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Then and Now: the first Ferris Wheel

The World’s Columbian Exposition was truly a prototype of what Daniel Burnham and his colleagues thought a city should be. It was designed to follow French neoclassical architecture principles based on symmetry, balance, and splendor. And what a splendor it was. More than 27 million people attended the exposition during its six-month run. Its scale, attractions and grandeur far exceeded the other World's Fairs, and it became a symbol of the emerging American Exceptionalism. Among the attractions was one that stood apart from them all—the Ferris Wheel.

Then, 1893

The first Ferris Wheel was designed by George W. Ferris, a bridge-builder from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Ferris began his career in the railroad industry and then pursued an interest in bridge building. As he understood the growing need for structural steel, Ferris founded G.W.G. Ferris & Co. in Pittsburgh, a firm that tested and inspected metals for railroads and bridge builders. When he attended an engineer’s banquet and heard Daniel Burnham speak of not finding an attraction that “met the expectations of the people” for the World’s Columbian Exposition, George Ferris’s wheels start turning: he sketched up the idea that night on a napkin in a Chicago steakhouse and presented it to Daniel Burnham. The Ferris Wheel debuted at the World’s Columbian Exposition on June 21, 1893. Spectators marveled at the enormous structure that was then the largest single piece of steel ever made. Rotating on a 71-ton, 45.5 foot axle, the ride featured its 16 foot diameter cast-iron spiders weighing 89,320 pounds together. There were 36 passenger cars, each fitted with 40 revolving chairs and accommodated 60 people, a total capacity of 2,160 passengers. For 50 cents, each passenger would enjoy 20 minutes of incredible views peaking at 264 feet. The wheel itself closed in April 1894 and was then dismantled and stored until the following year when it was rebuilt in Lincoln Park. It operated there until 1903 and was eventually bought by Chicago House Wrecking Company for $8,150.

  • The Ferris Wheel did not open to the public until June because of arguments from the board of directors deciding whether or not to build it.
  • Two 110 ton, 2,000 horsepower reversible engines powered the ride.
  • In 1893, The Ferris Wheel cost $380,000 but 1.5 million people rode it over the course of the exposition bringing in a total profit of $750,000—saving the exposition from bankruptcy.
  • The Ferris Wheel was lit by 2,500 Edison incandescent lamps.
  • One attendee, George C. Tilyou, later credited the sights he saw in Chicago for inspiring him to create America's first major amusement park, Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, NY.

Now, 2013

Today, Chicago’s famous Ferris Wheel lives at Navy Pier. The 3,300 foot long pier was built in 1916 at a cost of $4.5 million. As part of the Plan of Chicago developed by Daniel Burnham, Navy Pier was planned and built to serve as a mixed-purpose piece of public infrastructure. With the many attractions, museums, and restaurants that thrive on the Pier today, it has upheld Burnham’s vision for almost 100 years. In 1995, the newly renovated Pier reopened with the Ferris Wheel as its focal point. The Ferris Wheel officially opened on July 1, 1995 and continues to be the Pier’s number one attraction. Modeled after the first Ferris Wheel, it stands at a staggering height of 150 feet with 40 spokes spanning a diameter of 140 feet, all illuminated by 16,000 light bulbs. With 40 gondolas each seating 6 passengers, the Wheel can comfortably seat a total of 300 people at a time for a ride taking about 7 minutes—compared to the 20 minute ride at the World’s Fair.

  • Navy Pier is the Midwest's #1 tourist and leisure destination, attracting more than 8 million visitors per year.
  • The Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier is a specifically designed, $3.2 million historic replica of the Ferris Wheel from the World’s Columbian Exposition.
  • Over 63,000 visitors take the 7 minute ride on the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier each month.
  • In September, 2007, Navy Pier's wheel celebrated its 10 millionth rider as Ronald McDonald and the Pier’s mascot, Patch the Pirate Dog, presented the rider with various prizes.
  • This past May, the world record for the longest Ferris Wheel ride was set by Clinton Shepherd, park operations manager, who spent 48 hours, 8 minutes and 25 seconds riding the Pier's Ferris Wheel over the weekend of May 18 - 19, 2013.

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