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Ferris

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Do you have one of those odd children in your household who would rather daydream than do the dishes? Then you know how the parents of George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. of Galesburg, Illinois felt.

Young George was born in Galesburg on February 14th, 1859. He had a lot to live up to. His grandfather, Silvanus Ferris, and a relative for whom he was named, Reverend George Gale, had founded the community of Galesburg as a prairie utopia.

George Ferris showed little promise of living up to the family name. When his parents caught west-fever and migrated to a ranch in Nevada, the boy avoided chores, and spend most of his time watching a water wheel go around in a nearby stream. His disgusted parents sent him to a military academy to shape up, and then on to engineering school.

Somehow, in 1892 he crossed paths with Daniel Burnham of Chicago. Burnham had been put in charge of designing the Columbian Exposition, the great world’s fair destined to put Chicago on the map. Burnham's motto was "make no small plans." He gave Ferris the task of creating an American rival to the Eiffel Tower, which had just been built three years before.

Ferris thought and thought. Perhaps the spirit of his ancestors awakened in him. Or perhaps it was that American spirit that insisted that engineering marvels ought to work, not just look impressive like the Eiffel Tower. What is certain is that George Ferris had not thrown away his memory of the water wheel in Nevada. What if I constructed a spidery steel frame like the Eiffel Tower, George thought, and then added a huge moving water wheel, and put people in the buckets rather than water?

And so, the great Ferris Wheel rose alongside the Midway at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Two 140-foot towers supported a 250-foot diameter wheel in which 36 cars carried forty people each—1,440 passengers at a time. Unlike the Eiffel Tower, it did not just sit there.

I hope George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. was satisfied with his work. His grandfather may have founded the town of Galesburg, but the grandson was able to give the whole town a ride at the same time.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.