Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Checking out the London Eye – and its (possible) Minnesota roots

LONDON – The world’s largest Ferris wheel is the London Eye, which sits on the bank of the River Thames and revolves 135 meters into the often-foggy British sky.

LONDON – The world’s largest Ferris wheel is the London Eye, which sits on the bank of the River Thames and revolves 135 meters into the often-foggy British sky. The Eye, which features cars that each hold about 25 people and take 30 minutes for one rotation, almost never stops slowly spinning, so getting on and off requires an easy running start, akin to hopping on an escalator.

Speaking of starts, there are still folks in Winona who contend that their county was the birthplace of the Ferris wheel. While this might fall into the category of, as they say in the London papers, “facts too good to check,” we do know a few things that support the notion of Minnesota roots for the big ride.

G.W.G. Ferris, who has laid claim on the eponymous wheel since the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, may have been more of a promoter than an inventor. Ferris was a Pittsburgh bridge-builder, and he meant his Chicago wheel as a rival to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which is 26 stories tall. Ferris’ final project was only about a quarter of that height, but it still wowed visitors to the white city with a spectacular view on a clear day.

Winona’s Putnam Gray
In Winona, a man named Putnam Gray claimed to have designed and built a working wheel that he exhibited in his carnival at the county fair. Gray further insisted that Ferris saw it, bought the rights in 1892, renamed it after himself and got one up in time for the Chicago party. But Gray was never credited by Ferris.

Norman G. Anderson, writing in “Ferris Wheels: An Illustrated History,” noted Gray’s possible contributions, pointing to an article in a Winona paper describing the wheel, which was hand-cranked by two men and not steam-powered, as was the Chicago wheel.

Gray sold tickets and operated it out of a vacant lot, doing a decent business until it broke and tossed some passengers out. There were some injuries, although neither Anderson nor his sources mention how serious they were. Gray towed the contraption back to his property in Minneiska, where it rotted.

That’s because, in another difference from the Chicago wheel, Gray’s was made of wood, not steel.

Anderson credited “old-timers” in Minneiska with spreading the Gray-Ferris story, and it is certainly true that the somewhat foggy origins of Ferris’ design lent at least a tiny bit of credibility to a story like Gray’s. (Like many inventions, dozens of early wheels were built before Ferris captured the market.)

Gray’s Victorian house/castle
River rats around southeastern Minnesota remember Gray and his out-of-the-ordinary house/castle along the Mississippi. One look at a picture of that building makes you think Gray could have built the first Ferris wheel — and that it could have broken and injured somebody.

In London, the $20-per-ride Eye (they call it a “cantilevered observation wheel”) is a neat name and a cool trip. One thing it has in common with Ferris’ design — and perhaps Gray’s, too — is that plenty of naysayers said it could not be done, or at least that it was a money pit.

The critics were nearly proven right as the Eye was in the process of being erected in 2000 in time for London’s millennium celebration, when its main cable broke and the wheel got stuck halfway into its final position. But now in working order, the Eye has proven popular (30 million riders to date) and successful and will be around for years to come — unlike one Minnesotan’s wooden, human-powered prototype.