“We Have a Ferris Wheel!”

There are several unique things about Jacksonville Rotary, but probably none more unique than this: we have our own Ferris Wheel. Jacksonville Rotarians, and the City of Jacksonville, may have become a bit jaded about this unique possession but, as far as we know, the Rotary Clubs of Jacksonville (Jacksonville Rotary and Sunrise Rotary) are the ONLY Rotary Clubs in the entire world to have a Ferris Wheel. The history of the Ferris Wheel, the Eli Bridge Company and the Jacksonville Rotary Club are all interestingly intertwined. The enduring product of those relationships stands at the corner of Main and Morton in Jacksonville. It is the towering marvel of century old engineering known as “Big Eli No. 17.”

To understand the Eli Bridge Company, it’s important to know a little bit about the creation of the Ferris Wheel which was designed and built by singular visionary engineer George Ferris.

The Original ‘Ferris Wheel’

The original Ferris Wheel made its debut at the “Columbian Exposition” World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893. The celebration was supposed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham headed the crew building the immense and amazing “White City” that would be the central showpiece of the Fair. Preparations for the Fair grew to such enormous proportions, the work schedule forced the opening date to be moved back from October of 1892 into the summer of 1893.

One of the amazing sights on display at the Exposition, and one of the construction projects that delayed the opening, was George Ferris’ Giant Wheel. Just a few years earlier, in 1889, bridge builder and engineer Gustave Eiffel had unveiled his massive tower in Paris. It was featured as a part of the Paris International Exposition. Eiffel’s tower was just over 1,000 feet tall. At the time, the Eiffel Tower was the tallest man-made structure of any kind in the world. What could possibly top the Eiffel Tower as an attraction? Burnham and the White City architects felt the pressure to outdo their European engineering rivals. The committee solicited design submissions from architects and engineers all over the world. Even Eiffel submitted a design for a tower that would be taller than his Paris structure. His design was rejected by the committee. They felt Eiffel’s name was too strongly associated with his Paris tower.

Thirty-three year old engineer George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. proposed an almost 27-story rotating wheel as Chicago’s answer to the Eiffel tower. Burnham initially said ‘no’ to the concept. He told Ferris his design was too dangerous. Slender brackets and wide-open spaces made the structure unstable, according to Burnham. Also, how could it possibly be built? In the mid-1890s there was seemingly no method of lifting that would allow for the construction of something that enormous…especially something so huge that also MOVED. Ferris was relentless. He wanted to build his mighty wheel. Eventually, after investing thousands of his own money into continued design, Ferris was able to convince the Exposition Committee to back his unique attraction.

In 1893, a rotating wheel as an amusement ride was not a new concept. “Pleasure Wheels” had been a part of European fairs since the mid-1600s. These wooden structures could usually seat about a dozen people. The Pleasure Wheel was powered by strong men turning a gearing system. In 1892, fifty-foot high wheels, based on the European Pleasure Wheels, had been built on the boardwalks in Asbury Park, Atlantic City and Coney Island by a man named William Somers. Somers even secured a patent for what he called a “Roundabout.” Ferris rode the wheel in Atlantic City. It was the basis and inspiration for his design, but the wheel built by Ferris for the Exposition was massive. It required the creation of new building processes. Instead of wood, Ferris’ Wheel would be built using the stunning new material known as steel. Ferris’ Wheel was determined to be so different from the boardwalk Roundabouts, that Ferris won a legal battle brought by Somers for patent infringement.

Ferris’ Wheel, also called the “Chicago Wheel,” took months to build. The center axle was 45 feet long. Each car on Ferris’ incredible ride was a Pullman Trolley Car. The center axle was, at the time, the largest man-made object ever lifted to that height. It weighed just under 90,000 pounds and was lifted to a height of 140 feet (about 14 stories). A series of towers was used to lift the massive axle.

