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Charles I.D. Looff, one of the finest carousel builders of his age, helped to insure the popularity of the carousel through his carving creativity and his emphasis on providing the latest in carousel entertainment on each of his merry-go-rounds. More than that, Looff convinced various parks including Rocky Point to include attractions he believed would be popular. His foresight allowed smaller local parks to provide customers with amusements, well before they became national favorites. Additionally, his wooden creations served as inspiration for national engineers who would improve on his designs for even larger audiences. One of his first Fandango Wheels was in operation on the shore of Rocky Point Park by 1892. Built of wood, the sixty-foot wheel could carry 32 passengers in 16 chariots on a revolution to observe the bay. Two steel cables that “fit in the grooves on the wheel’s rims” pushed the wheel forward in its rotation, while a steam engine at the rear of the wheel worked to power the sixty-foot pleasure wheel.
Though Looff’s wheel had been in operation at Rocky Point Park since 1892, other small wooden wheels had been delighting Rocky Point customers for almost forty years. Some excursion guidebooks from the late 1850s suggest that “Spanish Fandangoes” (a term used as a synonym for Ferris Wheels that apparently existed only in Rhode Island) were installed at the park to attract excursionists and day-trippers to the shore resort for a day of pleasure by the bay. These Fandango Wheels were small and could only carry a few people at a time. Because of their wooden composition, these wheels could only be so large before support beams would begin to snap. Despite their small size, the Fandango Wheels remained popular among park patrons; on this attraction riders received an incomparable view of the Narragansett Bay as they slowly revolved around the wheel. Evidence suggests that the first builders of pleasure or Fandango wheels drew inspiration from the carousel and the factory water wheel. Attraction designers and builders worked to craft amusements that were sure to satisfy park visitors and to subsequently draw in revenue, which outweighed the cost of the attraction. The carousel was enormously popular among patrons, so popular that shore resorts and budding amusement parks could afford to install several different carousels. Because carousels were so in demand among resort owners and their customers, builders believed that an inverted carousel with carriages attached would likely garner a similar degree of success.
Looff’s wooden wheel was an improvement on this form and predated George Ferris’ mammoth creation that debuted at the Columbian Exposition in 1893 by more than a year. Although Ferris’ idea may not have been an original, the engineer should be credited with improving on the observation wheel’s design and bringing the attraction to the masses. Robert Graves, a reporter for the Alleghenian, recognized that the World’s Fair Ferris wheel had stylistic predecessors and was not only the product of Ferris’ imagination, noting that “There are vertical wheels at the sea shore… These small vertical wheels must have been the suggestion to Ferris, the bridge builder and engineer. He said he would build a wheel that would astonish the world, and by the side of the little wheels of the sea shore be as the ocean itself to a mill pond.” As Graves explained, the Ferris wheel would stand alone as more than an improvement on the original small shore wheel.
Graves spoke aptly about the Columbian Exposition Ferris Wheel. Ferris’ creation could not be compared to any of the wheels built before the fair. It would easily be the largest vertical wheel ever built and one of the greatest attractions ever constructed. The vertical wheel stood 250 feet tall with an 825-foot circumference and thirty-six wooden carriages that could hold up to sixty people each. At the time, few engineers believed that Ferris’ plan was actually feasible. The wheel, they believed, would inevitably fall, and if it somehow managed to remain standing, a revolution of the carriages would be impossible. Additionally, critics claimed that “if [Ferris did] build the thing, people [would] be afraid to ride.”
While Ferris may have projected that he was creating something truly original, he was, essentially, proposing a design that was little more than an inverted carousel, a staple amusement of shore resorts since 1867. Furthermore, vertical wheels had themselves also been popular attractions at these vacation and excursion destinations for nearly forty years before the idea came upon Ferris at a chophouse. What is important about Ferris’ great wheel is how he improved on the form with technological advancements like pressed metals, steam and electrically powered engines, and engineering modifications that allowed the wheel to span 250 feet.
The great wheel was apparently conceived in a most unlikely way. Inspired by a challenge offered at an engineer’s banquet, George Washington Gale Ferris, the owner of a firm that tested iron, steel, and other metals, began scribbling the design for a giant revolving wheel on his napkin. At the banquet, Daniel Burnham, the fair’s chief designer, complained that nothing had been designed that would “meet the expectations of the people.” Ferris wanted to craft a fair symbol that would rival the architectural greatness of the Eiffel Tower that had debuted at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889. In an interview that appeared in papers years after his wheel stood in Midway Plaisance, Ferris explained how the great wheel was conceived:
We use to have a Saturday afternoon club, chiefly engineers at the World’s Fair. It was at one of these dinners, down in a Chicago chop house, that I hit on the idea. I remember remarking that I would build a wheel, a monster. I got some paper and began to sketch it out. I fixed the size, determined the construction, the number of cars we would run, the number of people it would hold, what we would charge, the plan of stopping six times in the first revolution and loading, and then making a complete turn – in short, before the dinner was over I had sketched out almost the entire detail, and my plan has never varied an item from the day.
