St. Louis Ferris Wheel Is Part Of Century-Old Tradition | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis Ferris Wheel Is Part Of Century-Old Tradition

Feb 17, 2020

The original Ferris wheel, designed by George Ferris in the late 19th century, was transported from Chicago to St. Louis for the 1904 World's Fair.
Credit Missouri Historical Society

Following months of crowds and fanfare, most of the infrastructure associated with the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair was demolished soon after the festivities ended. That included George Ferris Jr.’s giant wheel, which had debuted in Chicago in 1893 and boasted 36 observation cars — “each the size of a Bi-State bus,” as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch later described them.

But Ferris’ legacy survived the dynamite and has seen something of a resurgence locally since the opening of the 200-foot St. Louis Wheel at Union Station last fall. And last Friday, wheel-goers found a special celebration underway: a Valentine’s Day-themed observance of National Ferris Wheel Day.

St. Louis on the Air producers stopped by to take in the scene and speak with riders. Then, on Monday, host Sarah Fenske led a discussion about St. Louis observation wheels past and present.

She talked with Jody Sowell, managing director of strategic initiatives at the Missouri Historical Society, and Karyn Wilder, general manager of the St. Louis Wheel.

Wilder said the wheel at Union Station has continued to draw big crowds since it first opened at the end of September.

“It has been overwhelmingly embracing and positive; everyone is just so excited about it,” she said, adding that attendance is on track to meet expectations of 750,000 visitors during its first year.

Jody Sowell, at left, and Karyn Wilder joined Monday's show.
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Sowell discussed some of the similarities and differences between the newfangled St. Louis Wheel and the original one that once loomed over Forest Park more than a century ago. One of the biggest contrasts? The size of the compartments.

“The cars at the 1904 World’s Fair could [each] fit about 60 people — they were really almost like trolley cars, if you can imagine that,” Sowell said. “So they could pack lots of people in — in fact, sometimes they would even pack in animals, so [for instance] horses would get in the cars.”

Wilder noted that service animals are the only animals allowed on the St. Louis Wheel at Union Station — and that each compartment on that wheel can accommodate up to eight people.

But some things haven’t changed: Like in 1904, recent riders of the St. Louis Wheel have conducted weddings, among other events and activities, while aboard.

The conversation also touched on rumors related to the fate of the original Ferris wheel and what may or may not be buried in Forest Park.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.