Chicago’s Ferris wheel story
One of Chicago’s most prevalent but overlooked cultural contributions is not a building—it’s the Ferris wheel, first unveiled at the 1893 World’s Fair. More than 120 years later, Chicago adds to its legacy with a new Ferris wheel on Navy Pier.
by Marko Dumlija, Research Intern
The Origins of the Chicago Wheel
Today, hundreds of Ferris wheels tower over cities and fairgrounds around the world. But today’s wheels are very different from the original wheel, which originated in Chicago during the World’s Fair of 1893. The Ferris wheel owes its famous design to George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., a structural engineer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who inspected steel for the fair. Ferris brought the idea for an enormous metal wheel to Daniel Burnham, the fair’s lead architect, after Burnham requested an iconic structure. Burnham and his peers hoped that it could rival the Eiffel Tower, which had been built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Of the numerous proposals for Chicago’s spectacle attraction, nothing captured the imagination quite like the “Chicago Wheel.” Ferris’s enormous vertical structure, which rotated around a center axle, featured 36 gondolas capable of holding up to 60 people each—for a total capacity of 2,160 people. It was not the first amusement wheel, but the use of a reduced steel framework had Burnham doubting a structure of this scale could ever work. After spending much of his own money on safety studies, Ferris finally convinced Burnham that the structure was possible. In 1893, Ferris completed the attraction and the Ferris wheel was born.
Soaring to a height of 264 feet, the original Ferris wheel offered fairgoers a 10- to 20-minute ride unlike anything they’d experienced before. For many, the Ferris wheel took them as high up as they’d ever been—and the views did not disappoint. As passengers traveled through the air, they could see out over Lake Michigan and glimpse new vistas of the city itself. In all, more than 1.4 million people paid the 50-cent fee to take a ride on the wheel. Despite the popularity of the attraction, the Ferris wheel met with a string of financial issues after the fair. It was disassembled and moved to North Clark Street, where it operated from 1895 to 1903. The wheel was then sold and rebuilt in St. Louis, Missouri, for the 1904 World’s Fair. Finally, in May of 1906, a demolition company used 200 pounds of dynamite to destroy the wheel. Its remnants were sold for scrap metal.
Reinventing the Wheel
Almost exactly 110 years after the original wheel was demolished, a new Ferris wheel opened on Navy Pier in 2016. Part of Navy Pier’s larger redesign for its centennial celebration, this new amusement ride replaced an earlier wheel installed in 1995. Both the 1995 and the 2016 wheels were manufactured by Dutch Wheels. Known as the Centennial Wheel, the new attraction measures 196 feet in height and has 42 gondolas. While this Ferris wheel won’t contend for the “world’s tallest” title, it is currently the sixth-tallest wheel in the United States. But bigger isn’t always better. The Centennial Wheel makes up for its average stature with new amenities, including air-conditioned gondolas and high-tech safety glass.
Another big change for the Navy Pier wheel is the passenger experience. As opposed to the 1995 wheel’s red gondolas, the new gondolas don Navy Pier’s signature blue and offer individual seating. Navy Pier’s previous ride operated on a continuous rotation system, meaning that passengers boarded while it was still moving. But the new wheel stops to allow passengers to exit and board each gondola. During this pause, passengers aboard other gondolas can capture views of the city from different heights or interact with a multimedia system that displays facts about the surroundings.
Go for a Spin
Although the original wheel was not preserved, Ferris’s idea lives on at small town carnivals and at major landmark attractions across the globe. And the new Ferris wheel at Navy Pier shares a few similarities with the original: its new gondolas are larger and enclosed and its new height is closer to the original’s dazzling 264 feet. This summer, take part in Chicago’s history with a ride on the new Ferris wheel. Imagine that it’s 1893 and you’ve never been up so high. The view out over the lake is just as beautiful today as it was all those years ago.