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#283: GEORGE FERRIS JR. & HIS FAMOUS WHEEL

At this point in my career I have created about 25 different hour-long presentation topics to offer clients, but there are many stories in them that I haven’t yet had time to write about in length for my magazine columns. I’ve decided to cherry-pick some of these special vignettes to share with the Tahoe Nuggets crowd. They might not be weather-related, but they will be informative, interesting and related to the region.

George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., inventor of the Ferris Wheel, was raised in this house in Carson City, Nevada. When George was 5 years old his family moved to the Carson Valley from Illinois in the summer of 1864, just a few months before Nevada Territory gained statehood. George’s horticulturist father not only surrounded their stately home with trees imported by rail from Illinois, but he also created much of the landscaping of Carson City in the 1870s, including the spruce on the Nevada State Capitol grounds that has been decorated as the Silver State’s Christmas tree since 1937.

Some have speculated that George Jr.’s inspiration for his Ferris Wheel in the early 1890s came from his childhood fascination with a water wheel used on the Carson River to hoist water from the river up to troughs for thirsty livestock. Additional insight may have come from Lester Allan Pelton’s 1870s improvement of a water turbine driven by flowing water. The spinning wheel created torque and power for the cams to crush ore in stamp mills for the hard-rock mining industry and later for generating electricity. Pelton’s 19th century hydro turbine is still commonly used today in power generation.

In 1881 George Ferris graduated from Rensselear Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, with a degree in civil engineering. He spent the next decade working in New York City designing bridges, tunnels and trestles throughout the industrial northeast and mid-western states. Ferris was the head of a civil engineering firm in Pittsburgh, PA when he heard that the organizers of the upcoming 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago were searching for an American engineering feat to “Out Eiffel the Eiffel Tower.” The world famous 1,063-foot-tall Eiffel Tower had been constructed by Gustave Eiffel’s engineering company for the World’s Fair held in Paris, France, in 1889.

The Chicago Exposition’s organizers wanted something “original, daring and unique” and Ferris didn’t disappoint them with his design for a giant, rotating observation wheel. After submitting his specifications critics blasted the wheel as unfeasible and inherently dangerous. Skeptical engineers said that it would blow over in the slightest breeze or collapse under its own weight. When George finally got approval to construct his wheel, he was told he had 22 weeks during the harsh winter months to build it and no funding would be forthcoming. Gustave Eiffel was given two years to construct his tower and the French government paid for everything.

Ferris was undaunted by the short construction time allotted him and the dearth of financial backing. He spent all of his own money and borrowed more to produce the $250,000 wheel. It was built to withstand wind gusts of 150 mph and several years later easily survived a severe storm that damaged most of structures on the fair grounds.

George’s 264-foot tall Ferris Wheel weighed 4,100 tons and towered over the Chicago Exposition. The massive wheel had 36 large passenger cars that in total could carry 2,160 riders. From its top people could see into in 3 states. The hollow axle of the wheel was 45 feet long, 82 inches in diameter and weighed more than 89,000 pounds. In just the first week of operation Ferris sold 61,395 tickets, but most of the money went to the Exposition Company and ultimately, he was never repaid for his work and investment.

The popularity of George Ferris’ invention in Chicago inspired him to try and sell it commercially, but he was unsuccessful. Broke and unable to convince anyone to buy a Ferris Wheel led to depression and his wife left him in 1896. Severe stress led to failing health and he contracted Typhoid Fever, dying at age 37 that same year. His body was cremated by the state, but no one came to claim his ashes for more than a year. 

It’s a tragic irony of life that the man who invented the most iconic amusement ride in the world, one that has brought pleasure to millions, never found happiness with it himself.