A Wheel with a View
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. Over the past 125 years, the Ferris wheel has inspired imitations, large and small, around the globe: the 443-foot London Eye and the 541-foot 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 began with New York City’s Latting Observatory in 1853. But the story of the Ferris wheel’s rise skyward begins with the dynamics that shaped Chicago during the 1850s—a transformative decade for Chicago.
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. Ten trunk lines converged in the city, linking Chicago by rail to farming communities and commercial centers nationwide.
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. The lithographic aerial views of Chicago, typically looking east 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.
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 Industry of All Nations (an endeavor directly inspired by London’s Great Exhibition of 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.
As early as 1890, when Chicago was awarded the honor of hosting the World’s Columbian Exposition, proposals for a grand monument to mark the occasion filled newspapers. Among the published ideas were observation towers that would exceed the height of the Eiffel Tower; many defied practicality, even taxed the power of imagination, and only a few were financially feasible. Two designs that were seriously considered included a 1,120-foot tower proposed by civil engineer George S. Morison and his American Tower Company, and the Proctor Tower, named in honor of investor David Proctor, which was designed in 1891 for the Columbian Tower Company by Chicago architects Holabird and Roche and engineer Corydon T. Purdy. 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.
George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., a bridge builder like Eiffel, responded to Burnham’s call for daring engineering and submitted a radical design for a revolving steel tension observation wheel in June 1892. Concerns about the safety of the design—Burnham initially sided with engineers who felt the structure was too fragile and would collapse into an ellipse once it began to revolve—as well as lack of financing initially resulted in rejection. The fair’s Ways and Means Committee had previously rejected a design by H. W. Fowler, a Chicago industrialist, for a 250-foot compression-based revolving wheel as well as W. H. Wachter’s proposal for a 220-foot wheel with swinging baskets to carry 224 passengers. Ferris revised and improved his plan, ensuring that the tension wheel was safe and technologically feasible, and developed a financial approach that promised to be especially lucrative. The exposition’s board of directors granted him the concession on December 16, 1892, less than six months before the fair’s opening date of May 1, 1893.
Excavation for the massive foundations required to support the wheel began in January 1893, during one of Chicago’s harshest winters. The wheel’s steel components were manufactured in other cities and shipped to Chicago in March for assembly. The 262-foot-tall Ferris wheel, which became operational on June 21, dominated the Midway Plaisance and offered spectacular bird’s-eye views of the fairgrounds and the city. It was a resounding success, exceeding all expectations as a demonstration of American technology, a symbol of the fair, and a financial venture.
After the fair closed in October 1893, Ferris began searching for a new venue to host the wheel, which remained on the grounds of the abandoned Midway through the winter and was dismantled in the spring of 1894. He considered offers to move the wheel to New York City’s Old Vienna, Brooklyn’s Coney Island, Atlantic City, and London, but eventually rejected all of them. In 1895, he reorganized his Ferris Wheel Company to develop a new amusement park on North Clark Street. Ferris Wheel Park opened in the spring of 1896; but its development had met community opposition from the beginning, and neighborhood residents had successfully organized to block the award of a liquor license. Then, Ferris unexpectedly died of typhoid fever on November 22, 1896. In the end, few Chicagoans were willing to pay fifty cents for another ride on the big wheel, and the combination of a national economic depression and the liquor ban proved disastrous for the fledgling enterprise.
In 1903, Ferris Wheel Park closed, and the wheel was sold to the Chicago House Wrecking Company, which moved it to St. Louis for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Dominating the fairgrounds, the Ferris wheel regained some of its past glory and made a modest financial profit during its seven-month run. After the fair closed in December 1904, the wheel was considered once again as an attraction for Coney Island, but negotiations fell apart and it remained in Saint Louis. On May 11, 1906, the Chicago House Wrecking Company dynamited the Ferris wheel and sold the steel and other components for scrap.
The original Ferris wheel was no more, but its idea lived on in London, Vienna, and Paris, captivating new crowds with thrilling rides and expansive views of some of Europe’s great cities.