The 1893 Chicago World's Fair

Officially called the World’s Colombian Exposition, it attracted more than 21 million visitors from around the globe during it’s 6 month run. The Fair was planned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America.

A heated competition to host the Fair took place between Chicago, New York and Washington D. C.   Chicago was ultimately selected as the site because of it’s thriving business community and population of nearly one million. It’s access by 24 different railroad and water were also factors. As host city, Chicago had the opportunity to show the world the progress it had made in the 20 years since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Ground was broken for the exposition in January 1891. At the peak of construction, more than 40,000 skilled workmen were on the site. A virtual city of 200 buildings were erected, including 14 exhibition halls known as the great buildings. After more than 2 years of construction, the fair opened to house the more than 65,000 exhibits presented by over 100 nations.

One of the crown jewel of the Fair was the 264 foot tall Ferris Wheel. The brainchild of George Ferris of Galesburg IL who responded to a nationwide contest seeking an example of American ingenuity that would outshine the Eiffel Tower built for the 1889 Paris Exposition. Ferris’s revolving wheel built of iron that would carry more than 2,000 passenger at a time in 36 wood-veneered cars. Over 1.5 million people would pay 50 cents each to ride.

To ensure that his wheel would not fail, Mr. Ferris made this axle/shaft large enough and strong enough to bear a burden six times as great as the weight of the cantilever bridge across the Ohio River at Cincinnati, which was computed to weight about as much as the Ferris Wheel. The shaft of the Ferris Wheel was at that time the heaviest piece of steel ever forged in the U.S. It was 45’0 long, 32” in diameter, and weighed 70 tons. After it was erected at the top of the two gigantic steel towers 140’0 high, the hubs that catch all the tension spokes were fitted to hold the total burden of 2,000 tons. And this was done before the invention of modern cranes.

Why was it important

The World’s Fair couldn’t have come at a better time for the fledgling Ironworker organization. The erection of the Ferris Wheel and the erection of many of the 200 major building in the fairgrounds provided an opportunity to demonstrate their expertise before the world. It not only provided an abundance of work for the local Ironworkers, but was a magnet for boomers from all over the country. We can assume that many were not organized, in as much as there were only about 8 organized groups of Ironworkers across the country. For many this would be the first time they worked under the umbrella of a union organization. We can also assume that this exposure encouraged the spread of unionism and the development of new Ironworker locals when these men returned to their homes. After the fair was over, the Ferris Wheel was moved to North Clark Street, remaining there until 1904, when it was taken to St. Louis to delight visitors at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.