Mrs. Taylor rode the ‘big wheel’

February 6, 2018 GMT

In the summer of 1893, the Chicago World’s Fair (the World’s Columbian Exposition) attracted, literally, millions of visitors to the city. They marveled at the huge classical exhibit buildings of the temporary “White City” built in what is today Jackson Park, and gaped at the 25-story-tall Ferris wheel rotating slowly just west of the main fairgrounds.

Among those millions of visitors were numerous Kankakee County residents (“Mr. and Mrs. ____ left today for a visit to the fair in Chicago” was a typical entry in the Kankakee newspapers’ personals columns that summer). Many of the local people who visited the fair recorded their experiences in letters or postcards sent to friends and relatives, but one woman related her impressions at much greater length. Hattie Taylor, wife of prominent Kankakee businessman Daniel C. Taylor, authored a slim volume with the title “Halcyon Days in the Dream City” stamped in gold on its pale blue cover. Published in 1894, the 85-page book contained descriptions of the fair’s buildings and attractions, and recounted her personal thoughts and experiences while touring the fairgrounds.

She most likely traveled there from Kankakee on the Illinois Central Railroad, which made a stop right at one of the fair entrances. On her second day’s visit to the fairgrounds, she noted, “To-day we make our way straight from the 60th street entrance to the Midway Plaisance. ... We have left America behind us. We are in foreign countries among foreign peoples.”

The Midway Plaisance was a mile-long street packed with exhibits such as the Egyptian “Street in Cairo,” an Irish village, a German castle (complete with beer garden) and villages inhabited by natives of various African and Asian countries. There also were amusements such as a lion-taming act, street performers, a thrilling high-speed ice railway ride and a tethered hot air balloon that carried passengers 1,492 feet into the sky.

The greatest attraction of the Midway was the rotating 250-foot-diameter steel wheel designed and built by Pittsburgh engineer George Washington Gale Ferris. During the fair, more than 1.5 million people paid 50 cents each for a 20-minute trip on the wheel.

Among those riders was Mrs. Taylor, who recorded one of the most detailed descriptions of the Ferris wheel experience:

“We enter the enclosure and, mounting a flight of steps, find ourselves on a high platform with the revolving monster only a few feet distant,” she wrote. When the wheel comes to a stop, “a blue-coated, much bebuttoned official ... opens a car door and invites us to enter. We find ourselves in a large room lighted by long rows of continuous panes of glass on two sides, and having two rows of light wooden chairs ranged up and down its length” (the “room” she referred to was one of the Ferris wheel’s 36 cars, each of which could accommodate 40 seated riders. The wheel made six stops, loading six of the cars at each stop, then completed a 10-minute-long full rotation).

“We seat ourselves on the side looking toward the ‘Fair Grounds,’ and await events,” she wrote. “Apparently, nothing happens ... presently, we discover that the earth is gently receding from us; we remain stationary, but the long Midway street ... is dropping slowly down, down, until its buildings turn into miniatures and the people into hurrying mites.”

After rotating past the wheel’s highest point, Mrs. Taylor moved to the other side of the car to take in the view of the Midway stretching westward. “We see ‘Old Vienna’ like a child’s toy village, its tiny chairs and tables looking as if they could be packed away in a small box... the broad Midway rises to our level, and we step out of the car —convinced that we have not been moving, but the rest of the world has been taken with a vertigo and only just now recovered its equilibrium. So devoid of all sense of motion, strangeness or fear was the experience, that after alighting, we stood and gazed in wonder at this exquisite piece of mechanism ... the ‘Ferris wheel’ seems the one stable, immovable object in a world that revolves around it, like satellites around a planet.”

The Ferris wheel was not, however, a “stable, immovable object.” When the fair ended, it was dismantled and eventually re-erected on Chicago’s North Side. It was later moved to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair, then demolished in 1906.