The Eli Bridge Company
In 1905, at the suggestion of his
friend H.M. Battershell of Roodhouse, Sullivan decided to go
into the business of mass producing Big Eli®
Wheels. In May, 1906, Eli Bridge Company was incorporated in
Roodhouse. Having limited funds, Sullivan felt it was necessary
to accept stockholders, some of whom believed that the Big
Wheel would not be a long range product and that the day
would soon come when they would have to turn to the bridge
building field. It was with this thought in mind that it was
agreed against Sullivan's faith in the Wheel - to give the new
company a name that would reflect bridge building and avoid the
embarrassment of having to change the name at a later date.
Sullivan elected to incorporate the name he had used for his
bridge building concern since the end of the 19th
century. Where the name "Eli" came from has been speculated about
ever since. It is known he was taken with the phrase, "Get there
Eli," a popular expression for getting something done in a
hurry. It was used at the turn of the century in the same vein
as "Oh, you kid! "and "Twenty-three skiddoo."
Many assumed the E in W.E. Sullivan was for Eli. In fact, Sullivan
had been given no middle name. He added the initial to his name
because he thought it more businesslike.
was determined to keep the controlling interest in the company.
Thus, he surrendered his Wheel patent and all concerned matters
for stock and took half his salary in stock as well until
December of that year. The original factory was a building
thirty feet wide and sixty feet long, with an office twelve feet
square in one corner equipped with one desk and one typewriter.
Sullivan ordered all of the material, made blueprints, attended to
correspondence, and wrote the advertising and contracts, This
work was done mostly at nights or in the mornings so he could
spend afternoons in the shop helping one employee build the
first Wheel. This was a No. 10 model and was shipped to C.W.
Parker of Sedalia, Missouri, on June 4, 1906, at a cost of two
thousand three hundred dollars.
His first report to the board of directors was made on July 17 and
reported the sale of the Wheel as well as three thousand eight
hundred sixty five dollars and seventy cents collected from the
sale of stock to the point.
Business was brisk from the start and before the year was out, the
first international sale had been accomplished. A No.12 Wheel,
Serial No. 8, was purchased by the Havana Brewery Company in
Cuba. Sullivan's journey to the island nation to set up the
Wheel proved to be his only excursion outside North America.
Sullivan encountered hard times while erecting the Cuban Wheel, as
he encountered a language barrier that proved difficult to
"What a time I had getting work done with men that spoke only
Spanish. Sullivan said. "They could not understand a
single work I said nor I them."
Just before his departure, the brewery owner, M.R. Brown Willis,
presented him with a tiger claw which Sullivan wore thereafter
attached to his pocket watch and kept in a lower pocket in his
vest. In a letter dated March 22, 1907, Sullivan again thanked
Willis for his hospitality and offered to send him a souvenir
"Just so it isn't an automobile or piano", Sullivan wrote. "We
want one of each and can't afford them yet, got the fever very
bad, and expect to get the piano very soon, and the auto later."
An interesting foot note to the Havana trip: While in Cuba
erecting the Wheel, Sullivan took the time to collect a few
beautiful pink conch shells which he brought home. Some time
later, the shells began to take on an unpleasant odor. Mrs.
Sullivan wasted no time in boiling to remove the unwanted smell.
Unfortunately, the boiling process also stripped all of the pink
coloring out of the shells as well.
One of the most enduring foreign sales came in 1913 when N.E.
Bharucha in Bombay India, purchased the 71st Wheel, a
No. 12 that is still tuning out profit eighty seven years later.
Profits were put back into the business instead of being paid out
to stockholders. In 1912, the No. 5 Wheel, forty feet
high, was introduced to appeal to customers who thought the
previous Wheels were too high. The initial No. 5 Wheel was
purchased by T.J. Todd of Nutter fort WV.
For many years, only the colors red and green were available for
Eli seats. This had nothing to do with Christmas.
W.E. Sullivan liked red, his son, Lee, preferred green, and so
In 1916, Sullivan created The Optimist, a company magazine
designed for advertising opportunities as well as to further the
policies of honest business throughout the amusement industry.
In 1925 it came to light that the Campbell Soup Company of
Camden, New Jersey, had been publishing a copyrighted newsletter
also entitled The Optimist four years longer than had Eli
Bridge. As of January, 1926, the company publication
became Big Eli®
A few Eli contacts through the years have worked up offbeat
possibilities for the Big Eli®
One Gentleman thought of installing a Wheel in a swimming pool and
offering passengers a grand dunking. Another planned to
put one in the ocean and use the tides to generate electricity.
An owner of a giant amusement slide was considering the use of a
Wheel to lift customers to its zenith. Eliminating the long
climb up the stairs, Another gentleman envisioned an
agricultural use for the Big Eli®
. He cultivated the idea of loading his sheep into the
seats and using the Wheel to lower them into the sheep dip to
remove unwanted varmints.
U.S. Royal Tires creation of an 80-foot Wheel complete with bright
red four-person gondola seats from the 1964 World's Fair in New
Riley Cook actually installed a No. 6 Baby Eli in his home.
He purchased an old church building, cut a hole in the floor,
set up his Wheel in the basement so the axle was level with the
main floor, and used the Wheel to transport folks between
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with the permission of the Eli Bridge Company
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