Summer is in full swing. Many of us are taking the time to take family trips and enjoy the beautiful outdoors and cultural sites. One of the special attractions that used to be part of the Cincinnati skyline was the 150 foot Ferris wheel that was downtown between the years 2018 and 2020. In March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread, the St. Louis-based SkyStar company disassembled the wheel with the plan to rebuild a permanent 180 foot Ferris wheel. But the pandemic has put that plan on hold, possibly for good. 

Did you ever wonder how this ride got its name? The Ferris Wheel was designed and constructed by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He was a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania bridge-builder. He began his career in the railroad industry and then pursued an interest in bridge building. It was designed as the centerpiece of the Midway at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois.

Dynamite was used to break through three feet of frozen ground to create a foundation for the wheel during its construction in Jackson Park during the winter of 1892–93. Jets of steam were used by workers to thaw dirt and prevent poured concrete from freezing. Piles of timber were driven thirty-two feet into the ground, on top of which was laid a grillage of steel, filled with concrete.

On June 9, 1893, the wheel was primed for a test run with great anticipation and a good deal of anxiety. The engine that would activate the wheel was fueled by steam boilers whose underground mains rushed steam to propel the pistons of its thousand-horsepower engines. For its inaugural run, no cars had yet been attached. The workmen, however, climbed the structure and settled themselves on the spokes to the accompaniment of cheers from an audience of fair employees who had gathered to watch the momentous event. There were 36 passenger cars, each fitted with 40 revolving chairs and able to accommodate up to 60 people, giving a total capacity of 2,160.

One of the most historic and famous Ferris wheels stands in Vienna. The Weiner Riesenrad is the oldest still-operating Ferris wheel in the world. It was originally constructed in 1897 to honor Emperor Franz Josef I’s 50th Jubilee, and remains one of Vienna’s most beloved attractions. I personally went on that historic Ferris wheel in the summer of 2002. In 1903, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneerson (the fifth in the Lubavitcher Rebbe dynasty) visited Vienna and observed the Ferris wheel. He later remarked:

“In the central garden of Vienna there is a large Ferris wheel that stands above the ground. On its sides hang wagons made of glass and decorated with metal trimmings so that the one riding is able to see from all angles. When the wagon is lifted off the ground, he is also lifted. And when he reaches the highest point, he is able to see very far. The wheel turns and the wagons begin to descend, and in this way the turning of the wheel brings about the ascent and descent of the wagons.

There is a time when the person is on top, and there is a time when the person is on the bottom. The nature of man is that when he is on top, he feels uplifted and laughs out of goodness. When he is, G‑d forbid, on the bottom, he is saddened and weeps out of bitterness and a heavy heart.

However, both of these people are fools. The one on the bottom who is weeping out of sadness must be challenged: Why are you crying? It is only a wheel, and a wheel’s nature is to turn. G‑d will help and you will be helped. And the one on top of the wheel who feels exalted must also be challenged: Why are you so excited? It is only a wheel and a wheel’s nature is to turn.”

This month we begin the Hebrew month of Elul. It is the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah and we begin listening to the sound of the Shofar. It is a time where we take time to reflect on and take stock of the past year and begin preparing for the new year. While we are reflecting on the journey of our individual lives, we must never forget that we really are all riding the great Ferris wheel that Hashem has created. We are all in His hands and everything that happens is really for the best. 

Enjoy the ride!