Standardization News Search
Big Wheels Keep on Turning

by Clare Coppa

ASTM member Patty Sullivan and father Lee, Jr., in an early “Big Eli” Ferris wheel seat.
STILL THRIVING among today’s amusement rides is the steady, sky-soaring Ferris wheel. Dotting the landscape in 36 countries worldwide are Ferris wheels made by Eli Bridge Co., Inc., Jacksonville, Ill.

“Big Eli” wheels reach heights of 60 ft. (18.3 m). “Because of the way they’re built and the type of seat that you’re in, when you
come over the top, you have this wonderful thrill that there is nothing under you,” says Eli Bridge President and CEO Patty Sullivan, a member of ASTM Committee F24 on Amusement Rides and Devices. Over 1,200 Eli wheels have sold since 1900; some are owned by celebrities or used as film props. Dolly Parton purchased a “Big Eli” wheel for Dollywood, her theme park in Tennessee. Michael Jackson bought one equipped with thousands of chasing lights for his amusement park in California. “Pat Boone rode one of our wheels in “State Fair,” Elvis Presley in “Roustabout,” and Drew Barrymore in “First Kiss,”” says Sullivan.

Her great-grandfather, W. E. Sullivan, devised the first Eli wheel in 1900. An original owner of Eli Bridge, he built bridges until he rode a 264 ft. (80.5 m) high Ferris wheel at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. “He spent a month’s worth of groceries on two rides at 50 cents each,” she adds.

He was understandably inspired by the wheel. Made by Pittsburgh, Pa., bridge builder George Ferris, it was 825 ft. (251 m) in circumference and dangled 36 cars that each held 60 people. Too large to mass produce, it ran on two 1000-horsepower (170 kW) reversible engines, and weighed 4800 tons (4400 Mg).

With typical gay ’90s industriousness, W. E. decided to invent a portable Ferris wheel that could be assembled by touring carnivals. With the help of machinist James Clements, he presented the world’s first to Jacksonville on May 23, 1900. Sullivan says her great-grandfather’s wheels had interchangeable parts before they appeared on Henry Ford’s autos.

In 100 years, the company sold over 1200 wheels and added Scramblers and kiddie rides to their production line. W. E.’s son, Lee, was Bridge’s second president; grandson, Lee Jr., is third president and current chairman of the board.

Fourth generation president Sullivan brings a legacy of expertise to the amusement ride standards she helps to develop as vice chair of ASTM Subcommittee F24.24 on Design and Manufacture. She participates on Bridge’s design team, has an MBA from Western Illinois University, Macomb, and previously assembled rides on tour.

Eli Bridge is celebrating their centennial year. “We have a terrific crew of people here,” she says of Bridge’s 30 employees. They recently won the “Industry of the Year Award” from the business community of Jacksonville.

Copyright 2000 ASTM