Of course there are many versions of the inception of the Ferris Wheel. Ferris Wheel historian Norman D. Anderson explains that Ferris may have crafted the story of engineer’s banquet and his subsequent eager scribbling on nearby scraps of paper or a napkin as a means for “press baiting.” He clearly understood that “creating one of the great engineering marvels of the nineteenth century on a few scraps of paper in a chop house makes for a good story.” It is also unlikely that Ferris planned for the entire execution of the wheel in one meal sitting as he attests in his interview.
Further, Ferris was not the first engineer to put forward a revolving wheel as the main symbol for the Columbian Exposition. H.W. Fowler, a Chicago patent holder, had suggested that the fair construct a giant wheel. His design, which was penned prior to September 1, 1891, included a 250-foot vertical wheel, in a Dutch windmill style adorned with sixteen carriages. The fair’s committee quickly rejected his proposal. Fowler recalled the rejection in an interview on November 11, 1893:
My first sketch, in about August 1891, was of a wheel almost identical with the present Ferris wheel. But feeling that any structure worthy of a place among the palaces of beauty which would adorn the great exhibit should embody an educational and artistic ideas, as well as assist in swelling the receipts of the exposition.
Fowler quickly clarifies his statement, adding: “Don’t understand me as trying to claim any of Mr. Ferris’ honors. While I did plan such a wheel I didn’t build it, and there is a vast difference between a Ferris wheel on paper and a Ferris wheel in actual operation.”
The Columbian Exposition committee eventually granted Ferris the right to construct his wheel. It took about six months to complete the large attraction. The construction of the enormous wheel proved to be a technological feat in itself. Crafted from steel (with one of the beams believed to be the single “largest piece of steel forged at the time”), transported by steam engine, powered by 1,000 horse power steam engines, and lit by hundreds of electric light bulbs, Ferris’ wheel required all of the latest innovations in transportation to complete. Ferris’ on-site construction overseer and the wheel’s partial designer, William F. Gronau, witnessed the wheel’s first rotation on June 9th, 1893. He recalled the memorable occasion: “The action of the machinery and the steady movements of the wheel, and how wonderfully this ponderous mass of metal is under the control of the engineer, far exceeded my most sanguine expectations. Finally, when the wheel had made the first complete turn, I could have yelled aloud for joy.” Gradually, carriages were added to each spoke, until at last the wheel was completed.
When the Ferris wheel debuted at the Midway Plaisance at the Columbian Exposition in late June of 1893, the wheel was heralded as a technological marvel and a feat of engineering. Skeptics of the wheel’s safety remained and continued to question the integrity of the structure until Ferris’ invention withstood a wind velocity of one hundred miles per hour. Ferris and his wife were said to have endured the windstorm in one of the carriages. The wheel’s survival of gale force winds thoroughly impressed critics. But critics weren’t the only people amazed by Ferris’ invention. Fascinated with the spectacle, fair patrons flocked to the Midway to investigate the giant wheel. As visitors took steamboats to the fair, many wondered aloud as to what the structure off in the distance could be. For fifty cents, a curious fair patron could enjoy two rotations of the wheel with six stops along the way for optimal viewing. Graves described his first trip on the wheel with glee:
The wheel is set in motion at a more rapid pace, though still not very fast, and is not stopped until a complete revolution is made. It is an indescribable sensation, that of revolving through such a vast orbit in a bird cage, that of swinging in a circle far out over the Plaisance in one direction, then turning in the other direction, and still higher, and finally beginning the descent from such a great height.
The Ferris wheel easily became the most popular attraction on the Midway, bringing in $726,805.50 in revenue over five months of operation. When the wheel finally stopped revolving in November, it had succeeded, at least in the public’s opinion, in outdoing the French exposition of 1889. Graves commented: “The Eiffel tower involved no new engineering principle, and when finished was a thing dead and lifeless. The wheel, on the other hand, has movement, grace, the indescribable charm possessed by a vast body in action.” When the fair closed in November of 1893, the fair’s designers and architects believed the United States had established itself as a center of technological advancement. Many critics and commentators declared that the World’s Columbian Exposition marked a “new era of American cultural achievement.”
It took Rocky Point Park and Rhode Island several years to respond to the demand for new and more innovative attractions. Though the park’s early amusements had served to provide inspiration to Charles Looff and perhaps George Ferris, it took many years for Rocky Point to install the improved versions of their wooden attractions. Taking cues from the Columbian Exposition and the subsequent Coney Island Ferris wheels, Rocky Point built a larger wheel in 1911 to satisfy customers looking for more thrilling heights. The wheels that were installed in the park had been composed of wood. Because of the weight of the structure, it would have been impossible to construct a wooden wheel wheel that would be able to make a rotation using the available steam power. Colonel Randall A. Harrington, the Rhode Island “amusement park czar” and owner of Rocky Point, understood the importance of operating and maintaining a Ferris wheel that could compete in height with the most profitable and popular wheels of the day and would also be efficient to operate. A 1911 Souvenir Booklet promoted the new attraction: “This season, in addition to the manifold attractions already at the Point, Col. Harrington purposes the erection of a new Ferris Wheel of large size…” Later, the guidebook detailed the myriad improvements that Harrington had installed at the amusement park, making sure to note that a “new large Ferris Wheel,” [emphasis added] could be found there.