The Ferris Wheel
by Jay Ducharme

One of the busiest, most exhausting jobs at Mountain Park was running the Big Eli Ferris wheel. It was called "Big Eli" because (naturally) it was big, and it was manufactured by the Eli Bridge Company. Through the 1950s, the park had a 12-seat model. They upgraded to the largest that the company made, a 16-seat, 60-foot diameter model. Each seat would hold up to four passengers. On a busy day, every seat would be filled. I love riding those type of Ferris wheels, although there are fewer and fewer of them to be found. Many carnivals still use them, and many small parks still have them as well. The one at Mountain Park lives on at Sandspit Amusement Park on Prince Edward Island. (Mountain Park's Scrambler, Train and Auto Cars are there as well.)

I was quite nervous when Roger Fortin trained me on the big wheel. I never considered myself good with math, and this ride required some on-the-fly computation. The wheel was powered by a small motor attached to an ingenious butterfly clutch system. The clutch had two curved shoes, much like old car brakes, that squeezed against a drum (like a tire rim). The drum engaged a steel cable (about 3/4 of an inch in diameter) that looped around the rim of the wheel. Along that one side, each sweep (the piece of steel that extends out from the central hub) had two flared angle irons at their ends, through which the cable passed. The operator stood in front of the clutch mechanism, next to a long hip-high lever. The lever had a squeeze-trigger that allowed it to move forward or back to engage or disengage the clutch and activate the brake. A push-button switch would send power to the motor.

All this is important to note because the ride operator, unlike with so many modern "automatic" rides, had complete control of the wheel and had to be constantly alert. All of the seats were numbered. So if two young kids sat in seat number 1, for example, I would have to mentally note their combined estimated weight. Then I would engage the clutch and swing them around to the top of the ride until seat 9 (directly opposite seat 1) was next to me. Then from the queue line, I'd try to find one large guest or two more small guests and ask them to sit in seat number 9. I'd have to do this to balance the wheel. Since the only thing turning the ride was a relatively thin cable running around one side of a steel rim and through a small clutch, an out-of-balance wheel would cause the cable to slip in the rim, and the wheel wouldn't be able to turn all the way around. It was especially bad if the ride was wet. Obviously, the ride could accept some variation. But if it was loaded it too heavily in one area, there was trouble.

So I'd continue filling the seats in this way until the queue was empty. If an odd number of guests were in line, I'd hold them up until the next ride. Then I'd run the ride full out for about two to five minutes, depending on how busy we were and how well-behaved the guests were. When the ride was over, I'd have to remember which seat number I started with. (It wasn't always one.) I'd let those guests off, and load comparably weighted guests in, then bring the ride around to the opposite end of the wheel and unload those guests, etc.... I was really nervous that I wouldn't be able to remember which numbers I put different guests into and not be able to guess their combined weight effectively. But with a little practice I became quite good at it.

My day usually started by checking in at the office about an hour before the park opened. The Ferris wheel was directly in front of the office, so I didn't have far to go to get to my ride. I'd sweep up the platform and queue line if they needed it. Every seat had a cover over it similar in construction to a barbecue grill cover. (A few older covers were simply made of canvas.) If another ride operator or Roger was available, I'd stand at the clutch lever and the other person would be on the opposite side of the platform. I'd bring a seat around, we'd unclasp the safety hooks from the cover and simultaneously lift the cover off, neatly folding it down onto the platform in one movement. Then we'd swing the foot rest down, which was folded up onto the seat for storage. If I was by myself, I'd have to stop the ride and get up on the platform, then yank the cover toward me after unhooking it, then open the footrest. It would take about twice as long. The covers were then stored on the ground near the rear of the ride. I'd also wipe down the seats and footrests if they needed it.

Then I'd let the ride run for a few revolutions to make sure it was in good shape. The mechanics always checked it each day, but it didn't hurt to check it myself. After running the ride for weeks on end, I began to know every click and squeak the ride made, and I knew when things weren't right.

Once the park opened (signaled by the start of the carousel organ), I'd begin loading guests. The wheel was located at the center of the midway and looked quite impressive. Two giant pine trees stood like guards on either side of it. The ride offered terrific views of the surrounding Pioneer Valley. It was very popular. When we were even moderately busy, it would run mostly non-stop the whole day. Mountain Park offered both tickets and hand stamps. Each day a different hand was assigned for stamping, and the stamps changed. We were updated daily on what to look for. So if I didn't see a stamp, I'd ask for tickets. A cylindrical steel ticket can hung against the ride's structure next to me. I'd rip the tickets and drop them in the can.

I learned a very hard lesson early on. As guests approached, they'd walk toward me up an inclined ramp. (The ride was to my right as I looked at them.) Directly underneath the seat, about a foot below the footrest, was a level platform hinged at the front. As the guests approached, I would step down hard on a pedal near the ground. That would push up on the rear of the hinged platform. At the same time, with my right hand, I would push down on the edge of the curved footrest until it touched the platform, so that the seat tilted down toward the approaching guests. In that way, the guests were able to walk right onto the footrest and easily turn and sit down.

After they were seated, I would then have to secure the safety bar. This is where my lesson came in. In the beginning I held up my free left hand in a "stop" gesture to keep the other guests in line away from the ride platform. Believe it or not, if I didn't do that all the guests in line would walk up the platform together, evidently thinking they could all sit in the same seat (even though "STOP" with a thick line was painted in red at the beginning of the platform). But what I hadn't thought about was how helpful the guests liked to be. As they sat down they would invariably grab the safety bar (which was a 1-inch-square steel bar hinged on the right side of the seat) and swiftly pull it shut -- completely unaware that my head was between the bar and the latch. After my first day on the job, I had some serious bruises near my left temple from being repeatedly konked. Roger showed me his simple trick: he held up his hand in the "stop" position, but he held it in the path of the bar. So when the guests did swing the bar shut, he could catch it neatly in his palm.

