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World’s First Ferris Wheel

The Ferris Wheel at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair

Several years ago, while reading a column written by Bill Boone, alum of Wabash, Class of 1960 and a native of the area, I was surprised to read that one of THE most notable attractions of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 was built by a man from this county, Luther Rice. What a connection! I set out to discover more about this history.

For reference, Ladoga is a small town in the southeastern part of Montgomery county. Quite a prosperous town in its day, Ladoga still maintains a healthy small-town vibe.

Here is a description of the Ferris Wheel from a souvenir booklet, the cover of which appears above and which was purchased at the Fair.

“The Mammoth Ferris Wheel – Greatest of all the many wonders exhibited at the Columbian Exposition was the monster spider-web cycle known as the Ferris Wheel, located in the Midway Plaisance. This remarkable product of inventive genius was designed and constructed under the direction of G. W. Ferris, superintendent of one of the large bridge companies of America. The forgings were made at Detroit; the axle, 33 inches in diameter, 45 feet long and weighing 56 tons, was the largest single piece of steel ever cast in this country. The colossal shaft rested upon steel towers 137 feet high, and the lifting of it into place required the use of a derrick bigger, taller and stronger than was ever made before. The wheel was 264 feet in diameter, between the rims of which, separated by a distance of 28 1/2  feet, 36 cars were suspended, each having a capacity of 60 passengers. It was perfectly balanced, and was turned by a sprocket chain, attached to an engine of 2000 horse-power, with an engine of like power held in reserve. The time occupied in making one revolution was about twenty minutes, and the price of passage, for two revolutions, was fifty cents. Cost of the wheel was $362,000, but the earnings paid the cost in three months after it was put into motion, and the profits of its operation were much greater in the latter months of the fair.”

The Ferris Wheel was a hit! So popular that wheels of this type are still referred to as Ferris wheels. For more information on the man who put it together, we have this entry from Bowen’s History of Montgomery County.

The Ferris Wheel, a Ladoga product

The town of Ladoga lays claim to the engineering feat of constructing the famous World’s Fair “Ferris Wheel,” that amused and astonished its millions of people at both the Chicago and St. Louis World’s Fairs. The originator of the scheme, could not find an engineer who would undertake to build it, until he finally found Luther Rice of Ladoga, this county, who examined the plans and said he would build it, and he did. The entire world knows of its history. After the fair in Chicago, it stood in “Ferris Wheel Park” for a time, but when the St. Louis fair came on it was taken down and set up there. After that ended it was sold to the Chicago Wrecking Company, who placed many sticks of dynamite beneath it and destroyed it cement moorings and it fell. It was a wonder. – Bowen’s History of Montgomery County

 In the snippet from the souvenir booklet it says that, “…profits of its operation were much greater in the latter months of the fair.” I bet they were! It must have taken a while to prove to people that riding on the wheel, up so high, was safe.

With most fairs cancelled this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there are few Ferris wheels operating. Still, we can remember what our first ride “up high” felt like as we looked down on our world. What delight, mixed with apprehension, feelings surely not uncommon.

A neat connection.

All best,

Beth Swift

Archivist

Wabash College

Crawfordsville, Indiana

Sources

The Magic City – A Portfolio of Original Photographic Views of the Great World’s Fair

Bowen’s History of Montgomery County Indiana Vol.1, p. 506

For more information on the Chicago World’s Fair, follow the link below to Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World’s_Columbian_Exposition#Inventions_and_manufacturing_advances