Happy 100th Birthday to the Coney Island Wonder Wheel

May 2020 marks the 100th birthday of the Coney Island Wonder Wheel, which I HOPE you know is (along with the Cyclone and the Parachute Jump) one of the three iconic rides on the Coney Island skyline. It seems a good time for a post about the history of ferris wheels and the Wonder Wheel in particular:

George Washington Ferris built the first ferris wheel for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (better known as the Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893. It was 264 feet tall, about 12 stories high. There have been many taller ferris wheels since the original one, but many continue to describe that first one as the “largest”, for the reason that it was hugely wide, and carried enormous cars around its circuit. This photo gives a clear idea. Each car was the size of a bus. The ride could carry a total of 2,160 people.

The original ferris wheel got one additional engagement, at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. After this, it was deemed to expensive to move, and it was destroyed where it stood in 1906.

Immediately after his honeymoon trip to the Chicago World’s Fair, George C. Tilyou decided to bring a Ferris Wheel to Coney Island, where his family had a flourishing sea food stand. He billed his wheel ride as larger than Ferris’s, when it was in fact about half as tall, and carried a fraction of the people at any one time. But nonetheless it became the area’s biggest attraction, and paved the way for the great amusement parks that were to follow, including Tilyou’s own Steeplechase Park.

The Wonder Wheel dates to 1920. It was designed and built by Charles Hermann and its claim to fame was (and is) the fact that it is what’s known as an ECCENTRIC Ferris Wheel, meaning that some riders have the option of choosing cars that aren’t hinged at the outside of the wheel, but rather are on tracks that allow them to drop towards and away from the hub at key points, giving the same dropping sensation one gets from a roller coaster. The original owner/operator was Herman Garms. 

In 1983, Deno D. Vourderis bought the Wonder Wheel from Herman Garm’s son Fred and built Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park around it. It remains a flourishing concern to this day. More here: 

Here’s me (in sunglasses) there just a few years later (circa 1989)

And here’s me in front of it again in 2013, in a photo by Bill Scurry, I love it so much I’ve pretty much beat it to death but here it is again:

Woody Allen of course grew up in Brighton Beach, next door to Coney Island, and thus grew up near the iconic Wonder Wheel. See my review of his eponymous 2017 film here. 

Travalanche has over 100 posts about Coney Island past and present. Read them here. 


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