George C. Tilyou
Born in New York City in 1862, George Tilyou moved to Coney Island at age 3. His father set up a restaurant and beach rental business. Tilyou’s entrepreneurial spirit became evident at an early age when visitors from the Midwest came to Coney Island after a trip to the Philadelphia Exposition. 13-year old George met them with offers of a cigar box full of beach sand or a medicine bottle filled with ocean water, 25 cents each. Upon reaching adulthood Tilyou partnered with his father in buying the Surf Theater and staging vaudeville acts. He later started a stagecoach company and tried his hand at real estate.
But it was on a honeymoon trip to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago that Tilyou discovered his true calling. He at first tried to buy George Ferris’ Great Wheel to bring it home with him. When that didn’t work he had his own built at Coney Island. Tilyou gradually added other attractions and amusements around the Ferris wheel and in 1897 he closed it in and opened Steeplechase Park.
There was also the signature Steeplechase ride and the Parachute Drop. He brought the Trip to the Moon ride to Coney Island, although within a year he got into a dispute with the proprietor who bolted for neighboring Sea Lion Park. He built replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben, a ballroom and a large saltwater pool (conveniently located behind his dad’s joint). It all went up in smoke in 1907, reportedly because a patron threw a lit cigarette into a garbage can. So what does a guy who hit up Midwestern tourists for boxes of sand do when his amusement park is burned to the ground? He charged admission (10 cents) for folks to come and look at the smoldering remains.
Tilyou rebuilt Steeplechase in 1908. In the same year he expanded to Atlantic City, building Steeplechase Pier which featured a ride called “Flying Chairs” that would swing riders out over the ocean. He passed away in 1914. The Coney Island park remained under family ownership and lasted until 1964.
George W. Ferris
George Ferris was an engineer. He was born in 1859 in Galesburg, Ill. Five years later his family left the town they had helped found and headed for California. They didn’t quite make it, instead opting to buy a ranch in Carson City, Nev. George went to California Military Academy where he graduated at age 17 then went on to earn an engineering degree at RPI.
Ferris was involved is several railroad and bridge projects. In 1886 he moved to Pittsburgh and created G.W.G. Ferris & Company, an engineering inspection firm.
When the organizers of the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 laid down the challenge to a meeting of engineers to build a structure for the fair that would rival the Paris Exposition’s signature Eiffel Tower, Ferris answered the call. It is believed that his original idea for the Great Wheel was sketched out on the back of a napkin in a restaurant. He originally conceived of the project as an observation wheel and in fact the finished product offered not only spectacular views of Chicago but you could see three states from the top of the wheel.
The exposition organizers were initially skeptical of the feasibility of Ferris’ project. But it was more imaginative that the ones submitted by guys who simply posed the answer as building a tower that was a little taller than Eiffel’s. Eiffel himself offered a proposal but the Chicago guys did not want a Frenchman building their signature attraction. So after some hemming and hawing they approved Ferris’s plan but with the stipulation that he had to raise his own financing.
Ferris more than exceeded expectations. It was seven weeks after the fair opened that he climbed aboard for the first ride, along with his wife, the mayor of Chicago and a marching band. George Ferris’ Great Wheel operated flawlessly for the entire duration of the fair. It shrugged off gale force winds, thunder and lighting, even the remnants of a hurricane. It was the highlight of the exposition, accommodating 1.4 million passengers.
Things didn’t go well for Ferris once the fair closed. He turned down George Tilyou’s offer to buy the wheel and move it Coney Island. Instead he moved it to a small site near Lincoln Park in Chicago where it was only lightly attended. Ferris pitched some other exposition organizers to build other Great Wheels, but to no avail. He also was embroiled in costly legal disputes. He sued the Chicago Exposition organizers for a bigger share of the profits, but lost. He also faced patent infringement suits, including one from William Somers, builder of Atlantic City’s Roundabout, a similar attraction that Ferris’ had actually ridden before he created the Ferris Wheel. Ferris was successful in having these claims dismissed, but at considerable expense.
In the year following the Columbian Exposition, Ferris sold his share of G.W.G. Ferris & Company to his partners. He died of typhoid fever in 1896 at age 37. By that time his wife had left him, he had moved into a cheap hotel in Pittsburgh and he was facing bankruptcy. His name, of course, lives on and has been a part of virtually every amusement park built since.
The Great Wheel itself was auctioned off to the highest bidder after Ferris died. The high bid on The Great Wheel that had cost some $600,000 to build was $1800. The new owners brought it to St. Louis for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 after which it was demolished.
Part 2 will include the man who brought the sideshow to Coney Island, a roller coaster engineer and the “Fearless Frogman.”