Ferris and His Big Wheel
The idea for this American icon could have been born on the banks of the Carson River.
BY ERIC BRYAN | March/April 2012
George Ferris Sr. had an important impact on the development of Carson City. A former dairy farmer and expert in horticulture and agriculture, he was greatly involved in the beautification of Carson City in the 1870s. He landscaped the grounds of the Nevada State Capitol and brought trees native to the eastern part of the country to Nevada and planted them throughout Carson City.
The Ferris family lived in Carson Valley for two years and eventually moved into the Sears House on Third and Division Streets in Carson City. Ferris Sr. owned the house from 1868 until 1890. Now known as the Sears-Ferris House, the home has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979.
In 1873, Ferris Jr. left to attend school at the California Military Academy in Oakland. He went on to earn a degree in civil engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, graduating in 1881. Former Nevada State Archivist Guy Rocha points to one version of the Ferris wheel-inspiration legend that contests that the 60-foot-tall “Niagara of Water Wheels” in nearby South Troy, New York was Ferris’ muse.
He later founded G.W.G. Ferris & Co. in Pittsburgh, which specialized in assessing metals used in bridges, tunnels, and railroads. But memories of waterwheels, whether in Carson Valley or South Troy, never left him.
Ferris was considering a wheel of his own—on a grander scale.
The Eiffel Tower was envisioned as the crown jewel of the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle. Construction of the tower began in 1887. Its height, not including the later addition of an antenna spire, was 986 feet. The Eiffel Tower functioned as the archway entrance for the Exposition.
In the years leading up to the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition—or World’s Fair—fair directors wanted to create an icon that would compete with the grandeur of the Eiffel Tower. In 1891, they tasked American engineers to meet the challenge.
Eager to take the charge, in spring 1892 Ferris showed his plans for a massive, 250-foot-diameter wheel to the Chicago World’s Fair directors. Only having knowledge of the small wooden predecessors of the Ferris wheel, the members of the board were incredulous about the size and scale of what Ferris proposed.
One of the directors, Daniel Burnham, viewed Ferris’ drawings and thought the end result would be too flimsy. But Ferris persisted, bringing engineering endorsements and investors to the table, and Burnham was swayed by late 1892.
Despite his initial fascination with waterwheels small to grand, Ferris wasn’t interested in scooping water with his wheel. This wheel would carry people—up to 2,160 of them at a time. With the idea that, from the vantage point of the wheel, riders would be able to observe the whole fair, Ferris designed the wheel to be steady and secure in the heavy winds off Lake Michigan. Resisting the Windy City’s namesake hardship required eight reinforced concrete piers—20 feet wide and 35 feet tall—set on pilings driven deep into bedrock. The massive piers supported the wheel’s two 140-foot-tall towers.
This first Ferris wheel was built on the design of a bicycle wheel, with spokes radiating from the hub to the rim. The wheel’s axle, which was mounted on the support towers, one on either side of the wheel, was immense—with a length of 45.5 feet and a diameter of 33 inches, the axle weighed nearly 45 tons. The wheel was powered by a 1,000-horsepower steam engine and was stopped via a massive air brake—another 1,000-horsepower engine was held at the ready as an emergency reserve.
Passengers rode in 36, 13-ton steel cars attached around the wheel. Each car was finished in wood veneer and featured 38 swivel chairs. Riders could enjoy a 360-degree view through the car’s plate-glass windows. Each of the 36 gondolas held 60 passengers—38 seated and 22 standing—for a total capacity of 2,160 riders. The weight of the wheel loaded at maximum would have exceeded 1,000 tons.
Burnham’s holdout on approval of the wheel until late 1892 left precious little time to complete the ambitious undertaking. Contending with frozen ground and Chicago’s notoriously foul winter weather, construction was arduous. The wheel was still being built when the fair opened on May 1, 1893 and was not operational until June 21.
For its maiden turn, the wheel was adorned with 3,000 lights. Illuminated at night, it looked as though the full moon had touched down in Chicago. Hundreds of passengers—including Ferris himself and a 40-piece orchestra—were aboard for the inaugural run.
Ferris’ wheel became the star of the World’s Fair. The 50-cent admission charge carried passengers on a 20-minute, two-revolution ride. At that time, few had experienced the kind of view the wheel offered. The ticket lines swelled.
In less than five months, Ferris’ wheel had borne almost 1.5 million riders on its leisurely, circular path. On October 9, 1893 (Chicago Day) alone, nearly 35,000 people rode the wheel. Gross takings from ticket sales amounted to $726,805. Its construction cost was about $400,000.
After the fair, Ferris’ wheel was disassembled and moved to another Chicago setting, where for several years it continued to turn a profit. But the Exposition ended on a sour note: Ferris asserted that he and his investors had not received their share of the proceeds. The final three years of his life were consumed by legal wrangling over the wheel’s revenue.
On November 22, 1896, the New York Times reported:
George W. G. Ferris, the inventor and builder of the Ferris wheel, died today at Mercy Hospital, where he had been treated for typhoid fever for a week. The disease is said to have been brought on through worry over numerous business matters. He leaves a wife in this city, and friends in mechanical and building circles all over the country.
The stress of the “business matters,” which likely referred to his battle with the managers of the World’s Fair, must have been great, for Ferris was only 37. But Ferris’ wheel still had some years left. A duplicate was constructed for the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, and the original found new life when it was transported to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair.
Ferris’ wheel, after delighting thousands of riders in Missouri, suffered an ignoble end: The innovation was dynamited in 1906 and the remaining pieces sold as scrap.
One man’s vision, possibly inspired by whimsical boyhood daydreams along the sunny banks of the Carson River, has become a national institution. Whenever a Ferris wheel crops up somewhere across the country, it acts as a calling card inviting us to a county or state fair. The Ferris wheel remains an American emblem of summer fun, leisure, and romance.
George Ferris Jr. would be pleased.
Last issue’s history story about the Mizpah Hotel got us thinking about the tallest buildings in Nevada. Below is information on the stateliest structures in the Silver State’s history.
The Riverside Hotel, built 85 years ago, still stands prominently in downtown Reno, only under a slightly modified name: the Riverside Artist Lofts. In the foreground is the Reno Riverwalk District.
→ August 4, 1877 — The six-story International Hotel is completed in Virginia City.
It accommodates 250 guests and boasts Nevada’s first hydraulic elevator.
→ December 12, 1914 — Tonopah’s five-story Mizpah Hotel and its equally tall neighbor,
the Belvada Building, become Nevada’s tallest when the International Hotel burns to the ground.
→ July 2, 1929 — Ely’s Hotel Nevada, also six stories, edges out the Riverside as the tallest
in the state when it debuts. It is also touted as Nevada’s first fireproof building.
→ March 21, 1931 — The El Cortez Hotel in Reno takes Nevada to new heights when it offers seven high-class stories to the public.
→ December 17, 1947 — Reno’s 12-story Mapes Hotel opens as Nevada’s first true high-rise. The building is imploded on January 30, 2000.
→ September 3, 1954 — The Showboat Hotel and Casino, 19 stories tall, becomes a fixture
in downtown Las Vegas. Later known as The Castaways, it’s demolished in 2006.
Note: From this point, a string of Las Vegas hotel-casinos become the state’s tallest.
→ April 30, 1996 — Las Vegas unveils the 1,149-foot Stratosphere Tower, still the tallest
freestanding observation tower in the United States.