by Arnold Woods
At the east end of the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park sits the SkyStar Wheel, which has had, pardon the pun, a star-crossed year. It was erected to be a part of the Park’s sesquicentennial festivities this year, but the pandemic delayed its opening, caused ride restrictions once it opened, and, currently, has temporarily closed it back down. Despite the pandemic-related issues though, the SkyStar Wheel is not just a simple entertainment option for the Park’s year-long 150th birthday party. Rather it is an homage to an earlier wheel, the Firth Wheel of the 1894 Midwinter Fair.
The 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition was an idea brought to San Francisco by San Francisco Chronicle publisher Michael de Young, after he served as the Commissioner of California exhibits at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. One of the highlights of the 1893 Columbian Exposition was the world’s first Ferris Wheel, designed and built by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. There were earlier iterations of this type of “wheel” attraction, notably the Somers Wheel at several beach resort areas in New York and New Jersey, but Ferris’ design was sufficiently different to survive some patent lawsuits. The Ferris Wheel in Chicago rose 250 feet, towering over the exposition grounds.
De Young wanted Ferris to bring his wheel to San Francisco, but Ferris, who thought the Columbian exposition management had defrauded him out of his share of the profits from the ride, would not do so. De Young would not be denied, however. So the Midwinter Fair’s executive committee turned to the owner of the Phoenix Iron Works, J. Kirk Firth, a part of the California contingent at the Columbian exposition, to design a Ferris Wheel for them.1 Firth’s design was half the size of the Chicago Ferris Wheel, but otherwise modeled on its counterpart.2 There were 16 cars on the structure that were each 8-feet long and wide and 6-feet tall and could carry up to 10 people.3
Night view through archway of Horticultural and Agricultural building at Bonet’s Tower and Firth Wheel, 1894. (wnp37.03185; Isaiah West Taber, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
The Midwinter Fair officially opened on Saturday, January 27, 1894, but various concessions and exhibits opened before then as their construction was completed. On Saturday, January 13, 1894, the Firth Wheel took its first passengers for a ride beginning at 1:00 p.m.4 By the end of that day, over 2300 people had taken a spin on it. On the official opening day two weeks later, some 72,248 people clicked through the turnstiles of the Fair.5 The Firth Wheel was described as going “around like a veritable wheel of fortune” that day.6 A giddy San Francisco Chronicle–remember its publisher, Michael de Young was the brainchild behind the Fair–gave the opening of the Midwinter Fair ten pages of coverage. Day 2 of the Fair quieted down some but about 12,300 people still showed up with about half that amount riding the Firth Wheel.7
Firth Wheel behind Cafe Richie restaurant and Kilauea the Burning Volcano exhibit at Midwinter Fair, 1894. (wnp37.03150; Isaiah West Taber, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
The Firth Wheel was a success, as was the 1894 Midwinter Fair generally. Crowds lined up to ride the Firth Wheel and get a spectacular view of the fairgrounds and beyond. At night, the Firth Wheel and other concessions were lit up to provide an amazing light show. The Firth Wheel proved so popular that a couple, Dr. Alexander von Gunther and Ernetstine Schneider, even got married on it.8
While the Midwinter Fair closed on July 4, 1894, the Firth Wheel remained in place through the end of the year. Then Mayor and real estate tycoon Adolph Sutro purchased the Firth Wheel and some other attractions. He was in the process of building the Sutro Baths at the time and thought the addition of some of the Midwinter Fair’s rides to the Baths area would enhance the attractiveness of Lands End to visitors.9 Sutro hired a local contractor, James Bain to dissemble the Firth Wheel and reassemble it on Merrie Way, where you would today find the Lands End Lookout visitors center and parking lot. Unfortunately, while Bain was working on tearing the Firth Wheel down, he fell 30 feet onto a pile of wood and perished on January 15, 1895. Others finished the work and the ride was installed on Merrie Way.
It is unclear exactly when the Firth Wheel opened for business on Merrie Way, but advertisements for the “Sutro Baths and Pleasure Grounds” began appearing in the Chronicle on March 31, 1896.10 The Sutro Pleasure Grounds may have opened in conjunction with the grand opening of the Sutro Baths on March 14, 1896. Despite Sutro’s plans for a grand Midway on Merrie Way, he had to scale things back due to a lack of cash on hand.11 With Sutro’s death in 1898, the “Pleasure Grounds” soon fell into disrepair. By 1900, official insurance maps listed the area as closed.
The Firth Wheel stood unused for about another decade before finally being torn down in March 1911.12 It was a big success at the Midwinter Fair, but fell on hard times at Merrie Way. The SkyStar Wheel in the Park has suffered through tough times so far, but may yet get a chance to succeed. For more on the short-lived Sutro Pleasure Grounds, see John Martini’s excellent article about it. There is also a discussion of Sutro’s purchase of the Firth Wheel and other attractions to move to Merrie Way on our Outside Lands Podcast about the Recycling of the Midwinter Fair buildings, exhibits, and attractions.
1. “Firth to Build a Ferris Wheel,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 8, 1893, p. 9.
2. “Constructing the Firth Wheel,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 8, 1893, p. 4.
3. “Progress on the Tower and Wheel,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 30, 1893, p. 5.
4. “Life At The Fair,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 14, 1894, p. 12.
5. “Within The Gates,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 29, 1894, p. 10.
6. “The Opening Of The Midwinter Fair,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 29, 1894, p. 1.
7. “Success Well Begun,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 30, 1894, p. 8.
8. “Two Hearts United While Whirling,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 2, 1894, p. 5.
9. “Fell To His Death,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 16, 1895, p. 5.
10. Sutro Baths and Pleasure Grounds advertisement, San Francisco Chronicle, March 31, 1896, p. 14.
11. “Sutro Curios To Be Sold,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 13, 1899, p. 7.
12. “Junkman At Last Gets Firth Wheel On Cliff,” San Francisco Call, March 14, 1911, p. 21.