Millennium Countdown: 1993
Paper: Nevada Appeal – 6 days to the millennium – Sunday, July 25, 1993
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Ferris’ wheel a smash in Chicago, a bomb in St. Louis
By Kelli Du Fresne
The July 25, 1993, edition of the Nevada Appeal contained a fun story about the Carson City Fair and the 100th birthday of the Ferris wheel.
Remembering the Ferris wheel in Carson is akin to remembering Washington’s Birthday a sort of local-level national event for the Ferris wheel was the idea of former Carson City resident George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.
In her book, “Carson Valley Historical Sketches of Nevada’s First Settlement,” Grace Dangberg, who was Ferris’ niece, wrote “the spark of inspiration for the wheel came to the lad as he watched the flutter wheel at Cradlebaugh’s bridge over the Carson River, situated about six miles north of the boy’s home.”
Ferris, his six siblings and parents came over the Emigrant Trail by covered wagon from Galesburg, Ill., in about 1864. They had operated a dairy and cheese plant, which they sold for $60,000 before coming West.
The value of the dollar was cut in half because of the civil war and the family stopped in Nevada rather than continuing as planned to San Jose, Calif.
The family settled first in Carson Valley about a mile north of Minden.
Ferris received his training as an engineer in Oakland and in Troy, N.Y., at the Rensselaer Polytechnic School.
The Ferris family moved to Carson in 1870 fearing an attack by Indians, said Dangberg’s book.
“One of the teenage sons, late in the evening, had caught a native thief in the watermelon patch. With ill-considered haste and judgment, he ran for his shotgun and shot into the ground just behind the Washoe, or so he thought. Not so! the shot nicked the thief’s heel. The tribesmen vowed revenge. The family, fearful of a massacre, moved to Carson City.”
H.F. Dangberg, who married Maggie Ferris in 1866, then purchased the ranch.
In Carson, the family built a Greek and Gothic Revival style home at 311 W. Third St.
In 1893, Ferris was challenged to build something “unique, off-beat or grandiose” for the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, also known as the World’s Fair.
The wheel was to be Chicago’s answer to France’s Eiffel Tower, built for the World’s Fair in Paris.
According to “World’s Fair Views” the wheel was the chief wonder of 1893.
“The characteristic of the Ferris Wheel is its tension spokes – that is, the spokes that are really in use are always stretched, and only the spokes below the axle are in use; by holding up the lower arc of the wheel, they support the upper arc, making a perpetual arched bridge. The object of the Ferris Wheel is merely pleasure. The sight-seer is elevated 266 feet above ground. The movement is gentle and nearly noiseless. There are cogs on the edges of the vast double wheel, and these cogs work by chains into the cogs of a train of lesser wheels, so that the device is like a clock-train. The axle was forged under the Bethlehem hammer, whose model was shown in the Transportation Building. This axle is 45 feet long, 32 inches in diameter, and 70 tons in weight. It is the largest piece of steel ever forged. The steel towers on which this axle rests are 140 feet high, and are put into the earth 35 feet deep. The wheel cost $380,000 and had earned its entire cost on Sept. 1, 1893, when it forwarded to the Exposition $25,000 as royalty on the first profits.”
During its May through October stay the wheel grossed a total of $726,805.50. The first riders began their ascent 266 feet in the air at 6:32 p.m. June 16, 1893.
The wheel was made up of 36 cars each holding 60 people at 50 cents a ride.
It was powered by two 1,000 horsepower engines.
At the time of his invention, Ferris was living in Pittsburgh, Penn. On June 17, 1893, the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette ran the following report of the wheel’s first trip.
The headlines read: 266 Feet in Air: The Ferris Wheel Turns and Mrs. Ferris Gives a Toast: Her Husbands Health and the Wheel’s Success – Two Carloads of More or Less Nervous Guests Join Her in Drinking It.
Chicago, June 16 – Standing on a Chair in a car swaying 266 fee above the earth a little woman raised a glass of champagne to her lips and drank to the health of her husband. The little woman looked wonderfully pretty. Her eyes shone with the light of love and wifely pride. She smiled sweetly at those in the cars beneath her and the cheered wildly for her and her husband. She was dressed in a dainty gown of black, trimmed with gold. She said softly as she made the toast: “To the health of my husband and the success of the Ferris wheel.”
She wasn’t a bit afraid as she stood there, and that alone shows the immense amount of faith she must have in George W. S. Ferris, both as husband and mechanical engineer. Her black eyes sparkled deliciously as she made the toast and the bright color shown in her cheeks and the mist-laden wind played tenderly with her dark curls.
It was 6:15 o’clock last night when the great 1,000-horse powered engine underneath the Ferris wheel began to throb slowly. A car resembling a large street car without wheels was swung up to the first entrance landing at the east approach to the wheel. First two big hampers of champagne and boxes of cigars were carried into the car and placed on the tables.
Some were timid.
Then two-score invited guests filed in, their faces expressing all the emotions, ranging from pleased expectancy to a very palpable timidity.
Then a second car was swung to the landing and more guests piled in. Some men with voices of marked huskiness shouted unintelligible orders toe each other and the great wheel began to revolve for the first time.
It was 6:32 o’clock. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it lifted the cars away from the earth, revolving from east to west. A fourth of the way up the wheel stopped. The passengers gasped in unison and looked at each other with smiles more or less sickly. They looked down and saw that they were hanging directly over the Austrian village. Suddenly they heard the regular throbbing of the engines again and felt much better.
The wheel climbed steadily upward and the passengers grew bolder. Some of them looked over the edge of the car and at once became less bold. In eight minutes, the wheel had completed the first quarter of the circle. In seven minutes more the loaded cars had measured half the circumference and hung 266 feet above the earth.
Again the engines stopped and the champagne was poured. All in the two cars drank standing to George W. S. Ferris. Mrs. Ferris proposing the toast and calling it across to those in the next car. Then all gave three cheers to the inventor and drank to the health of his pretty wife with immense enthusiasm.
The story continued with the celebrations of the first riders and their views of the City of Palaces from the air.
The Ferris Wheel was taken down in mid-1894 and reused in St. Louis at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. But the talk of the Chicago Fair did not appeal to those in St. Louis and promoters barely got their money back for transportation costs to move the wheel.
It was good that Mrs. Ferris prayed for the health of her husband, but it seems prayer was not enough.
Ferris died just three years after the Chicago exposition at the age of 37. His business in shambles, Ferris died of Typhoid fever Nov. 22, 1896, in Pittsburgh. He died a poor and saddened man never knowing his name would be a household word and that even 103 years later his invention is an American tradition.
The first wheel was unceremoniously dynamited after the St. Louis Exposition and its pieces including the 70,000-pound axle was sold for scrap metal.
It was scrapped in 1906, but the idea lives on as a carnival ride at county fairs.