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 Eli 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. 

Sullivan 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 hurdle. 

"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 from America.

"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 they compromised.

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 News.

Unusual Notions

A few Eli contacts through the years have worked up offbeat possibilities for the Big Eli Wheel.

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 York.

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 floors.


Information provided by and used with the permission of the Eli Bridge Company


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