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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2003 02:39 pm

Still turning

Jacksonville built the world's first portable Ferris Wheel

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Believe it or not, Bulgaria may be responsible for the most common carnival ride at any state fair. "Pleasure Wheels"--powered by strong men cranking large wooden rings with riders sitting on attached chairs--were created in the 17th century, according to Scott Webel, curator of the Museum of Ephemerata in Austin, Texas. Antonio Manguino, a Frenchman, brought a version of the wheel to America in 1848. With no real amusement parks, Manguino built a wooden pleasure wheel to attract visitors to his start-up fair in Walton Spring, Georgia.

Galesburg native George Washington Gale Ferris was a bridge builder in Pittsburgh who specialized in steel shipwork and mills. For Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition of 1892-'93, Ferris used his engineering know-how to give birth to the beloved Ferris Wheel.

The component parts of Ferris's giant wheel were manufactured in Detroit and sent to Chicago in 150 railroad cars. The 45-foot axle was said to be the largest piece of steel ever forged in the world at that time, weighing 45 tons and having a diameter of 32 inches. The wheel's 36 cars could hold 60 people each. Every day 38,000 people rode the wheel for 50 cents apiece. One rider was William E. Sullivan.

Sullivan, a bridge builder from Roodhouse, was more interested in the machinery than the 20-minute ride. Returning home from the Chicago fair, he spent the next seven years making plans to produce a portable version of what he saw that day. On May 23, 1900, "Big Eli," the first portable Ferris Wheel, opened for business in Jacksonville and made $5.56 on its first day. In 1906 Sullivan formed the Eli Bridge Company, which produced the Ferris wheels and other portable rides. Sullivan's descendants now oversee one of the largest amusement-ride businesses in the world. Sullivan's great-granddaughter, Patti, runs the company in Jacksonville.

"My great-grandfather saw the Ferris Wheel in Chicago and fell in love--he rode it twice," says Sullivan. "He hurried home and wanted to make a similar ride that everyone could enjoy." And everyone has. The "Big Eli," the world's first portable Ferris Wheel, still sits in its original home at Jacksonville Community Park, on the corner of Main and Morton streets. Every Sunday in the summer (through August), from 3 to 5 p.m., the Rotary Club of Jacksonville runs the wheel for $1 a ride.

"Since they don't time it, you certainly get your dollar's worth," says Ginny Fanning of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce.

Sullivan's legacy also survives on the carnival midway at the Illinois State Fair. Bolmness Theobald, the Crystal Lake-based business that has run the fair's carnival since 1993, employs two rides manufactured by the Eli Bridge Company. One, of course, is the Ferris Wheel.

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