Happy birthday, Mr. Ferris: Big wheel’s inventor had close ties to Pittsburgh
There is some irony in George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. sharing his birthday with Valentine’s Day.
For more than a century, many young couples have stolen a kiss at the top of the wheel that bears his name. Yet, Ferris’ own life ended with a broken heart that endured as many ups and downs as his famous creation.
Ferris was born Feb. 14, 1859, in Galesburg, Ill. Shortly after, his family moved to Carson City, Nev., where the young Ferris developed a love of railroads. As a natural extension, he became interested in bridge-building, which, in turn, led to a career in engineering.
After a one-year stint at the California Military Academy, Ferris moved on to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. He graduated in 1881 and spent the next few years building his credentials and reputation, working as a transit supervisor, bridge inspector and bridge-builder.
He became an expert on structural steel. With this expertise, he headed to perhaps the one city in the world best-suited to his engineering talents, knowledge of steel and passion for bridges: Pittsburgh.
In 1886, Ferris partnered with James Halsted and opened the firm G.W.G. Ferris & Co. It built its reputation building and inspecting bridges. Among its tasks was the renovation of Pittsburgh’s Ninth Street Bridge.
It was a good year for Ferris. He married Margaret Ann Beatty of Canton, Ohio, and they settled into a home on Arch Street in the North Side. By all accounts, he was a success — a cheerful and enthusiastic man full of ambition.
That ambition led him to the Chicago Columbian Exposition.
During the planning phase of the landmark event, Daniel H. Burham issued a challenge to America’s greatest engineers to build a structure that would rival the Eiffel Tower. Ferris responded to the challenge by sketching the concept for his “Monster,” an observation wheel of epic proportions, on a dinner napkin. He invested $25,000 of his money to develop the plans and specifications before presenting the idea to the exposition board.
While the board members regarded the idea as creative on a grand scale, they had their doubts. Many engineers of the day stated bluntly, “It simply cannot be done.” The exposition withdrew its support, only to restore it a few months later on one condition — that Ferris must raise the $250,000 needed to build the wheel.
The challenge of doing the impossible invigorated Ferris. He used personal credit to place orders with Pittsburgh steel mills and formed a joint stock company to attract investors. It was a massive undertaking — while Eiffel had two years to build his tower, Ferris had 22 weeks to build his wheel.
Parts were manufactured throughout Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Pittsburgh’s ingenuity and industry played a crucial role. Bethlehem Iron Co. built the 45-foot axle. Weighing more than 56 tons, it was, at that time, the largest single piece of steel forged.
Westinghouse Electric Corp.’s Turtle Creek plant provided custom-built air brakes and powered the wheel from an electric plant it built on-site for the fair.
The wheel’s 100,000 components were transported to Chicago on 150 rail cars. Ferris was so confident in his design that he didn’t assemble a single piece until it was time to erect the 2 million pound “Monster” on the exposition grounds.
Then came the arduous task of assembling the behemoth in below-zero temperatures in early 1893. The wheel was supported by two steel towers stretching 144 feet above the ground and anchored into 50 feet of concrete. In one of the most complicated engineering feats of that century, workers pieced the wheel into place, still unsure the structure would stand, let alone rotate.
On June 9, the crew cranked the partially assembled wheel to see whether it would turn. It did, and Ferris ordered the remaining work to be completed immediately.
On June 21, 20,000 spectators looked on with nervous anticipation as Ferris blew a golden whistle, signaling the start of two 1,000-horsepower engines. The wheel began its first turn, seven weeks behind schedule. From its 264-foot apex, Ferris’ wife raised a glass to toast her husband’s achievement, a pinnacle of American innovation.
The wheel was a hit. It rotated, 15 hours a day, seven days a week, despite controversy of such a frivolous amusement being open on a Sunday. Over the next five months, more than 1 million guests took their turn. The exposition received the lion’s share of the wheel’s profits, which single-handedly salvaged the struggling fair. Ferris, however, was forced to use his profits to pay off investors.
The exposition closed in November 1893. The wheel stood idle for six months. It eventually rumbled back to life when it was relocated to Chicago’s Lincoln Park. As losses began to pile up, the wheel came to a screeching halt. It then moved to St. Louis for its 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition.
Following the Chicago exposition, thoughts of the “Monster” consumed Ferris. He worked on refining its design in hopes of selling a new wheel. Meanwhile, competitors capitalized on the notoriety of the famous wheel. Ferris had never patented his work. Consequently, dozens of claims were made that he had stolen the idea. His meager profits evaporated over years of court battles defending his design.
When he was unable to buy back the stock of investors for pennies on the dollar, he sold his share of the company to his partner. The money was not enough to cover his mounting debts. He lost his home, his wife left him, and he turned to whiskey.
Ferris moved into the Duquesne Hotel, Downtown. Soon after, on Nov. 22, 1896, he passed away of typhoid fever at age 37 in Mercy Hospital. According to his obituary, he owed thousands to debtors across the country.
There was speculation that his death was a suicide. While such speculation is unfounded, he clearly had lost his will to live and did not seek medical attention for the condition that led to his demise.
In 1905, a rival company constructed a wheel in what is now Point State Park for Pittsburgh’s own exposition. Meanwhile, Ferris’ ashes languished in an East Ohio Street crematorium as collateral for an unpaid debt of $159.90. After 15 years, his remains vanished.
George Ferris had been forgotten by the city whose steel and bridges inspired his masterpiece.
The Ferris Wheel shared a parallel fate.
After its stint in St. Louis, the wheel fell into disrepair. In 1906, it was sold for $1,800 to a junk dealer. One hundred pounds of dynamite reduced the once-magnificent wheel into a mangled heap of scrap metal.
Like Ferris himself, the final resting place of the wheel is unknown. In 1996, an archaeological dig was conducted in a St. Louis landfill to search for its remnants. Nothing was found.
However, one piece of the wheel remained. The powerful Corliss steam engine that drove the massive machine found a new home at the Crucible Steel Co. in Pittsburgh. It was in use until 1949, helping to produce the same Pittsburgh steel that forged the original Ferris Wheel.
In the century that passed, Pittsburgh has embraced Ferris as a favorite son, touting his wheel as another of Pittsburgh’s famous firsts. Sadly, the Steel City has not had a Ferris Wheel since the departure of Kennywood’s Wonder Wheel 16 years ago.
Ferris’ legacy lives elsewhere — in cities such as London, Las Vegas and Singapore — but belongs in Pittsburgh. He deserves a monument here. It’s time his story and his majestic wheel come full circle.
Joe Wos is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.