Russell L. Lewis
In 1848, the completion of the Illinois & Michigan Canal, the construction of the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad, and the founding of the Board of Trade ushered in an economic boom. By 1860, Chicago's population had grown almost fourfold, and the physical footprint of the city expanded as commercial and industrial development pushed residential areas further north, south, and west. Most Chicagoans took enormous pride in this urban expansion, extolling the virtues of their city as an ideal place for commerce and industry and bragging about its importance to the nation. Urban panoramas, or bird's-eye views, became valuable tools for those seeking to attract new investors, industries, and businesses, and Chicagoans eagerly embraced them.
In 1890, Chicago was awarded the honor of hosting the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, colloquially known as the World's Fair. The selection was a significant achievement in the history of the young city and symbolized Chicago's growing reputation worldwide. Proposals for a grand monument to mark the occasion filled newspapers, and for many, this meant the construction of an observation tower. Notice how this artist's rendering includes such a structure.
Urban observation towers, developed in the 1850s as features of expositions, provided compelling, real-life bird's-eye views. The Latting Observatory, a 315-foot, octagonal-based, iron-braced wooden tower, was built in 1853 to adjoin the New York Crystal Palace, which hosted the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (an endeavor directly inspired by London's Great Exhibition of the Works of All Nations in 1851). Conceived by Warring Latting and designed by architect William Naugle, the tower accommodated 1,500 visitors at a time and provided expansive views of Manhattan, Queens, and New Jersey from three observation levels. It was the tallest structure in New York until a fire destroyed it in 1856.
Undoubtedly, the most spectacular example of a nineteenth-century urban tower is Gustave Eiffel's iron structure, built on Paris's Champ de Mars as the entrance to the 1889 Exposition Universelle. Inspired by the Latting Observatory, Eiffel created a 984-foot-tall lattice tower (1,063 feet today including its television tower), the tallest manmade structure at that time, with three observation levels accessible by elevator. Although originally denounced as an engineering monstrosity—numerous French artists and architects objected to it as a gross aberration among Paris's cherished structures—it earned widespread popular acclaim as an engineering marvel and a unique symbol of Paris and its world's fair.
The Columbus Tower was one of many structures proposed to eclipse the Eiffel Tower and give Chicago a monumental feature for the World’s Columbian Exposition. According to a "Chicago Daily Tribune" article of May 12, 1890, the lattice tower was to be built of steel and stand 1,500 feet tall. Washington, DC, architects Charles Kinkel and G. R. Pohl had already spent two years on the design, which featured four major entrances, an interior space on the bottom floor capable of accommodating 30,000, and a hotel of 4,000 rooms; space for the Chicago Public Library was also being considered. More than 15,000 electric lights would illuminate the exterior balconies. As proposed, the Columbus Tower would cost $2 million to be financed by private investors. Daniel Burnham, director of works for the Columbian Exposition, however, was never keen on plans to “out-Eiffel” Eiffel and his stunning structure. Instead, he advocated for an engineering breakthrough, something completely original that would engage the public and demonstrate American technological superiority.
Here are other examples of potential observation towers for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Among the published ideas were plans for structures that would exceed the height of the Eiffel Tower. Many of them defied practicality, even taxed the power of imagination, and only a few were financially feasible.
Once the axle was in place, construction of the double wheel structure began. Set 28 feet apart, each wheel included a hub, inner circle, and outer rim. The outer rims were composed of 36 curved square iron beams, each measuring 25 x 19 inches. Set 40 feet inside the rims, the inner circles were made of smaller, lighter beams, called crowns, and held together with trusswork. Each wheel had a large hub at its center 16 feet in diameter. Spoke rods, 2.5 inches in diameter and arranged in pairs, connected the hub to the crowns. Construction began at the bottom and moved upward. Using wooden scaffolding, workers hoisted the final sections of the outer rims 264 feet to complete the circles and then joined the two wheels with struts and rods.
Worried about erecting the wheel in time for the fair’s May 1 opening, Ferris wrote to Luther V. Rice to offer him the position of superintendent of construction and operations even before receiving final approval for the concession. Ferris knew Rice from their work together on the Cincinnati–Newport Bridge, also known as the Central Bridge, which spanned the Ohio River, and he needed someone with Rice’s skills and experience to oversee this monumental task. “Please state what salary you would desire in this connection,” he wrote. Rice accepted the position and arrived in Chicago before the end of the year. He worked with the Ferris wheel for ten years, longer than any other person, and saw it sold and moved to St. Louis.
Resembling a bicycle wheel with spokes (spoke rods) holding the rim in tension around the axle, the Ferris wheel was a striking example of technical prowess and bold engineering. In this view, the outer rims and inner crowns are clearly visible as are the pyramidal-shaped towers that hold the axle. Each tower was 140 feet tall, measuring 40 x 50 feet at its base and tapering to six square feet at its apex. The two legs of each tower were bolted to concrete footings. The Barry Ice Railway concession is seen in the foreground of the wheel.
This week-by-week sales report reveals that 1,453,611 tickets were sold between July 1 and November 6, earning $726,805.50, with the largest number of tickets sold (151,201) the week of October 16. As part of Ferris's concession agreement, fair organizers received $211,805. No concession came close to earning as much, making the great wheel the most lucrative operation on both the Midway and the official fairgrounds. Without the financial success of the Ferris wheel, it is doubtful that the fair corporation would have showed a profit.
In 1895, Ferris reorganized his Ferris Wheel Company and settled on a site on Clark Street near Wrightwood on the city's North Side. The company entered into a partnership with transit magnate Charles Yerkes, whose heavily used cable car line ran close by. Their prospectus, issued to entice investors, stated that this location—present-day 2619-65 North Clark Street—was easily accessible via cable car and offered a stunning bird's-eye view: "The view of the lake, the park and the city from this site is very beautiful and is unobscured by smoke, and the grounds are spacious and well adapted to the purpose." Architect Jarvis Hunt had developed a plan for a roof garden, restaurant, and other attractions.
The proposed development met community opposition from the beginning. Many Lakeview residents, fearing that the enterprise would attract the unsavory and the cable car line would become overtaxed and inconvenient. They organized an effort to prohibit a liquor license, attempting to thwart the Ferris Wheel Company's plans, and succeeded in winning the ban.
Despite the opposition, the wheel was erected in Lakeview in August 1895 and the cars attached by September; but the season was almost over, and Ferris Wheel Park did not open until spring of 1896. Then, Ferris unexpectedly died of typhoid fever on November 22, 1896. In the end, few Chicagoans were willing to pay fifty cents for another ride on the big wheel, and the combination of a national economic depression and the liquor ban proved disastrous for the fledgling enterprise.
On June 3, 1903, the Chicago House Wrecking Company purchased the Ferris wheel at a receiver's auction for $1,800. During the winter of 1903-04, a workforce of ninety-five men spent seventy-two days dismantling the wheel and shipped it on 175 railcars to St. Louis to be erected in Forest Park for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Once again the centerpiece of a world's fair, the Ferris wheel dominated the fairgrounds, carrying as many passengers as it had on the Midway.