American Pioneers of Amusement, Part 1

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.

Steeplechase Park logoThere 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.

Parachute crop

The skeleton of the Parachute Drop ride is all that remains of Steeplechase Park


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 House

The Ferris House in Pittsburgh

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.

The Great WheelFerris 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.

The Great Wheel in St. Louis

The Great Wheel at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis

Part 2 will include the man who brought the sideshow to Coney Island, a roller coaster engineer and the “Fearless Frogman.”

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18 Responses to American Pioneers of Amusement, Part 1

  1. Are you writing a book about amusement parks, Ken? It is indeed a fascinating topic, and I’m sure there’d be quite the audience for it! Great post and pics as always.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Phoenicia says:

    As you know, I love reading about fairgrounds! To think someone is planning and sketching behind the scenes years before the public have set eyes on the actual ride.

    What a sad ending to George Ferris’ life – living in a bedside aged 37, trying to accept his wife has moved on.


  3. Erica says:

    George Ferris died at 37. How sad. I imagine that ambitious people back then had to really take big chances. There was no sitting around saying they would do something “someday”, because so many people died prematurely from things we can easily cure today. The good thing is he’ll probably be remember for many centuries to come. I imagine that many generations will be riding what is called a ferris wheel.


  4. Joseph Nebus says:

    George Washington Ferris! Possibly the most famous alumni of my grad school, RPI. Also the name you’d give for the inventor of the Ferris Wheel if you had absolutely no idea and figured you might as well give the most hilariously ridiculous name you could think of.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You are becoming quite an expert on amusement parks, Ken. Maybe you should produce a world wide guide and sell it on Amazon?


  6. I loved hearing about the man who made the first Ferris wheel. He definitely was ahead of his time. That is amazing that his Giant Wheel was sold for $1800. Now that was probably a lot of money back then but still not as much as it was initial to build.


  7. patweber says:

    It seems that Ferris’ short life as someone so talented and innovative ended tragically as did other inventors and pioneers. In his case though, his name does live on! How sad he was penniless at the time of his death. Now I will think differently about the Ferris wheel down the road from us at Busch Gardens!


  8. It’s always interesting to read about how they do all these great things, but sometimes fail at the end. Makes me think about all the inbetweens of their lives. I’ll have to find Ferris’ house. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. lenie5860 says:

    What a shame that George Ferris lost so much even though the ferris wheel was so popular. Must have been frustrating as can be to know you have something that good and still end up with so many problems.
    I did enjoy the young entrepeneur – George Tilyou. Imagine selling beach sand and ocean water. that takes vision.


  10. Donna Janke says:

    I never thought much about the people who pioneered amusement, I found the information interesting, Ferris’s life was so sad. I wonder what he would think now if he saw the big ferris wheel landmarks in major cities.


  11. heraldmarty says:

    Really enjoying this series Ken! The only problem is it’s giving me itchy feet … been on the Island far too long! Time for an adventure. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Wow that is really interesting. I’d never read the history of the ferris wheel. So sad to think he died bankrupt and alone and so young and his invention has lived on and on bringing so much joy to people. Too bad he wasn’t able to live to see that day.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. BroadBlogs says:

    Coney Island: it’s on my bucket list. And now I have some history to go with it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Great post, as always I like reading about history of these parks. I can understand the past of Ferris. If you look at a Ferris wheel, it does look like it made out of railroad parts. Thanks for sharing this with us.


  15. Andy says:

    Was Tilyou’s attempt to sell beach sand to tourists a success or a dud? I would have been tempted to buy a box of sand and then pour it over his head: the entertainment value thereof certainly would have been worth 25¢.


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