Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The Ferris wheel axle from Chicago's 1893 World's Fair found in Forest Park in St. Louis, Missouri, buried after their 1904 World's Fair was over.

Touted as the Eighth Wonder of the World, George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. (1859-1896) invented the Observation wheel for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago.

After the World's Columbian Exposition, the Ferris wheel was moved into the middle of Chicago's northside in 1895, where George Ferris opened "Ferris Wheel Park."

Click ─► "Ferris Wheel Park" to see the Ferris wheel running in a one-minute film by the famous Lumiere Brothers pioneers of the beginning of moving pictures, and is one of the first films ever shot in Chicago. You'll see how slowly the wheel rotated, verified by the people's walking pace, the streetcars and horse-drawn wagons pace speed.

The Ferris wheel would delight fairgoers once more at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904, the largest World Fair ever held in the country up to 1904, from St. Louis (founded in 1764). Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis & Clark to explore the new Louisiana Territory in May 1804. Two years later, when the explorers returned in September 1806, the city became known as the "Gateway to the West" for the many mountain men, adventurers, and setters who followed the path of Lewis and Clark into the new frontier. The 1904 World's Fair was the centennial celebration of that original historical event that established St. Louis as the de facto "Gateway to the West." The "Gateway Arch," the famous 630-foot Arch on the banks of the Mississippi River, was completed in 1966 to commemorate the city's "Gateway to the West" moniker.

The Ferris wheel (264 feet high) came to a most ignominious end when it succumbed to a wrecking dynamite charge on May 11, 1906. Contrary to the demolition engineers' hopes that it would fall over on its side, it simply crumbled in place.
The scrap handlers used torches to dismember and reduce all the component parts except the axle to a small, manageable size. At the time of its manufacture by Bethlehem Steel Company, the axle (axle 45½ feet in length and weighed in at 89,320 pounds) was the largest single piece of forged steel ever made in America. It was so massive with such a large thermal mass that torches were useless in cutting it down in size.
What happened next, no one knows. Typically, no one would care what happened to a then piece of scrap steel that, having performed its function, was condemned to the scrap heap. Nostalgia and a keen sense of history had taken root in St. Louis over the past several decades, at least as far as St. Louis 1904 World's Fair is concerned. The centennial of 1904 was celebrated in 2004. Historians and the public formed "The Worlds Fair Society in 1986."

MYTH: There is rumor of a letter (circa 1950) from a descendant of an employee of the Chicago House Wrecking Company (later; Harris Brothers Company - Kit Home Sellers), who were contracted to dismantle the 1904 World's Fair that states that the axle was taken back to Chicago and put in the company's yard, and later, in the late 1910s, cut up the axle for scrap.

DEBUNKED: A cesium magnetometer located the axle under Skinker Boulevard at Wydown Boulevard and identified it in 2007 (see images below).

Imagine an imagined scenario in 1906 when a city official charged with cleaning up the area and returning to the city's business ordered his crew boss, "Get rid of that hunk of metal. Hide, bury, or do whatever, but I don't want to see it anymore."
Size of the axle during the reassembly before the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.
Stories abound about how it was melted down or taken away for its scrap value. Others have said it was probably pulled by a team of mules from the concrete Ferris wheelbase to a small nearby lake just west of Skinker and Forsyth Boulevards (now covered by buildings), and then the little lake was back-filled. Still, other stories related that those mules might have dragged it to a dumpsite near Wydown Boulevard and University Land in Clayton, where methane gas still emanates from decomposing debris.

A short time after the destruction of the Ferris wheel after the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition was overMr. John T. Jones of 703 Grand Boulevard, Iron Mountain, Michigan (built-in 1890 - date razed unknown), a personal friend of George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., was engaged in building a large greenhouse for his wife, Rachel, as an addition to their home. Jones purchased some debris from the Ferris Wheel.

