Indiana Bridge Built with Bones of the First Ferris Wheel?

1909 POSTCARD OF DUNN BRIDGE

This Indiana legend goes like this…

Hoosier engineers used scrap arches from the world’s first Ferris Wheel (the centerpiece of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair) to construct Dunn’s Bridge, which stretches 180-feet across the Kankakee River in Porter County, Indiana.

This particular Indiana legend is a personal favorite. It doesn’t involve fictional ghosts, required a little digging, and involved the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, an event which celebrated the cultural shift from national isolation to an international industrial superpower. All of this history and intrigue, dangling from a bridge sitting in pastoral, unincorporated Kankakee Township.

DUNN BRIDGE SEPARATED FOR DREDGING, 1915

So, Dunn’s Bridge & Ferris Wheel: historic or hysteria? The best answer I can give you is it might not be completely untrue.

Let me explain (at length).

The original Ferris Wheel, (conceived, designed, and built specifically for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair) had two purposes: one, to turn a profit on the costly fair; and two, to flaunt American oneupmanship in the face of the French, who had constructed the Eiffel Tower for the 1889 Paris World’s Fair.

https://youtu.be/T3slE2LZQIY

The Ferris Wheel stood almost 300 feet tall. While this is less than a third the height of the Eiffel Tower, our Chicago centerpiece moved. The “Chicago wheel”, as it was also known, proved to be a huge hit, and its contribution to the fair’s coffers almost singlehandedly put the fair at a profit.

After the fair, workers dismantled the Ferris Wheel, installing it in Lincoln Park in 1895. It was dismantled yet again and erected at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. By this time, the Ferris Wheel, while still impressive, had begun to show signs of structural wear, and its owners decided to put it down dramatically, demolishing the 300-foot circle of iron and steel with dynamite in 1906.

WHEEL AFTER DEMOLITION, 1906

In Indiana, Dunn Bridge had long since allowed Hoosiers to cross the Kankakee by the time of the wheel’s demise. Although the exact date of its construction is debatable, it is mentioned in a 1883 report on the marsh land surrounding the river by John Lyle Campbell and again in a geological survey for Indiana University the same year.

Although this doesn’t disprove the Ferris Wheel theory, it does make it suspect. Even if used for for improvement or repairs on the Dunn Bridge, would Hoosier engineers transport scrap metal all the way from St. Louis, especially if that scrap metal had been exposed to the damaging forces of dynamite? If so, then Indiana has the worst engineers in the world.

But there’s more. On July 10th, 1893, an electrical fire started in the Cold Storage Building and swept through the entire exposition. The planners had been ill-prepared for such a catastrophe and within a day, 16 people would be dead, a dozen of them Chicago firefighters who had been trapped by the spreading flames. Several buildings collapsed, the last among them the Machinery Hall.


MACHINERY HALL

Examining pictures of the Machinery Hall (the Electricity Hall is also a possibility), there is an almost uncanny similarity between the roof arches of those buildings and Dunn’s Bridge. Unfortunately, we can only make an educated guess concerning the legend of the Ferris Wheel and this Indiana bridge. While it seems very unlikely engineers used the wheel’s scrap in its construction, the purchase and use of scrap from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair is not only plausible but highly likely; several Fair-era railroads run within miles of the bridge location and the available scrap was inexpensive and pre-assembled. Chicago just wanted to get it out of the city.

In 1994, the Porter County Parks and Recreation Department purchased the bridge and several surrounding acres. Today, the Dunn’s Bridge County Park provides the only public access to the Kankakee River in the entire county.

DUNN’S BRIDGE TODAY

Given the experience of the staff in dealing with history mysteries, the county’s official stance is “Some say the bridge was built in the mid-1890s using steel beams salvaged from the 1893 Colombian World’s Fair in Chicago. Others contend the bridge was built using pieces of the original Ferris Wheel…”

That noncommittal answer will have to satisfy.

On a final, darker note—the riverfront property surrounding Dunn’s Bridge originally had another name and purpose. Finding the gentle foliage and the short beach curling along the Kankakee River too picturesque for ordinary residential construction, town officials christened it with another name: Dunn’s Original KKK Pleasure Resort. Yes, you read that right.

Sigh. Damn.

Want to Know More? 

Trace the creation, use, and destruction of the Ferris Wheel in this informative article by the Hyde Park Historical Society.

Experience the Kankakee River and surrounding marsh lands at Dunn’s Bridge County Park.

Appreciate the hard work of amateur Indiana historian Steve Shook in his article “Historic Dunn’s Bridge on the Kankakee River“.

Mourn those lost in the World’s Fair fire in this Chicago Tribune article, “Tragedy at the 1893 World’s Fair: Fire Killed 16 While Crowds Watched“.