris Wheel, but it all ended tragically for the city. Just days before the closing ceremonies on October 28, 1893, Chicago Mayor Carter Henry Harrison was gunned down by a disgruntled office seeker. Then a fire destroyed several fair buildings.

Three years later, in 1896, after a quick bout of typhoid fever, Ferris was dead at the age of 37. By this time, Ferris was already a broken man. His 10-year marriage had recently ended and attempts to gain financial rewards from his popular attraction were failing. Ferris was busy fighting legal battles when he developed symptoms of the deadly fever on a Friday and died several days later on Sunday November 22. “The attending physicians say his system was greatly run down by overwork,” the papers announced. Ferris and his estranged wife Margaret had no children.

Defeated and alone and so sudden was his death that some speculated Ferris had committed suicide instead.

Ferris certainly had his share of disappointments. After the Fair, he dismantled the wheel, moved it to a park on the north side of the city, and sued exhibitors hoping to win back profits based on the wheel’s attendance. “There must be a million people down there,” Ferris once said about the line of spectators waiting to board. But the dispute was effectively over after Ferris’ untimely death.

The wheel however was another matter. The 400-ton steel structure was too large and costly to keep dismantling and transporting to different locations.  Eventually it ended up in St. Louis where the novelty wore off. So on May 11, 1906, thanks to 100 pounds of strategically placed dynamite, the original Ferris Wheel collapsed into a twisted mass of scrap steel. “Utter uselessness,” the Chicago Tribune opined, unjustly implying that Ferris had kept the wheel around too long.

In truth, the company which bought the wheel went out of business.

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By that time, Ferris was gone and didn’t personally feel the sting of criticism.  His name however would carry on. Two years after the Fair in 1895, London built a mammoth 308-foot tall Great Wheel modeled after Ferris’ original design. And soon after that, similar but smaller versions of the Ferris Wheel began popping up in parks and carnivals throughout the world.

Then in 1995, a Ferris Wheel returned to Chicago’s lakefront on the newly renovated Navy Pier. In 2006, it was replaced by a more technically advanced and larger wheel (196-foot tall) with 42 climate controlled gondolas. It was dubbed “The Centennial Wheel” and remains one of Chicago’s most popular tourist attractions.

It is currently the sixth-tallest wheel in the United States.

“One of Chicago’s most prevalent but overlooked cultural contributions is not a building,” a Chicago architecture website explains, “it’s the Ferris wheel.”

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