Pittsburgh Icons: George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr

Pittsburgh has always been a city of big dreamers. From the rags to riches stories of the industrialists to the sports heroes of today, we continue to dream big. One such dreamer was engineer George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. His invention, the Ferris Wheel, is a staple of modern carnivals, but when he first proposed it, it was laughed off as a ridiculous concept.

Born in 1859 in Galesburg, Illinois, Ferris went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to become a civil engineer. Like so many drawn to Pittsburgh, he came here to pursue his wealth in industry. With interests in railroads and bridges, he started in the industry before moving to Pittsburgh to create G.W.G. Ferris & Company. This business tested out mills and shop work around the country. Once the company was running smoothly, he began to pursue large engineering contracts for the bridges and railroads around the Ohio River Valley.

When the World’s Columbian Exposition was being planned in Chicago, it was the intent of the planners to outdo the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Ferris came forward with a proposed wheel of magnificent height, big enough to view the entire expo from the top. Of course, the planners saw the idea and thought it was impossible. It would be to big and too expensive, and probably not work out.

Ferris, like any good Pittsburgher, found investors himself. He came back with $400,000 worth of investors to pay for the construction, and it was given the green light. The wheel was obviously made of steel, and shared many of the same concepts as the bridges Ferris has worked on (although it moved). It had to withstand strong winds from only a narrow support, and it had to be built quickly. He had less than half a year before the fair would open. The wheel would need to be constructed over the harsh Chicago winter as well.

While he missed the World’s Columbian Expo opening, the Ferris Wheel was a hit. It was the crown jewel of the fair. To give you an impression of the size, each car on it had forty seats, made to revolve so you could see all around you. In each car, there was a conductor to narrate the trip. There were 36 cars hung on the wheel. At full operation, the wheel could hold 1440 people, an impressive feat.

The rest of his story was not as wonderful. While he loved his accomplishments, he felt that he and his investors were cheated out of almost $750,000 in profits from the wheel. The Ferris wheel itself handled the elements far worse than it handled the crowds, and after being moved once, it was demolished. He died in 1896 of typhoid fever at Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh’s Mercy Hospital.

Today, his modest house in Pittsburgh still stands in the Mexican War Streets. It is hard to believe the man who imagined the Ferris wheel could have lived in such a tiny house or died so young. George Washington Gale Ferris. Jr.’s story ended on a sad note, but he is remembered in the smiles of everyone who rides a Ferris wheel

Sources: Ferris Family Tree: http://www.ferristree.com/george_washington_gale_ferris.htm