The finished Wheel was breathtaking. In each of the cars, 60 swiveling chairs were mounted for riders. A ride consisted of two rotations. The first took eleven minutes for loading. The second was a nine-minute full rotation. Each turn of the wheel took so long that one happy couple decided to hold their wedding ceremony, with guests, in one of the cars during the ride. They said their “I do”s at the top of the rotation.

The 1893 Columbian Exposition drew hundreds of thousands of people from all over North America and the World to witness its wonders. One of those fascinated souls in attendance was William E. Sullivan of Roodhouse, IL. Sullivan was a young man at the time, an engineer, and a dreamer. Once he had experienced Ferris’ creation, Sullivan was hooked on an idea that would define his life.

Big Idea, on a Smaller Scale

After his Columbian Exposition adventure, Sullivan is quoted in 1893 as saying, “I have discovered the machine I want to design and build, a portable ‘Ferris Wheel’.”

Sullivan’s idea was to miniaturize the design of the Ferris Wheel so that it could be easily moved from town to town. Sullivan knew that only a tiny fraction of the world would ever get to experience the giant Wheel that Ferris had constructed. What if someone could bring a version of that thrill, on a smaller scale, to their hometown?

Sullivan began his designs for a portable Wheel and assembled a group of investors. By 1900 the “Eli Bridge Company” had been founded and produced its first Wheel. The name “Eli Bridge” might sound like a misleading moniker for a company with the stated purpose of building Ferris Wheels. As enthusiastic as Sullivan was about his idea, his investors were a bit more skeptical. They felt the Ferris Wheel fad might wear off and Sullivan would not be able to market his invention. Should that happen, the investors believed the company could easily transition to bridge building. The engineering and materials necessary were very similar to what went into making a Wheel (interesting note: in its more than 115 year history, Eli Bridge has built a grand total of one bridge).

Our Wheel is Born

Sullivan’s first “Big Eli” Wheel made its debut on the Jacksonville Square in May of 1900. “Big Eli No. 1” was 45 feet high with 12 structural steel spokes that each held a rider car. Unlike the wooden “Roundabouts” from the boardwalks, this steel Wheel could be easily broken down and moved. The attraction grossed $5.56 its first day of operation. Sullivan knew his machine was going to be a hit and he was right. Every Ferris Wheel you’ve ever seen at a County Fair or Street Festival was most likely a “Big Eli.” Even the Wheel installed at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch was built in Jacksonville.

The 17th Wheel manufactured by Eli Bridge rolled off the line in 1907. It was a ten-seater, dubbed, appropriately enough, “Big Eli No. 17.” It began a long and storied career in the amusement business. No. 17 could be found at fairs all over the Central part of North America, from Leavenworth, KS to San Antonio, TX…even Guaymas, Mexico and Miami, FL.

No. 17 returned to Jacksonville in 1957 after 50 years of continuous service on the road. The Wheel was converted to a 12-seater and sold to the Jacksonville Rotary Club.

At that time, the Rotary Club created a semi-permanent installation for the Wheel in Nichols Park. The Club operated No. 17 in Nichols Park until rising insurance costs forced it to be shut down in 1985.

Big Eli Keeps On Turnin’

As a way to keep No. 17 available to area residents, the Rotary Club donated the Wheel to the City of Jacksonville in 1986. Thanks to support from the City, the Eli Bridge Company, and private donors, the Wheel was once again renovated and moved to its present location at the corner of Main and Morton in Jacksonville’s City Park.

Although technically owned by the City, the Jacksonville Rotary Club continues to act as caretaker and operator. From April through October, the Wheel has regular hours of operation on Sunday afternoons. Beginning in 2016, the Club started to offer free rides to local residents thanks to area sponsors who underwrite the cost.

The main structure of the more than 110 year old Wheel stays up year ‘round. The seats are removed every fall and put into storage then returned to the Wheel in the spring. Rotarians, lead by members of the Ferris Wheel Committee, handle all aspects of Wheel maintenance, operation and upkeep.

Jacksonville Rotarians are honored to be the caretakers of such an incredible, and fun, piece of both Jacksonville and American History.