Once the guests were seated and the bar was latched, I'd pull my right hand away and the seat would gently rock. That was always a nervewracking moment for guests who'd never been on the wheel before (and even many who had). For me, it's what made Big Eli wheels so much more fun. Each seat was held to the end of the ride's sweeps by two large heavily-greased steel pins. Though it was easy to rock the seats, we stopped guests from doing that. After all, this wasn't a Chance Chaos or other thrill ride they were on. Rambunctious guests could potentially rock it so severely that they could fly out of their seats.

Then I would engage the clutch gently, and the wheel would begin its revolution. The guests would be pulled backwards, past the distinctive sound of the whirring clutch, and begin rising up over sixty feet in the air. Seat number 2 would fly past me, then three, etc. After I had loaded seats 1 and 9, I would bring around seat number 13 and load that one, then seat number five, and so on, always keeping the wheel balanced. Once all the guests in line had been loaded, I ran the ride full out. The ride revolved quite rapidly. It was exhilarating. You could actually feel wind against you. The top of the wheel pulled you above the park's giant elm trees. The view was even more scenic during a New England autumn.

During our final season (in 1987), we often were understaffed. It seemed like no one in the area wanted our minimum wage jobs, no matter how fun, when McDonald's was paying $8 an hour (about $3 above minimum). So there were days when I would be in charge of running the Ferris wheel, the Tempest (which was next to it) and the carousel (which was across the midway). When a line formed for the carousel, I'd shut down the Ferris Wheel and go run that ride. And then when a line formed at the Tempest, I'd shut down the carousel and go run that. It was strange how it was a problem to have more guests in the park than employees. Normally it's the other way around.

One day when I was on the Ferris wheel and saw a line form at the carousel, I shut down the wheel and walked across the midway. As I did that, a line began to form at the Ferris wheel as well. A Latino gentleman who was operating the Tempest at the time, a man maybe in his 30s or early 40s, always impeccably dressed, came running over to me. "I run Ferris wheel," he said urgently. I looked over at his ride, which he had shut down and which had no line.

"Do you know how to run it?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied confidently. "Roger show me."

"Go for it," I said as I let people onto the carousel. My ride filled about half-way. I looked back at the wheel. He had a long queue line forming and was quickly loading people in. After I walked around the carousel platform checking guests' stamps and tickets, I started the ride. After a few moments, I noticed that some guests on the ride were pointing over toward the Ferris wheel. So I stepped off the spinning carousel and went to the gate to look. The gentleman didn't quite know what he was doing. He had loaded guests onto the wheel without regard to their weight, and in successive seats. About the first ten seats were filled and the wheel was spinning backwards, out of control. Smoke was billowing out from the clutch. The gentlemen was obviously perplexed and was ineffectually yanking the clutch handle back and forth. I hopped back onto the carousel and shut it down, and told the guests to wait; I'd be right back.

I ran over to the wheel. The gentleman sheepishly shrugged and muttered, "I don't know...." I silently took control of the clutch and flung it into neutral and let the ride gradually rock to a stop. That took about three minutes. Then I unloaded the seat that was closest to the platform. I very slowly moved the ride foward to unload the next seat, then afterward put the ride again in neutral and let it rock back in the opposite direction. I stopped the next full seat and unloaded that one, then I brought the ride forward again and unloaded the next full seat in that direction. After that point I was able to bring the ride all the way around and unload it at opposite ends, as I was supposed to. When the ride was empty, I ran it full out for a few minutes to cool off the clutch. Then I shut the wheel down and went back to the carousel. The gentleman went back to the Tempest.

I would normally put in ten- to twelve-hour days at the park. There was no seat at the Ferris wheel; I stood the entire time. We'd get ten minute breaks every two hours and a half-hour break for supper, so it wasn't too bad. And the days would fly by so quickly, I hardly noticed the time. When the sun began to set, I'd flip the light switch and the strips of 100-watt bulbs, attached in a ring above the seats, would shine brightly (and attract hundred of insects). As the park began to thin out late into the night, Roger would usually come over and we'd begin folding up the footrests and covering up all but four of the seats, usually numbers 1, 2, 9 and 10. If no one else was available to help, I'd do it myself and it would pass the time. Once the carousel organ ceased, I'd cover up the remaining seats, shut down the ride and go to the office to check out.

In April of 1988, Roger, Daniel Pomales (one of Roger's assistants) and I dismantled the Ferris wheel to ship it to Sandspit Amusement Park on Prince Edward Island. Roger stood high up on the wheel's hub with a grinding wheel. Daniel and I would hold the end of one of the long steel sweeps as Roger would grind off the bolts that held it to the hub. Then Daniel and I would muscle the giant metal beam onto a trailer. We'd do the same for the sweep on the other side of the hub. Then we'd grab the next sweep above us and pull it down toward the ground as Roger walked along the turning hub as if he were on solid earth. We did that for all 32 sweeps. My body felt like rubber afterwards. Within two days there was no sign that a Ferris wheel ever existed on that spot, except for the metal railing surrounding where it had been. The two giant pine trees still stood to either side of where the ride used to be but somehow looked very lonely, as if they'd lost a friend. A few of us felt that way as well.