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This Week In Illinois History: Big Eli, The First Portable Ferris Wheel (May 23, 1900)

On May 23, 1900, the world’s first portable Ferris wheel, known as “Big Eli,” made its debut. Its inventor, William Sullivan, launched an amusement ride business that still thrives today.

Sullivan was born in Roodhouse, Illinois, in July 1861. He became a machinist by trade and eventually started his own bridge-building company. In 1893, Sullivan attended the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, which introduced the world to George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.’s invention, the Ferris wheel. Ferris was also an Illinois native, born in Galesburg in 1859.

Sullivan rode the 26-story Ferris wheel and immediately fell in love. But he envisioned a much smaller version, one that could be broken down and rebuilt in only a matter of hours, making it the perfect attraction for anything from small-town celebrations to county fairs.

Sullivan worked with machinist James H. Clements and in 1900 introduced his 45-foot portable Ferris wheel in Jacksonville, Illinois, 35 miles west of Springfield. The Big Eli was a big hit and demand soared.

Credit (LOC 2006683489)
George Ferris’s 1893 invention, the Ferris wheel.

In 1906, Sullivan incorporated the Eli Bridge Company to mass-produce his portable Ferris wheels. He later moved the business to Jacksonville, where it still operates in its original building.

In 1954, the company debuted its second most popular creation, the Scrambler. Today, thousands of Big Eli’s and Scramblers can be found in amusement parks worldwide. And that original 1900 Big Eli that started it all? It sits on full display right outside the company’s factory.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.
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