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The Ferris Wheel


The original Ferris wheel at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Public domain image sourced via Wikipedia. Click image to enlarge.

It had been four years since the Exposition Universelle in Paris, France, where the world had been introduced to the centerpiece of the fair – a tower built by Gustave Eiffel. This tower, the tallest structure on the globe at the time, had instantaneously become a world wonder. The 1893 World's Fair in Chicago was America’s chance to shine, but how could they compete with the exquisite exhibits on the ground, let alone the grand Eiffel Tower from Paris?

The United States needed its own Eiffel Tower, something that would stun, amaze, and would be talked about for years. The proposals ran from the ridiculous to the impossible. One such proposal was a tower made from stacked logs that would measure 2,000 feet with a replica of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home at the top. Another absurd proposal called for a structure to be built so tall that visitors would ride an elevator to the top in Chicago and take a slide down allowing them to arrive in San Francisco or New York. An American civil engineer, George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., stepped forward with plans that would “out-Eiffel Eiffel” and fit the planners’ criteria for something “original, daring, and unique.”

Ferris had come to Chicago in 1891 with the news of the World’s Columbian Exposition to be held there in 1893. His proposed design for the exposition was a wheel that would rotate, allowing visitors to view the entire exhibition. The idea of a rotating wheel ride wasn’t unique. Concepts had existed since the 1600s, a rotating wheel was created for the 1854 New York State Fair, and in 1892 three 50-foot wooden wheels were installed in amusement parks in New York and New Jersey. Yet Ferris’ design called for a wheel of a size and design that was so unique that when proposed it was deemed unsafe. When Ferris returned a few weeks later with respectable endorsements from established engineers and local investors who were willing to cover the $400,000 construction costs, the plans were approved.

When construction was done on Ferris’s wheel, the structure had a height of 264 feet, the tallest attraction at the World’s Columbian Exposition. While it was shorter than Eiffel’s tower (1,063 feet), his structure didn’t move. The wheel had 36 passenger cars, each car had 40 revolving chairs and could hold 60 individuals, giving the attraction a total capacity of 2,160 people at any given time. On June 9, 1893, the wheel was given its first test run and when it started bolts and debris fell from the sky, but it worked.

The wonder of Ferris’s wheel was the design. Like a bicycle wheel, the towering structure doesn’t seem to have the support to keep itself up but with the spokes and design it works. The question was would people ride the wheel? It was terrifying at the time. It was an entirely new human experience, looking down from above, the movement from space up and out, down, and around again, no one had ever felt those things before. Some people tried to escape when they realized just how tall 264 feet really was, but most were just thrilled. Each day some 38,000 passengers paid 50 cents to take the 20-minute ride of two revolutions with nine stops. The newspapers, even some in France, called the Ferris wheel the marvel of the age, some saying it was even better than the Eiffel Tower.

The World’s Columbian Exposition offered countless souvenirs and collectibles for visitors. The Ferris wheel was a popular highlight of the World’s Fair and, after having the experience of seeing and riding the attraction, it was something people wanted a keepsake of. Several medals were made featuring the Ferris wheel at the Columbian Exposition, including four medals that would be later cataloged as So-Called Dollars. HK-170 features the Ferris wheel on the reverse with the inscription “GREATEST MECHANICAL ACHIEVEMENT OF THE AGE” and “HEIGHT 264 FEET WEIGHT 4300 TONS CAPACITY 2160 PERSONS ENGINES 2000 HORSE POWER.” This design is combined with an obverse featuring the Administration building.

(1892-93) So-Called Dollar Medal HK-170 Columbian Expo Ferris Wheel Dollar, PCGS MS62. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView. Click image to enlarge.
(1893) So-Called Dollar Medal HK-171 Columbian Expo Ferris Wheel. Image Courtesy of Stack’s Bowers Galleries. Click image to enlarge.
1893 So-Called Dollar Medal HK-173 Columbian Expo Ferris Wheel Dollar, PCGS MS62. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView. Click image to enlarge.

HK-171 features the Ferris wheel on the obverse in prominence, again with the notes of height, weight, and capacity but with the added inscription “ONE OF THE WONDERS OF THE WORLD.” The reverse of HK-171 features five other exposition buildings, a die that is reused on other medals. HK-172 features the same reverse Ferris wheel design of HK-170 but now as the obverse with the Horticultural Building as the reverse. The last Ferris wheel So-Called Dollar is HK-173 featuring the design of HK-171 but with a reverse design featuring a female effigy. Besides the So-Called Dollars there are several other medals and exonumia related Ferris wheel pieces, but the So-called dollars are the most favored pieces by collectors.

Ferris had accomplished what seemed to be the impossible task of making the United States exceed the brilliance of the Eiffel Tower. Yet, Ferris’s story went on with him encountering litigation to protect his Ferris wheel from patent infringement (he won) and to recover the portion of the $750,000 in profit the wheel made during the World’s Columbian Exposition. As for the Ferris wheel, it was closed in April 1894, was dismantled, and moved to Lincoln Park, Chicago, where it was reassembled and operated from 1895 until 1903. It was dismantled and transported by rail to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair, also known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. When the 1904 fair closed on December 1, 1904, so did the Ferris wheel. What was crowned one of the wonders of the world and the “American Eiffel Tower” was demolished with dynamite on May 11, 1906, and sold for scrap.

The Ferris wheel was eventually demolished by way of dynamite in 1906. Public domain image. Click image to enlarge.

The original Ferris wheel is nothing more than a memory. Ephemera still exists from that moment in history where, for the first-time, people walked into the exposition and saw a moving structure so astonishing, so unbelievable that the world would never be the same. It was a moment, a place of firsts. For the first-time people were lifted through time and space to experience something never before experienced and look down at a world illuminated by electric lights, where Americans first ate hamburgers, Cracker Jacks, and a type of beef sausage that would become the hot dog. Pabst beer would win a blue ribbon. Women had, for the first time, a Woman’s Building built by a female architect. And, after 20 minutes of riding the Ferris wheel, how could you not want a souvenir, perhaps a metallic image, of this structure that could show everyone the world in a whole new light.

History Tokens and Medals Miscellaneous