Mar 05, 2012 • By

Famous Ferris Wheel engine, almost

Editor’s note: When we originally published this post on March 5, 2012, we passed along company lore from one of our early employee publications that suggested we once purchased and owned the engine that powered the Ferris Wheel at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. But it appears our company resources had the story wrong. The engine we bought was at the fair, but it was not the one that powered the wheel. So we have updated the post accordingly, below.

While visitors to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago marveled at the mechanics and power of the first-ever Ferris Wheel there – nearby, another large engine was helping provide power to the fairgrounds.

When the fair closed, A.H. Brockman, the chief engineer for the Washburn-Crosby Company (predecessor to General Mills), purchased that power-providing engine at the World’s Fair – for $20,000.

(A.H. Brockman)

The large, triple expansion steam engine, was manufactured by Frederick Schichau in Elbing, Prussia. It was of the sort designed to drive ships (also called a “marine steam engine”), and was capable of developing up to 1200 horsepower. It had been mounted at the World’s Fair on an iron bed in Machinery Hall.

The Schichau engine was connected to a dynamo that provided electricity for Machinery Hall as well as other parts of the World’s Fair (including the Wooded Isle), but not the Ferris Wheel. Electricity for the lights on the Ferris Wheel was provided by a power station located 700 feet from the wheel and outside the fairgrounds.

H.F. Mueller, the engineer who oversaw the Schichau engine at the World’s Fair, moved to Minneapolis to help set up the engine in the East “A” Engine Room of Washburn Crosby’s plant. When Brockman died, Mueller replaced him as the company’s chief engineer.

For years to come, it provided steady and reliable service, grinding wheat into Gold Medal flour. With 1,200 to 1,500 horsepower, the engine operated what was known as the East “A” Mill and the East “A” Wheat House. Mechanical gurus even made special trips to Minneapolis to see the engine in action.

In 1921, the company’s power supervisor reported that the engine had given practically no trouble and predicted it would last at least 50 more years.

The Schichau remained in service at the Washburn “A” Mill until 1956, when it was removed and “disposed of” to a Hans Hinrichs of St. Louis. The engine was shipped to and stored on the grounds of the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis. Over the years, folks from the Smithsonian and General Mills evidently visited the engine and were impressed with it, although by 1985 the engine was “languishing in an almost forgotten heap of metal.” The Transportation Museum eventually shipped their steam engine collection to other museums but could find no record of the Schichau engine.

Editor’s note: Pat Naidl, a researcher at the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, provided information about the engine for this post. The photo of the Chicago Ferris Wheel is from the Flickr Commons.