TNB Night Owl – Wheel on the Midway Plaisance

Bird's eye view of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893 (Jackson Park).
Bird's eye view of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893 (Jackson Park). Library of Congress, public domain.

The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair or, as it was officially named, The World’s Columbian Exposition, was a landmark event in American history. Its extraordinary success reflected well on the United States and the City of Chicago, drawing a reported total of 27 million visitors from all over America and the world. Pavillions representing 46 nations and most U.S. states displayed exhibits, gadgets, and commercial products of every kind from around the world.

This was an exciting era of inventions, industry, and scientific discoveries. Among many other marvelous modern luxuries, the exposition featured a moving walkway on a pier jutting out into Lake Michigan, the first if its kind. The first automobiles from Europe were demonstrated, as well as an American-built electric auto. All kinds of devices that used electricity were displayed. The entire fair – 690 acres – was lit up at night with electric lights. Just a few years before, electricity had been just a curiosity without much practical use aside from the telegraph. Folks must have left in awe, wonder, and an incredible sense of optimism. People returned to their home states and countries with a new and very positive impression of the young United States of America.

The previous World’s Fair had taken place four years prior in Paris. Its most prominent and memorable feature was the Eiffel Tower. Organizers of the Chicago World’s Fair wanted something even more prominent and memorable to top Eiffel’s creation. George W.G. Ferris Jr., a civil engineer in Pittsburgh who specialized in railroad bridges, was captivated by the challenge. Ferris designed a wheel, very much like the newly invented bicycle wheel, but on a much, much larger scale. The wheel stood 264 feet high with 36 ‘cars’, each of which had 40 seats and could carry 60 passengers for an astounding total of 2,160 persons up in the air at once.

Fair officials initially rejected Ferris’ proposal, citing the cost and fearing the possibility of a disastrous mechanical failure with this radical design. But Ferris sought and recieved the backing of prominent Chicago engineers, who vouched for his design. Ferris also raised most of the money needed to build his ‘observation wheel’ from investors, allowing the project to proceed.

George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.’s observation wheel at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, taken by the Chicago Tribune

Another first for the Chicago World’s Fair: while the exposition’s main exhibit halls and pavillions were built in Jackson Park on the lakefront south of downtown Chicago, all amusements, sideshows, and Ferris’ observation wheel were located separately in an adjacent park. Midway Plaisance is a one-mile long greenbelt park 220 yards (two football fields) wide that stretches from Jackson Park to Washington Park which allows for a pleasant promenade from one park to the next. The setting, with the observation wheel and carnival atmosphere, left such an impression on 1893 fairgoers that all across America, state and county fairs thereafter called the section of their fairgrounds with rides and other amusements the ‘Midway’.

George W.G. Ferris Jr. experienced several unfortunate turns in life after the wild success of his observation wheel. His engineering business ran into financial difficulties, his marriage fell apart and his wife left him, and his father died of typhoid fever. Shortly afterwards, in 1896, George Ferris Jr. also died from typhoid fever. He was just 37 years old. He’s remembered today by his alma mater in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Alumni Hall of Fame, and for his legacy, the first Ferris Wheel.

Question of the Night: What’s your favorite activity, amusement, ride, or food, when you go to a fair?

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About Richard Doud 622 Articles
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