The Suitcase Lady


September 4, 2018, 8:46 pm

Last week we were sitting in Lou Mitchell’s famous breakfast restaurant in Chicago waiting for an apple cheddar omelette to appear. My husband noticed a card reading “So you think you know Chicago?” propped behind the salt shaker. The establishment obviously was seeking to amuse and enlighten us with a Chicago history quiz as our eggs were cooking.

I tried to guess the answers as my husband read each question aloud. Question number 6 was the most fascinating even though the question itself was a dead give away….”The Colombian Exposition in 1893 debuted George Ferris’ what?” Obviously, he invented the Ferris Wheel.

The description of his giant wheel was the jaw dropper to us. It had 36 cars, each of which held 60 riders for a total capacity of 2,160 people. This stunning fact had me reaching for my computer to learn more about that wheel on steroids and its creator.

Ironically, the Ferris Wheel owes its existence to the Eiffel Tower. Erected in 1889, it was a smashing success. When the architect Daniel Burnham (“Make no small plans”) was put in charge of the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition, he asked for suggestions for a focal point to rival the Eiffel Tower. None were forthcoming. So he convened a group of engineers and challenged them to dream up something “novel, original, daring and unique.”

George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., a 33 year old engineer from Pittsburgh, was in that group. He was already inspecting the steel used by the Fair, and it was his brainstorm to build a colossal steel wheel. Burnham looked at Ferris’ plans and pronounced the slender steel rods “too fragile”.

Undaunted, Ferris spent $25,000 of his money to test the steel’s safety. He also recruited engineers and investors. His persistence paid off. The wheel was chosen on December 16, 1892, and launched on June 21, 1893. An immediate sensation, it was enjoyed by over 1.4 million people who paid 50 cents for a 20 minute ride.

When the Fair closed, Ferris was immersed in lawsuits for debts he owed investors and that he was trying to collect from the Fair. Bankrupt, he died from typhoid fever at the age of 37.

His marvelous wheel fared no better. For a brief time it was reassembled near Lincoln Park in Chicago. Next, it moved to the 1904 Fair in St. Louis. A mere two years later it was dynamited as scrap.

The original Ferris Wheel is history, but Ferris’ name lives on in wheels all over the world. Chicago’s newest one opened in 2016 on Navy Pier. At 196 feet high, it is 68 feet shorter than the 1893 Wheel, and it holds only 414 passengers. One ticket costs $15.00.

Obviously, we are in an age of “smaller plans” about everything but money.

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