"It's just been wrecked from the St. Louis Fair. Think of having the original Ferris Wheel – [the] first one in the world – right here. It was the buy of a lifetime. I'll use the girders for the roof and the glass [from the gondola cars] for the windows. Imagine having a real plate glass greenhouse. It'll be the talk of the country," said Jones.

The Ferris wheel metal was used to build the trusses of Dunn's Bridge in Jasper County, Indiana. This is unfounded and very unlikely as the bridge's arches are not concentric. Some claim the metal was from another 1893 World's Fair building. 
This is all that is left of the Ferris wheel after demolition at St. Louis, MO.
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 one among them the 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.
Machinery Hall, 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition.
Using technical means to attempt to locate the axle, Professor Patrick Shore of the Physics Department at nearby Washington University and his class in 1996 conducted a magnetic survey on the golf course in northwest Forest Park (opened in 1876, the 1,371-acre park includes the Missouri History Museum, St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis Science Center and Planetarium, St. Louis Zoo, the outdoor Muny Theater, the World's Fair Pavillion, a dozen restaurants, athletic fields & golf courses, and over 35 other attractions today).

They did succeed in confirming the location of the Ferris wheel foundation by its large steel bolts and other steel frameworks, but there was no axle. Another remote sensing survey, this time using a ground-probing radar, was conducted and appeared to show something along Alexander Drive just west of Skinker Boulevard. Still, another survey, this time using an infrared scanner, was flown over the area and claimed to be able to see thermal indications of the axle under Alexander Drive just a hundred yards or so from Skinker. Based on that indication, a local TV station sponsored using a backhoe to dig at that site, finding only some clay water pipes.

Sheldon Breiner, with a technical background in geophysical exploration for natural resources, was contacted for yet another try to locate the axle through technological means. He applied one geophysical method, magnetic surveying, to find items of cultural or sometimes strategic interest. Breiner contacted Gene Kiernan, a St. Louis World's Fair Society member, to conduct a magnetic survey over prospective sites in and around the original location of the Ferris wheel. He was introduced to an archaeologist from Washington University, Dr. Carol Diaz-Granados, who had written papers on the subject of the 1904 World's Fair, among other things. We considered the lore and the confirmed background regarding what might have happened to the axle. The dimensions and general ferromagnetic properties of such a piece of steel were sufficiently known to allow me to plan the survey. Breiner was also familiar with the geology of the St. Louis area regarding possible magnetic interference.

The prime areas deemed worth surveying were:
  • That part of the golf course is just east of Skinker Boulevard. south of Forsyth and adjacent to Skinker near the original site of the Ferris wheel
  • The debris burial areas near WydownBoulevard . and University Land
  • Wydown Boulevard  from Skinker to the west for about 400 yards
  • Alexander Dr. from Skinker to its intersection with Woodbourne Dr.
Proposed areas to conduct magnetic reconnaissance survey, May of 2007.
The survey was conducted from 8 AM to 8 PM on Sunday, May 13, 2007, and 8 AM to 2 PM the following day. He initially conducted several short reconnaissance surveys to assess the magnetic noise background, the presence of magnetically disturbing under-street utilities and possible false magnetic targets. 
Sheldon Breiner on Skinker Boulevard with a cesium magnetometer GPS.
The magnetic target for this survey is large, long, made of steel, and, if still present, is located in a reasonably small area. The fact that it is long and buried horizontally allowed relatively wide spacing of the survey lines. The axle is made from steel and not just iron. Hence, the magnetic anomaly is due to permanent magnetization, which is always much more prominent and accessible to detect and/or map. Similarly, the fact that this object was cast as a single piece of steel rather than several parts produces a large anomaly without self-canceling individually magnetized component parts.

