The 1893 Ferris Wheel, named after its inventor George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. and the centerpiece of Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, still exists.
Not the whole 264-foot structure, mind you.
During its 13-year life, the Chicago Wheel (as it was sometimes known) carried 6 million passengers through two World’s Fairs. After its second fair appearance, its owners decided the transportation and maintenance costs were too high. It came time to put ‘er down.
In 1906, the Chicago House Wrecking Company, with the permission of the city of St. Louis, strapped two, 100-pound bushels of TNT to the mighty Ferris Wheel. With an ear-splitting BOOM and the groan of protesting metal, the wheel collapsed on its side, reduced to “a tangled mass of steel and iron 30 or 40 feet high.” Not a bad way to go, really.
The company quickly collected this scrap, and the fate of the 1893 Ferris Wheel faded into obscurity and rumor. Among the most colorful of these legends included the use of its girders to build Dunn’s Bridge in Indiana, or that the steel was melted down, sold to the Japanese, and used to make the Zeroes that bombed Pearl Harbor. Neither is true. The metal was gathered, shipped out, and melted down…and that’s all she wrote. But not the axle.
Let’s talk about that axle.
First, this 45-foot hunk of steel was a wonder in and of itself. No mill on Earth had ever produced such an object in the 1890s. Many thought it impossible. Pittsburgh’s Bethlehem Steel took up the challenge and pulled the axle out of its furnaces in a single piece, longer than a modern school bus. It was the world’s largest hollow forging at that time. The axle weighed just under 45 tons. The twin cast-iron spider gears added another 27 tons. Over 70 tons of American steel.
During the wheel’s demolition, onlookers marveled at how this solid hunk of metal “dropped slowly with the rest of the wheel, crushing the smaller braces and steel framework into fantastic shapes and forms.” The wheel’s end was, no doubt, a symphony of destruction to the eyes and ears. Yet, 200 pounds of TNT later, the axle survived intact.
The fate of the axle remained the greatest mystery in Ferris Wheel’s epic life. Unlike the beams, wires, trusses, and machinery, the axle couldn’t simply be loaded into a railcar and hauled away. Even with the spider gears removed, the solid hunk of metal weighed 45 tons. A dozen of the largest draft horses would struggle to move that kind of weight even a few feet. The machinery needed to move it existed, but the costs exceeded the axle’s scrap value. It was too heavy to haul away and too heavy to leave.
While scrappers took away the bones of the 1893 Ferris Wheel a ton or two at a time, the axle remained. Rumors insisted it was melted down onsite OR sliced into manageable pieces by welding torches OR dragged away by a farmer’s flock of ornery mules and dumped into a nearby lake OR dumped by the same mules into an industrial landfill. None of those are true, but that’s where the Ferris Wheel’s story ended…
Until Dr. Sheldon Breiner, a geophysicist specializing in magnetometers, came along.
Magnetometers measure magnetic fields. Think of them like a compass, but thousands of times more sensitive. Dr. Breiner helped found Geometrics, a company specializing in these devices, and he quickly became one of the world’s foremost experts on practical uses of magnetometers, from locating mineral deposits to sunken ships to snow-covered corpses. He did it all.
In late 1990s, Washington University had conducted a massive magnetic survey of the last reported position of the Ferris Wheel, in a northwest section of St. Louis’ Forest Park. It now holds a manicured golf course. The team of professors and students discovered where the Ferris Wheel had stood during the fair, and the field of debris left after its demolition. But, after years of searching and a few false alarms, they could not find this Holy Grail of contemporary Chicago cultural archeology. It seemed impossible to miss. Unlike everything Indiana Jones chases, this object weighed 45 tons, was 45 feet long and made of solid steel. Pretty hard to miss, but miss Washington University did.
They turned to Dr. Breiner, who happily accepted the challenge. The good doctor couldn’t use a metal detector from Walmart though. He needed something that could wade through utility lines and several feet of asphalt and dirt. Geometrics had it.
