St. Louis loves a Ferris wheel.
Well, maybe only when and where it suits us.
In 2008, a proposal for a 175-foot wheel at Laclede’s Landing couldn’t get enough financing. In 2017, residents booed a plan to put a 180-foot wheel in the University City Loop.
Dreamers proposed putting a wheel along the Gateway Mall downtown, as well as at the St. Louis Zoo expansion site across Highway 40 (Interstate 64). Those were mere suggestions — upturned pies in the sky, so to speak.
Smaller “pleasure wheels” go back to the 17th century, but Ferris wheels got their name from George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., a railroad bridge builder who designed the great wheel for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
That’s the same wheel that was taken apart and put together again in Forest Park for the 1904 World’s Fair.
The fascination with such wheels, also called observation wheels, continues here and abroad. On Monday, the new 200-foot-tall St. Louis Wheel opens at Union Station’s St. Louis Aquarium complex. Along with it: an 18-hole mini-golf course, a carousel with 30 animal rides and chariots, and a Soda Fountain in the old Hard Rock Cafe space. In December, the aquarium is expected to open.
The St. Louis Wheel's twin is the Capital Wheel at National Harbor on the Potomac River in Maryland, just outside the nation’s capital.
And while these wheels are big, they're no match for the 550-foot High Roller in Las Vegas, currently the world’s largest observation wheel. The High Roller will be outdone by the Ain Dubai, or the Dubai Eye, which is set to open in 2020. It’s a whopping 689 feet tall.
Let's take a spin on some of St. Louis' big wheels, past and present, shall we?
1904 World’s Fair wheel • 264 feet
It was one of the most-loved and remembered attractions of the fair: the giant Ferris wheel, at 264 feet tall, had 36 wooden cars, each one big enough to hold 60 people. After its run in Chicago, the parts were transported to St. Louis on 175 freight cars, said Mike Truax of Fairview Heights, president of the 1904 World’s Fair Society, a group of more than 250 enthusiasts who meet monthly.
At least 80 couples got married inside the cars — one couple on horseback and one atop a car that had been outfitted with a railing. (Car No. 19, decorated for weddings, even had a piano.) A ride with two revolutions cost 50 cents.
The wheel was just southeast of present-day Skinker and Forsyth boulevards. After the end of the fair, organizers considered ideas for what to do with it, and plans to sell it to Coney Island and other parks fell through. The wheel stood in the park until May 11, 1906. That's when Cora Bennett, wife of W.G. Bennett, superintendent of the Chicago Wrecking Co., pushed the button that set off the dynamite that toppled the wheel.
"The noise of the explosion was disappointing," the Post-Dispatch noted at the time. "Classes at Washington University, a short distance away, were not disturbed when the giant charge was set off."
Truax said one of the biggest urban legends of the fair is that the wheel's 70-ton axle is still buried somewhere in Forest Park. That is likely not true, he said. He’s seen letters from descendants of wrecking company workers that say the 32-inch-diameter axle was taken back to Chicago and scrapped, and at least two letters mention that the axle sat around for a few years until the development of blowtorches powerful enough to help cut it apart.
And considering the wheel came to St. Louis by rail car, there’s no reason to think it couldn’t return to Chicago that way, Truax points out. Also, why would valuable salvage steel be buried?
The legend shouldn’t detract from the real story: People in 1904 had never quite experienced a view from such heights. The Wainwright building, christened the world’s first skyscraper, was built in the early 1890s and was 140 feet tall, Truax points out. The giant Ferris wheel would have dwarfed the skyscraper. A ride on the wheel was simply unforgettable.
“It’s like if you go to Paris, you have to go to the Eiffel tower,” Truax said. “If you go to San Francisco, you have to ride a cable car. If you were going to the fair, you had to ride the Ferris wheel.”
The Missouri History Museum currently displays two model replica wheels of the World's Fair wheel.
2004 Big Wheel • 120 feet
In 2004, St. Louis finally had a formal excuse to celebrate the World’s Fair it had spent the previous 100 years talking about.
The civic group St. Louis 2004 threw a giant New Year’s Eve party in Forest Park, complete with a 120-foot Ferris wheel near the World’s Fair Pavilion. The event was so popular it drew thousands more people than planners expected, and tickets to ride the wheel sold out in three hours.
So the wheel returned from May through November later that year, this time near the ballfields along Highway 40. Since it also flashed 12,500 colored, blinking lights, some worried the wheel would enthrall rubberneckers and cause highway pileups.
That didn’t happen.
Enthused wheel riders gushed about the wheel.
Mary Briesacher visited with her family to celebrate her 75th birthday. “I loved it,” she said at the time, leaning on her cane. “It was so refreshing and cool — and so far up there, that I felt closer to God.”
Colossus • 180 feet
The aptly named Colossus Ferris wheel at Six Flags St. Louis debuted at the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans and opened here for the theme park’s 1986 season. It’s 180 feet tall and has 40 gondolas. The spokesman for the park at the time, Mike Palladin, said then that the giant wheel fit the park’s strategic plan.
“In the past few years, we’ve moved away from thrill rides. In the ‘70s, thrill rides were everywhere — they were what everybody wanted,” he told the Post-Dispatch. “But the population is aging.”
At the time, the ride was the second-largest wheel in the country.
At night, Colossus is easily visible from nearby Interstate 44, as its nearly 2,200 lights flash in various patterns.
Joe Edwards’ wheel • 16 feet
In 2017, when University City businessman Joe Edwards spotted an article in the Post-Dispatch about the Muny selling a 16-foot Ferris wheel that had been used in its production of “All Shook Up,” he knew he needed it for his latest venture, an indoor venue he plans to name Magic Mini Golf.
The wheel has five “cabs” that can fit three children or two adults. He hopes to have the venue in the 6100 block of Delmar Boulevard open next year.
Edwards is interested in creating experiences that make a human connection, he says, and he thinks the view from the wheel will be sweeping and grand in a different sense.
“I think the view will be fun because they will be viewing their friends,” he says. “If you’re having a party or reunion or a wedding or a business group, you’ll be able to ride around and look down as they’re playing shuffleboard or miniature golf.”
The wheel was made in 1972 by King Amusement Company and features LED fluorescent lighting on its A-frame structure.
“You don’t get sick riding them,” Edwards says. “It’s very gentle and very peaceful, and just kind of fun.”
City Museum wheels • various sizes
What could possibly divert attention from a yellow school bus perched at the edge of City Museum's roof? A 1940s Big Eli Ferris wheel, which workers hoisted to the roof piece by piece in 2008. The wheel came from a traveling carnival and sat on the museum parking lot for a few years.
The wheel itself is 40 feet tall, and it sits on top of a 13-story building. A person at the top of the wheel sits 197 feet, 8 inches off the ground. But the ground level makes it sit higher than the nearby St. Louis Wheel.
This summer, City Museum’s new owner, Premier Parks, installed LED lighting on the wheel, replacing its old lights. The 21,000 or so lights can be programmed to show millions of color combinations.
“We have to pick up our side,” says museum director Rick Erwin, referring to the new wheel at Union Station. “To show our commitment to downtown and what’s going on, we’re doing some lighting and cleaning up to make it a better downtown.”
Erwin points out that, in storage, City Museum has a Ferris wheel for children that seats eight people. It's 13 feet, 4 inches tall. At one point museum officials had talked to a structural engineer to find a way to let the wheel hang halfway out the building. “Do you know how much that would freak out parents?” Erwin says gleefully.
A train layout on the museum's third floor includes a miniature version of the City Museum building, complete with a rooftop wheel. That one is 6 inches tall, giving the plastic baby sitting in the top car a fantastic view.