Olsson's Book Bits

by Greta Olsson

The Devil In The White City
by Erik Larson

"As absorbing a piece of popular history as one will ever hope to find"
San Francisco Chronicle.

39O pages in paperback.
Published by Vintage Books.
(Larson also wrote Isaac's Storm.)
ISBN O-375-7256O-1

This work is really several stories in one. The two main events are: 1) "the soaring dreams of Daniel Burnham" dealing with the politics, financial woes, failing banks, strikes, delays, and enormous problems in creating the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago; and 2) the hellish ones of H.H. Homes, a cunning doctor turned serial killer, who used the fair and his special hotel with its gas chamber and a crematorium to lure his victims to their death. Henry Howard may have killed 2OO people, mainly country girls going to the fair or to work in a big city.

Both of these stories are absolutely fascinating, but this report will comment on one of the main ambitions of the powerful men working on the fair: to outdo the Paris Exposition in introducing new items, such as electric lights, zippers, Juicy Fruit gum, all electric kitchens, Cracker Jacks, and Shredded wheat (which one critic called "Shredded Doormat"), and a new beer which won the top award ("Forever afterward, its brewer called it Pabst Blue Ribbon"). But their main challenge and focus was to best the Eiffel Tower.

The problem seemed unsolvable, Some ideas for a better tower got bizarre - one plan was a tower 5OO feet taller than the Eiffel made entirely of logs with a log cabin at the top. Another tower would lift a train-like car filled with 2OO people to the top to be released like a bungee jump on rubber cables to bob up and down. Daniel Burnham said, "Bah. A tower is a tower, It's been done. Get something else."

George Washington Gale Ferris was the engineer who had the winning inspiration; he saw the picture complete; a colossal wheel, carrying 36 cars the size of Pullmans, weighing 13,OOO tons each, each car holding sixty people and equipped with its own lunch counter. When filled to capacity, the wheel would propel 2160 people at a time three hundred feet into the sky over Jackson park, a bit higher than the Crown of the now six-year old statue of Liberty. It would take twenty minutes to perform one revolution. 36 x 13,000 tons would be 468,OOO tons. If the average weight of 2160 people was 100 pounds, that sum would be 216,000 pounds.

One problem was the 142031 pound axle. No one had ever lifted that weight before and certainly not to the top of eight 14O foot tall towers.

The weather worked against the fair. Wind demolished the just-finished pumping station and tore down 65 feet of the Illinois State Building. Three weeks later another storm destroyed 8OO ft. of the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building. The costs were becoming too huge. How to cover the damage cheaply? White wash, thus creating an unusually beautiful scene as bright sun in the day and electric lights at night caused the white to glisten. The White City impressed many architects from many countries. It was considered something of extraordinary beauty.

But what would a terrible storm do to the Ferris Wheel? The fair opened on May 1st but many attractions weren't nearly finished. In early June a nearby attraction, Midway's Ice Railway, comprised of a descending elliptical track of ice over which two coupled bobsleds, full of passengers, could reach speeds of forty miles an hour, were conducting their first tests for employees only, when a group of spectators pushed their way into the sleds, eight in the first, six in the second. They were rocketing along When one sled made the curve OK, but the second jumped its track, plummeting 15 feet to the ground. One person was killed, one woman was badly hurt, and four men sustained contusions. The accident had been tragic and was a black mark against the fair, but "everyone understood that the Ferris wheel, with 36 cars carrying more than two thousand passengers, embodied the potential for a catastrophe of almost unimaginable scale."

The wheel may have been safe, but it looked too fragile to hold. Several tests were run, the first without cars attached. As the wheel began to turn, loose nuts and bolts, and a couple of wrenches rained from its hub and spokes. The wheel had consumed 28,416 pounds of bolts in its assembly - someone was bound to forget something.

In the first week of June 1893, men began prying the last timbers and planks from the false work that had encased and supported the big wheel during its assembly. "Standing unbraced Ferris's wheel looked dangerously fragile. The spokes look like cobwebs; they are after the fashion of those on the newest make of bicycles." The wheel turned slowly, and then there was a most horrible noise. An operator, Rice, explained that he had merely tested the wheel's braking system, which consisted of a band of steel wrapped around the axle. "The noise," Rice said, "was only the sound of rust being scrapped off the band."

Now came time to hang the cars. As the men became skilled at that job, they could manage two cars a day. On June 11th they now tested the wheel with people aboard. Although George Ferris was not in Chicago, Mrs. Ferris insisted upon being first. The car traveled up and then unexpectedly stopped. Looking over the side (no car had glass or the iron grill that would protect passengers), an official saw the cause of the problem. The fast-growing crowd of spectators, emboldened by seeing passengers in the first car, had leaped into the next car, ignoring shouts to stay back. Fearful that someone would be hurt of killed, the engineer had stopped the wheel and allowed passengers to board. A director estimated that one hundred people occupied the car below.

When the first car reached its highest point, 264 feet above the ground, Mrs. Ferris climbed onto a chair and cheered, raising a roar in the following car and on the ground. All agreed that the trip down gave the best view of the fair grounds. George Ferris came to Chicago on June 21st and rode in a car himself. He was very pleased, but in spite of his dream, he died at age 37. His death was not caused by his great wheel, but possibly the overwork had weakened him. Ferris had thoughts he would ride his wheel to far greater career heights.

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