Spinning Wheel Got to go Round…

Patricia M. Salmon, October 23, 2015

The New York Wheel is coming. It is scheduled to open on the waterfront of Saint George, Staten Island in 2017. Akin to the London Eye and The Seattle Great Wheel, they are observation rides that rise above all else in order to give expansive views of the surrounding landscape. At the Staten Island Ferry Terminal in Saint George the western parking lot is cordoned off and off limits to the public. Although they bear little similarity the soon to be built Staten Island extravaganza makes me think of the Ferris wheel of my youth. We rode it every summer at the annual Our Lady of Pity Church Bazaar in Bulls Head, Staten Island. It was the event of the summer. My friend Anne Marie Macdonald Maltese and I would buy our tickets from the ticket lady. (Who was really the church organist and Anne Marie’s aunt.) We would ride that wheel with as much excitement as if we were on a Disneyland attraction. Were we scared? Never! Ahhhh but I do have to admit that I was scared, well not just scared but actually terrified two years ago when I visited the Enchanted Forest in Old Forge, New York. Here it was forty-five plus years since the last Our Lady of Pity Church Bazaar and what did I encounter at the Enchanted Forest? Well, I think it was the exact same Ferris wheel that circled around the summers of my Bulls Head youth. So called safety features had been added—upright panels on either side of the seat (which seemed quite flimsy to me) and some form of a trivial waist reinforcement. Not only was this wheel a verified antique, it seemed to me in my 53rd year of life that it was spinning out of control. While that old church wheel of the 1960s used to wind round and round at a comfortable spin, this wheel was flying and not with the greatest of ease!

Queasy stomachs aside the old fashioned bazaar Ferris wheel and the new fangled New York Wheel bring to mind the nineteenth century efforts of entrepreneur Erastus Wiman. One of Staten Island’s most fascinating residents Wiman established an amusement area for all ages and for all incomes adjacent to the ferry terminal at what is Saint George. He wanted crowds. It was 1886 and he had recently made this area the transportation hub of Staten Island. It was a place where the Staten Island Ferry run that we know today met with the trains that ran along the north and south shores of Staten Island. The train lines operated under the Staten Island Rapid Transit Railroad. The north shore line reached Erastina on the border of Elm Park and Mariner’s Harbor and beyond, while in the south it chugged along to Tottenville. Along the way one could stop for shoreline fishing, boating, or even a bed and breakfast establishment at the Woods of Arden. A branch off the south shore line extended to South Beach.

While Wiman’s Saint George did not have a Ferris wheel it had a stupendous, mesmerizing water fountain that was filled with a kaleidoscope of colored lights. It might not sound like much to today’s population but it was 1886, a time when electricity was only available at one or two other locations on the island. Also at Saint George was a casino and a baseball stadium that was home to the first New York Metropolitans.

Regarding South Beach, Wiman hoped the area would match the success of Coney Island across the Bay. As the century drew to a close ads for South Beach targeted heat weary citizens, picnic and beach parties, lodges, societies, trolley parties, target excursionists, bowling clubs, churches, and schools. All were invited. A massive pier was available and free to all berthing vessels. Elegant dancing pavilions, parks, playgrounds, regulation bowling alleys, a rifle range, bath houses, toboggan run, and theatre that provided fine continuous performances were all heralded. South Beach was the place to be. There were even tin typing establishments where one could have their picture taken at a reasonable rate. South Beach was called the most accessible beach in New York owing to the train service available for ferry riders. Fares cost a miniscule ten cents from New York and New Jersey. Anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 visitors descended on South Beach on a summer Sunday. By the turn of the century beach-goers strolled the fine boardwalk, enjoyed music and entertainments, or rode the merry-go-rounds, circular railways, and boats. A variety of refreshments at popular prices were also available, but most importantly there was a Ferris wheel and another would soon open at Midland Beach!

Midland Beach and Ferris Wheel. Detail of Postcard.

Detail of a postcard depicting the Ferris wheel at Midland Beach, Staten Island, circa late 1910s. Printed at a later date.

As the center piece of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the invention of George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., the original Ferris wheel, measured 250 feet in diameter and carried thirty-six cars. Each car could hold sixty people! Not a Ferris wheel, The New York Wheel is called an “observation wheel” that stands 630 feet tall. It will be the largest in the world and the only such amusement in New York City. It can accommodate 1,440 individuals per ride equaling 30,000 visitors per day. The New York Wheel is targeted to open in 2017. A ticket for the similar London Eye (which is officially called the Coca-Cola London Eye, starts at the equivalent of $29.90 for adults. If The New York Wheel (by the way why isn’t it called The Staten Island Wheel?) costs a similar amount it could generate $897,000 in one day. One wonders what Erastus Wiman would say to that kind of amusement income!

Special thanks to Gina Sacco.

Bibliography

Coca-Cola London Eye. https://www.londoneye.com/tickets-and-prices/general-tickets/ Accessed October 21, 2015.

Malanowski, Jaime. Smithsonian Magazine. “The Brief History of the Ferris Wheel.” http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-ferris-wheel-180955300/?no-ist Accessed October 21, 2015

The New York Wheel. http://newyorkwheel.com Accessed October 21, 2015.

Staten Island Amusement Company. Picturesque Staten Island. 1886.

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