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Finding the Ferris Wheel: How Archaeology and Technology May Have Helped Discover One of the Most Important Legacies of Two World's Fairs

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While touring Washington University in St. Louis with my son today, I knew we were walking across the former grounds of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. In fact, at one point, we even got to go inside one of the Expo's only remaining buildings.

But by day's end, I also found myself wondering what had become of the original Ferris Wheel-- which had been re-erected at the St. Louis Fair after its successful run at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. 

And that's when I came across this article about a concerted effort to locate the Great Wheel's remains-- 103 years after it met an unfortunate fate. 

The author doesn't have all of his Fair facts completely straight--  but he's clearly a scientist, not a historian-- and his methodical approach to solving a mystery is fascinating to read. 

Magnetic Survey to Find Axle from Ferris Wheel Used in the 1904 St Louis World's Fair

 

 

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I remember hearing about this.  The question, of course, is whether they did dig for the axle.  I don't recall ever seeing any information indicating that any excavations, much less discoveries, were ever made.

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Well, given that they'd have to tear up a city street to do it-- it's hard to say that would be justified. But at least it's cool to know where the mighty axle is!

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I think it depends on how they value this thing.  I've seen streets torn apart for the dumbest reasons.  That axle might bring world's fair fans from all over and that could be of benefit to the local economy.  Then again, maybe not.  Maybe the cost of what amounts to urban archaeology with a possible wonderful find is just not worth it.  But I can see that axle on display somewhere along with a creative Ferris Wheel display, and it might have the drawing appeal of the Civil War Hunley or the turret of the Monitor or something of that sort.  But who knows?  If the axle really is sitting under that roadway, it seems rather unfortunate to not continue the exploration for a remarkable piece of Americana.

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You'd think that some test bores would not be too expensive, but I wish that he had published a two-dimensional plot so we could see how sharply it is delineated in the cross-wise direction. Maybe the location is not so sharply defined as implied by his photo with the superposed outline.

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If I lived in St.Louis and the Fair was a part of my local history, I'd be pushing for excavation of that site where the axle is believed to be buried.  It's difficult to grasp that the local historical societies are not making a pitch for this plan as well.  If it's really buried there, that axle is an amazing piece of urban archaeology.  Of course, an argument could be made that the axle is more a piece of Chicago history and belongs there than it is a part of the history of St. Louis especially because St. Louis junked it.

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Chicago didn't want it either, so I'd say it's up for grabs.

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It was" junked" here by the Chicago House Wrecking Company. Junking it should never be attributed to the city of St. Louis or the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company. The Chicago House wrecking Company officers consisted of Moses Harris and his four sons. They were Polish immigrants who immigrated to Chicago in the l800's and established themselves as "junkers." They fled religious persecution by Russia. They had a humble start and grew to "Junk" the Columbian Exposition of 1893, Omaha Exposition of 1897, Buffalo Exposition of 1901 and the St. Louis Exposition of 1904. They "junked" the Ferris Wheel only because no one wanted to pay the cost ($150,000.00 in 1904 dollars= $4,200,000.00 in 2020 dollars) to disassemble and move it.

There were reports following the Columbian Exposition that it was headed to New York City. Ferris had even started a new company  named "The New York and Chicago Ferris Wheel Company." It was incorporated in late March of 1894 and was destined for one of six locations being considered. It never happened. The same was true when it had been moved to Clark Street at Wainwright in the north of Chicago just adjacent to Lincoln Park. When no legitimate offers were proposed, the wheel was sold at auction to the Chicago House Wrecking Company. They disassembled the wheel three months later and then transported it to the Louisiana purchase Exposition in St. Louis. After the fair they too sought a buyer. They kept records of their costs to disassemble and move to St. Louis and also kept records of the receipts in St. Louis to demonstrate profitability. Their numbers were audited as the Exposition company took 25% of the draw of all concessionaires. They were a salvage company looking to garner as much revenue as they could from the wheel. These numbers and others were compiled and shred with potential buyers to no avail. It was rumored that Coney Island was interested as was Forest Park Highlands-not true. Also, it was suggested that it remain at its present location as an attraction but the city would not hear of it.

They disassembled the accessory components of the wheel (passenger cars, plate glass windows, chairs in those cars, engines, lights and wiring and then elected to dynamite the wheel at its base. The first attempt failed and was followed by a second that brought the wheel to its knees.

When the Fair had ended, the Chicago House Wrecking with its highest bid, was awarded the rights to salvage most of the 1904 World's fair. With respect to the components of the wheel, the 1/4-inch plate glass was purchased by John Tyler Jones for a conservatory at his residence which was located at the end of Grand Boulevard near Lake Antoine in Iron Mountain, Michigan on Iron Mountain’s North Side. The bulk of the remaining steel girders were sold as scrap after being cut up with a cutting torch. The axle which was forged steel was too hard to cut with the torches of the day and was shipped back to Chicago on two rail cars. It was eventually cut up for scrap in 1919 when oxy-acetylene torches were capable of generating temperatures sufficient to cut the forged shaft.  It's original cost in 1893 dollars was $35,000.00. In 2020 dollars that would translate into $980,000.00. Of course, they never intended to recover the full amount of original cost but at 70 tons complete, the sale price of $3.00/ton would have been $210.00 in 1893 or the equivalent of $5,890.20 in 2020. Even at that price, not worth selling but worth salvaging in the hopes that a future buyer would surface. I have documentation to support all the information contained here.

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Thanks for the info.Another mystery solved.

 

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Thanks.

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I agree.  This is incredible information.  Thank you for sharing this with us. And as a fan of the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, you’ve taught me a good deal about the Chicago House Wrecking Company which demolished that fair when it closed.

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