Local history behind the Ferris Wheel

The birthplace of the Ferris wheel is just south of the Quad Cities. The father of the Ferris wheel still has family in the area.

Modern Woodmen Park was voted the best minor league ballpark in the country. It’s not hard to see why, with the scenic view of the Centennial Bridge over the Mississippi River behind right field, and now a Ferris wheel just beyond left field.

George Washington Gale Ferris, the inventor of the Ferris wheel, was born in Galesburg, Illinois.

“When he was six years old they left Galesburg, loaded their wagon and headed for California,” said Ferris’ cousin, Carol Liston.

Eventually the Ferris family moved to Nebraska where, Liston says, GW began his fascination for the wheel.

“He watched them bring water up out of the Carson River and fill buckets for livestock and various things. He was fascinated by that wheel and, later on, I think that’s what returned to his thoughts,” said Liston.

Ferris went on to engineering school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. In 1892 he got a break when the World’s Columbian Exposition planners were looking for the next big thing after the Eiffel Tower.

“He began sketching out plans, because he was thinking of this wheel he had seen earlier and he approached them with it. He was rejected, but eventually they did accept his idea,” said Liston.

In six months he created a Ferris wheel that was 140 feet tall and 250 feet wide. It was first introduced in Chicago.

“The seats on it were the size of box cars; they held 40 people seated and 20 extra standing,” said Liston.

Sadly the Great Wheel only lasted a few years. It moved a few times, and eventually it was torn down.

“People got tired of it in Chicago,” said Liston.

Years later, another company brought the Ferris Wheel back to life, adding the attraction to county fairs and carnivals everywhere.

Ferris is a name that, Liston says, brings her great pride.

“I think the Ferris Wheel is just an enduring thing,” said Liston.

Liston says the mistake GW made was never getting a patent for his Ferris wheel.

The first rides official rides on the Ferris wheel at Modern Woodmen Park are set for Saturday, May 24, 2014.  Proceeds from ticket sales that day will go towards the Genesis Health Foundation.

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