The proposed areas were walked carrying the magnetometer in what is termed 'search mode' where the data are not recorded but observed as one walks, making a note in real-time of anomalies. The sensor on the golf course was carried affixed to the staff with the staff held horizontally about 2 feet above the ground. In the streets, the sensor was carried at about 6 feet. Many anomalies were noted on the golf course, some of which were undoubtedly the steel bolts and fixtures related to the Ferris wheel foundation. However, some significant anomalies were noted under Skinker adjacent to the golf course. It was quickly pointed out that anomalies due to parked (or passing) vehicles were small relative to the vast anomalies noted under Skinker.

The local park on Wydown, due east from the school, had virtually no magnetic anomalies of any kind, though it was suspected as being a possible dumpsite for the Fair. A quick walk-through was carried out in search mode along Wydown Terrace and Alexander Drive, the schoolyard adjacent to Wydown School, and along the east and west heading lanes of Wydown near Skinker and the median strip in between.

The only anomaly in the areas covered that was large enough to evaluate seriously was found under the southbound lanes of Skinker roadway at its intersection with Wydown. This anomaly was first noted on extensions of lines that walked out from the golf course onto Skinker. In the times between traffic flows and stop-light-mediated times, Breiner surveyed all around the site of the anomaly, first in search mode and then, using the differential GPS, in 'survey mode' where the data are recorded. It was essential to see if any other such significant anomalies were possibly associated with it. He surveyed the width of Skinker and the length from just south of Alexander to a hundred yards north of Wydown, finding no other significant anomalies. There was not enough time to conduct a systematic, gridded survey of the remaining golf course section around the Ferris wheelbase or the area northwest of the Ferris wheel foundation.
Location of the axle under Skinker Boulevard at its intersection with Wydown Boulevard.
When the anomaly was finally delineated, it appeared to be caused by a long, possibly horizontal, source, trending in a North-North-East direction, about 200' south of the Ferris wheel's base. The anomaly was more significant than anything originating from sub-street utilities or any other possible industrial source. It was not of geologic origin as much of Eastern Missouri is underlain by limestone, which is usually as close to non-magnetic as any typical rock type.

This size agrees pretty well with my crude estimates, which are mainly circumstantial. The basic fundamentals represent only rough averages accumulated from years of experience with the magnetic effects of iron and steel objects in an urban or industrial context for a variety of unusual industrial, military, and cultural/historical things. Breiner did derive the estimates weeks before arriving on the scene in St. Louis.
Location of the axle under Skinker Boulevard. Looking NE towards Forest Park.
Several profiles were obtained along and across the presumed location of the axle. The profile and the modeled profile based upon a steel cylinder 45 feet long and 3 feet in diameter are shown in the figure. The south end of the axle is at a depth of between 7 and 10 feet beneath the pavement at the location indicated in the images shown here. The north end of the axle is not as well defined and could be somewhat deeper, perhaps as a consequence of halting, in mid-stage, the efforts to bury the axle.

1904 - During the St Louis World's Fair at the Observation Wheel's foundation.
Note that there were no streets here in 1904. It was parkland.
1906 - immediately after the demolition of the Wheel. Still no roads.
2007- under Skinker Boulevard at Wydown Boulevard.
Many have a story about what has happened to the axle of the famous Observation Wheel. Life and spirit revolved — figuratively and literally — around this icon of days gone by, from its creation for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair to the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. It continued to have a life for the next century, although symbolic. While no one has seen or touched this steel behemoth since its burial in May of 1906, it appears to have been rediscovered less than 200 feet from its last known sighting.

Dr. Sheldon Breiner died on October 9, 2019, at his home in Portola Valley, California, near Palo Alto. He was 82 years old. 

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 
Dr. Sheldon Breiner, Contributor 


  1. Fantastic...huge geek am I for Columbian Exposition arcania.


  2. good science, nice piece of history for somebody, someday to recover.

  3. I would love to see this artifact one day excavated, restored and preserved at the Chicago History Museum


The Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal™ is RATED PG-13. Please comment accordingly. Advertisements, spammers and scammers will be removed.