Although he help found Geometrics, he couldn’t just take equipment off the shelf. The cesium magnetometer he needed cost $35,000, and the company allowed him to borrow it—so long as he completed the survey in two days. After that, surveyors needed the magnetometer to locate a sunken ship in the Philippines.
Two days for a proper gridded survey was impossible, but the time crunch didn’t worry Dr. Breiner. The efforts of Washington University had paid off, reducing the search area to roughly 2,000 square feet, scattered into four locations around Forest Park. They knew the length of the object (45 feet), the width (3 feet), its composition (a single piece of cast steel), and that it would be buried horizontally (burying it vertically would be ridiculous). That’s a lot of information.
In the May sunshine, Dr. Breiner trotted around the far northwestern section of Forest Park and along the streets of Skinker Boulevard. The pricey magnetometer bobbed along with him, strapped securely around his waist and over his shoulders, Its sensor bobbed two feet above his head like a robotic ostrich beak.
It didn’t even take him two days.
By 2PM on the second day of the search, he found exactly what he had been looking for at the intersection of Skinker and Wydown Boulevards. Here, with cars zooming in and out from three directions, Dr. Breiner had to search in drips and drabs. He jumped out when the roadway was clear and hopping back to safety when it wasn’t. He switched modes, checked and double-checked his findings and dutifully recorded them. Then he rejoined the university staff and analyzed the results.
A good scientist knows excitement and error have a direct relationship, so he was very careful in his report, at least at first. Here’s a paraphrasing of his findings:
Long, possibly horizontal source, resting in a North-Northeast direction, location about 200-feet from the 1893 Ferris Wheel demolition site. The object is not of geologic origin, and much larger than any material used for municipal utilities. It was cylindrical in shape, about 45-feet long, 3-feet in diameter. The south end of object is buried roughly 7-10 feet below the street surface, with the northern end likely a foot or two deeper.
It’s hard to imagine the professional satisfaction in rediscovering a lost hunk of history, especially if that hunk weighs 45 tons. While the initial pages of his report maintain the dry, academic tone you’d expect in such a survey, the last paragraph sounds more like a very intelligent kid in a very large candy store.
I share it in its entirety here…
“Many have a story about what has happened to the axle of the famous Observation Wheel, aka Ferris Wheel. Life and spirit revolved — both figuratively and literally — around this icon of days gone by from its creation for the 1893 Chicago fair to the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, and since. It continued to have a life for the next century, too, essentially a symbolic one. While no one has set eyes on or touched this steel behemoth since its burial in May, 1906, it appears to have been rediscovered less than 200 feet from its last known sighting.“
~Dr. Sheldon Breiner, 2007
Today, the good doctor’s happy conclusions are bittersweet. With such a discovery, and the thriving interest in the 1893 Ferris Wheel, you’d think teams would start digging for the axle right away. That’s not what happened. The First Ferris Wheel DOES exist—this article’s title was not clickbait—but it exists about seven feet below a St. Louis intersection. Whether the excavation delay is municipal or academic, who knows?
Dr. Breiner’s final words in the report were “Let’s dig!” It was the first time I have seen an exclamation point used in a geologic survey. How happy he must have been, knowing that his life’s work had solved a century-old mystery.
Sadly, Dr. Breiner never saw his final words come to pass. He died in October of 2019 at the age of 82. Although he never set his actual eyes on the Ferris Wheel’s axle, he knew he had found it. The best way to honor him is probably by following his last suggestion in that 2007 survey report…
Want to Know More?
Read Dr. Breiner’s entire 2007 report “Magnetic Survey to Find Axle from Observation (Ferris) Wheel Used in the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair.” Folks, I’ve read a lot of reports from a lot of PhDs. This was easily one of the most entertaining and accessible.
The fascinating website Chicagology has collected news clippings and images of the Chicago Wheel, from its inception to destruction HERE. If you want to learn more about the creation that demoted the Eiffel Tower to the second page, that’s where you should start.