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Ferris' Wheel | by Zeb Andrews
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Ferris' Wheel

If one were to live in Portland in late May and early June, and they were to go downtown they would discover that the annual Rose Festival celebration would be in full swing. A portion of that celebration involves the "Fun Center", which may or may not actually be a euphemism for "overpriced stuffed Disney and Comic Book character knockoffs". Now in the middle of this "Fun Center" there is a generally a Ferris Wheel.


The Ferris Wheel was first built by an innovative chap named George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., who must have decided early on that with a name like that he was destined to do something spectacular. His Ferris wheel was over 260 feet tall (which I figure to be about 26 stories tall) and was built for the centerpiece of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1892/1893, held to honor the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus. See where all this is going? That's ok, I don't either.


A few years before the Chicago Columbian Exposition, Paris had held an exposition of their own in 1889. It was at that expo that the Eiffel Tower was unveiled. Chicago wanted to out-Eiffel Eiffel, so they sent out a call for submissions around the world for some engineering marvel. Ferris of course submitted, never having actually built a wheel of that size, and quite predictably his design was dismissed. It was not believed to be possible. The whole structure he wanted to build weighed too much for the slender frame he claimed would support it.


So he submitted again. And was rejected again. I believe he actually submitted a third and a fourth time too, and finally on the fourth try he managed to convince the judges that this thing might actually be feasible. It is interesting to note that Eiffel himself submitted a proposal for what would have been a larger Eiffel tower. Obviously his design was not chosen.


Ferris' first wheel took about 20-30 minutes to make two revolutions, and instead of small cars to hold passengers, there were massive cabins that could hold 60 people each, including one cabin that held an entire marching band which played whenever the wheel was turning. There is actually a great story about a fellow who rode it for the first time, only to discover as the wheel started up that he had a latent fear of heights. He went uncontrollably crazy with fear, and tried to kick the solid metal door out of its hinge to escape the cab. It took several, with emphasis on several as the man's fear gave him almost superhuman strength, other passengers to hold him down until the wheel completed its circuit. As it started the descent the fellow progressively calmed down until they were able to let him up. Unfortunately they forgot that the wheel made two trips, so much to the fellow's horror, the cabin didn't stop at the bottom and instead went right on by and back up, and the whole scene was repeated near exactly.


Anyway, a year after the expo ended the White City, as it was called, burnt down and Ferris' wheel was moved to a new location. It was later seen again at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis before being demolished. Which was ok with Ferris. He had proved that the rotation of the structure constantly shifted the weight of the entire structure, allowing it to be much heavier than the frame should have been able to support. Think about that the next time you are riding on it, hearing it creak and groan. :-p


So, if you did manage to get down to the Rose Festival and found your way up on to the Morrison Bridge, this would be the view you would be rewarded with. I recommend enjoying this spot about dusk. The lovely blue twilight complements the light of the wheel wonderfully.


Of course, you could not have done so tonight. The Festival was closed and all the rides off. The reason I heard given was something about restocking and getting new animals.


I don't know what happened to the old animals.


Oh and if my brief history lesson piqued your interest on the Columbian Exposition or the Ferris Wheel, or heck, both of them, I highly recommend reading The Devil in the White City. Really really good read. It even has a sociopathic killer, but trust me, the best parts all deal with the building of the Ferris Wheel and the White City itself.

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Taken on June 2, 2009