The Ferrous Ferris Wheel Mystery
Original Ferris Wheel at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair Columbian Expostion
taken by the Chicago Tribune. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Diaz-Granados, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and her team of undergraduate archaeology students have spent the last few years searching for this historical hunk of metal, which served as the center hub of George W. Ferris’ massive observation wheel, the engineering centerpiece of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

Fair organizer hoped Ferris’ colossal steel structure would outshine the Eiffel Tower, which debuted four years earlier, and established the United States’ engineering and industrial hegemony. Ferris claimed he designed the wheel on the back of a dinner napkin in just one evening. In reality, the 264-foot structure (nearly the height of the era’s tallest skyscrapers) required some radical engineering breakthroughs by Ferris and partner William Gronau. They designed the steel circle, which measured 250 feet in diameter, like a gigantic bicycle wheel, with 2 ½-inch-diameter steel spokes. Tension in the spokes help up the lower arc of the wheel, and the lower arc supported the upper arc. Each of the 36 steel-ang-glass cards around the wheel’s circumference held 40 seated and 20 standing passengers, for a maximum of 2,160 riders. Powered by one of two 1,00-hp reversible steam engines, each two-revolution ride took 20 minutes. Construction of the massive observation wheel cost more than $300,00.

The Ferris wheel down.

The giant Ferris wheel was not just an engineering marvel, it also was built in record time. The skeptical fair directors award the contract to Ferris on Dec. 16, 1892, just four and a half months before the fair’s opening day. To get it built on such short notice, the Ferris Wheel Co. farmed the work out to nine steel mills. Pennsylvania’s Bethlehem Iron Works created the center axle, which was 45 feet long, 32 inches in diameter, and 70 tons was at the time the largest single piece of steel ever forged. It eventually required 150 railcars to transport all the parts to the fairground. Despite working around the clock, laborers hadn’t finished the wheel when the fair opened May 1, 1893. But about 45 days later, Ferris and his wife took newspaper reporters for the inaugural ride.

By all reports, the Ferris wheel was a great success. Even at 50 cents a ride, the wheel ran near capacity, entertaining up to 38,000 people a day. During the 10 weeks it operated at the great White City air, Ferris’ contraption thrilled about 1.5 million fairgoers, grossing $726,000 for its stockholders. From a business standpoint, the wheel probably was not all that lucrative, however; the fair corporation had to sue the Ferris Wheel Co. for its share of the profits. At the close of the fair, the attraction sat idle for a year. It was finally disassembled and moved uptown to the North Clark Street Fair, where it reopened with mixed success in October 1895. Ferris died the following year at age 37, with some accounts blaming his failing businesses and marriage for his decline.

The venture collapsed soon thereafter, and with the company $400,000 in debt, a receiver auctioned off the once-great attraction as scrap. The Jun 3, 1903, Chicago Tribune reported:

The judge called for bids from any one present. A representative of the Chicago House Wrecking company, after glancing all about, offered $800, bidding in cautious tones, as if awed at his own temerity.

There was another long silence and then a voice:

“I’ll bid $1,800.”

It was Attorney H. M. Seligman, representing a junk firm. [the judge] declared the wheel; “going, going – once, twice – gone, and sold to the gentleman on the right.”

Receiver Rice drew a long face and exclaimed: “It’s a shame, a terrible shame. Why, that engine alone is worth $10,000, and the boilers $7,000, and ten there are 2,000 pounds of steel.”

“Yes, but just think! It’s going to cost us $30,000 to take the wheel down,” replied Seligman.

The wheel had one more life to live, however. It was dismantled and sent to St. Louis for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. By all accounts, the wheel has passed its glory days. After the fair, the owners simple abandoned the structure at the fair site, where it soon became a rusting eyesore. On May 11, 1906, this gargantuan amusement ride finally met its end. As the Chicago Tribune reported the next day,

Blown to pieces by a monster charge of dynamite, the Ferris wheel came to an ignominious end yesterday at St. Louis after a varied career of thirteen years. …

The old wheel, which had become St. Louis white elephant, died hard. It required 200 pounds of dynamite to put it out of business. The first charge was exploded … wrecking its foundation and permitting the wheel to drop to the ground.

As the wheel settled it slowly turned … and then after tottering a moment like a huge giant in distress, it collapsed, slowly. It did not fall to one side, as the wreckers had planned – it merely crumpled up slowly. Within a few minutes it was a tangled mass of steel and iron thirty or forty feet high.

The huge axle, weighing seventy-four tons, dropped slowly with the remnants of the wheel, crushing the smaller braces and steel framework.

This massive iron axle proved too large to move and too sturdy to break up for scrap. According to local lore, the scrap contractors just buried the axle and its hubs near where they fell. Perhaps they kept the location a secret so they might come back someday and claim this steel prize. Nonetheless, over time, this massive forging was forgotten.

During the great scrap metal drives of World War II, searchers made an unsuccessful attempt to locate the giant metal tube by digging a series of exploratory pits around the golf course built on the former fairgrounds. (one hopes they replaced their divots.) It seems that no one could recall the exact location of the axle’s interment, and the search was abandoned.

In 2004, in anticipation of the centennial of the St. Louis Exposition, Diaz-Granados and her student crew began archaeological excavations at the fairgrounds. When stories of the missing axle reached them, they decided it would be an excellent centerpiece for the centennial exhibit. After digging in the obvious places, the researchers raised funds to widen the search with side-scanning radar and magnetometers. They located a likely-looking object under a street adjoining the park, and a local TV station funded the excavation. Unfortunately, with the cameras rolling, all they unearthed was an old water pipe.

Today the search continues. In recent correspondence, Diaz-Granados wrote that even though the tools of modern science have so far failed to locate this buried treasure, she has not given up the hunt. She is hoping, perhaps, that someone in the scrap metal community can provide a clue that will help solve the mystery.

Article by Tom Mele, Connecticut Metal Industries Inc. (Monroe, Conn.). Originally published in “Scrap,” March/April 2006.

An exciting update! It appears the long-searched for axle was discovered through magnetic surveying in May 2007 by Sheldon Breiner! Check out the article here.