Monday, August 5, 2013

When Chicago Almost Got The Eiffel Tower (Got A Ferris Wheel Instead)

From the strange but true file comes the amazing fact that Chicago almost got its very own Eiffel tower, but turned it down in favor of a massive Ferris wheel.

The Eiffel Tower -
still gracing the Paris skyline

While the Eiffel tower still stands as an iconic symbol of Parisian grace and elegance, Chicago's famed Ferris wheel was sold for scrap and dynamited out of existence a mere 13 years after its creation.

According to Erik Larson's 2003 best seller, The Devil in the White City, here's how it all happened.

The Eiffel Tower was constructed for the 1889 World's Fair in Paris. It was a worldwide marvel of both aesthetic and engineering mastery which was retained as a permanent fixture. Of course it became the very symbol of Paris itself.

In an attempt to surpass the acclaimed French World Fair, Chicago's organizers of the 1892 Columbian Exposition World's Fair secured the most renowned architects from New York and the industrial North to design a stunning assemblage of buildings.

Led by Evanston resident and leading Chicago architect, Daniel Burnham, Chicago's fair organizers also signed on Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect of Central Park in New York, to transform the swampy South side Jackson Park into a thing of exquisite natural beauty. It would be the site of the 1892 World's Fair.

Now, all Chicago needed to blow memories of France's fair out of the water was a knockout engineering marvel, akin to the Eiffel Tower in importance.

Chicago's World's Fair Ferris Wheel 1893,
chosen instead of Gustave Eiffel's tower

The Chicago organizing committee put the word out in US engineering circles. The proposals they got back were mundane at best and some were downright weird.

One completely wackizany engineer proposed what would have been the world's first bungee jump contraption.

He proposed construction of a 4,000 foot tower on which a car seating 200 people would be attached to a 2,000 foot long rubber cable. The car would then be pushed off the top giving 200 people the wildest (and probably only) bungee jump of the 19th century. (p.135)

The liability law lobby was non-existent in 1892, but fair planners could still see that the bungee jump operation might not end well.

Another crackpot proposed a 5,000 foot tower made of logs with a log cabin atop. Still another proposed a 9,000 foot tower that would have an appended toboggan slide from the top for daredevil snow sport enthusiasts. (p.134)

Almost at the point of despair, Burnham's committee received a letter from Gustave Eiffel, himself, offering to design a tower comparable to, but somewhat larger than his 1889 Parisian tower.

An Eiffel tower for Chicago -- wouldn't that have been something?

Burnham and Co. were seriously considering Eiffel's offer, but were confronted by a storm of outrage from the American engineering community. They insisted on a US engineering feat to be showcased at Chicago's US fair. (p.135)
A rusting civic eyesore, the Ferris Wheel
was demolished in 1906

So Eiffel was politely turned down.

In the end, the fair committee somewhat reluctantly accepted the bid of a young Pittsburgh engineer and steel specialist, George Washington Ferris.

He proposed to construct a wheel of steel, 250 feet in diameter. It would carry 36 cars, each about the size of a Pullman train car, equipped with a lunch counter and with an overall capacity of 2,160. It would propel riders 300 feet in the sky over Jackson Park -- a bit higher than the crown of the Statue of Liberty.

When they finally got Ferris' contraption up and running about 6 months after the fair opened, it was a huge success. Almost 1.5 million fair goers paid for rides on the wheel, making about $395,000 for Ferris' firm (in 1893 dollars.)

Over time, variants of the Ferris Wheel would become a mainstay of carnivals, fairs and amusement parks around the world and would make a fortune for G.W. Ferris' family.

But as an architectural landmark it was pretty damned useless.

After the Columbian Exposition closed in November of 1893, the Ferris Wheel was dismantled and re-erected near Lincoln Park on the North side to serve as an attraction anchor for an entertainment district. It failed as a major draw and in 1903 was sold to a scrap metal firm for $1,800.

They, in turn, sold it to a St. Louis consortium who exhibited it at the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904.

The owners of the Ferris Wheel, which had by now become a white elephant, abandoned it on the site of the fair. Deeming it a rusting eyesore, St. Louis city fathers had it blown up by dynamite in 1906.

So much for the engineering marvel of Chicago's 1892 World's Fair.

And to think that Chicago could have, instead, had an Eiffel tower, that would still be gracing its skyline today.

On second thought, given that it would be located in Jackson Park on the gang-infested South side, Chicago's Eiffel Tower would probably have become little more than an irresistible palette for the spray paint gang graffiti artistes of the Black P Stone Nation and the Latin Kings.


  1. A 250 feet tall historic Ferris Wheel dynamited. M4eanwhile the current Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier is only 150 feet tall, and gets $6.00 a pop. Yep, it was worthless.

    1. I think an Eiffel Tower would have been cool. But I can understand how American engineers back then wanted to show their stuff on a world stage.


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