Carl Fisher was born in the decade after the Civil War in Indiana. His father, who would abandon the family, was an alcoholic; his legacy to his son included the genetics to one day become an alcoholic, too.
Like so many children in that era, Fisher would have to leave school before his teen years so he could help provide for his family. At 17 he would open a bicycle repair shop with his brothers. He then became enthralled with bike races, although his eyesight wasn’t fit for much besides getting him into numerous accidents. Along the way, however, Fisher would make friends among America’s rich and famous; one of his first friendships to develop into a business was with Barney Oldfield, a fellow bicycle racer from the 1890s.
Around the turn of the 20thcentury, with Oldfield’s financial help, Carl Fisher converted his bicycle shop into an automobile dealership that would handle Oldsmobiles and numerous other makes. Some believe his was the first automobile dealership in America. That may or may not be true, but maybe it was just the best remembered because of Carl Fisher’s promotional skills. For it was Fisher who first tied balloons on his inventory cars to draw the attention of passersby, while on another weekend he attached one of his cars to a hot air balloon and flew it over the city of Indianapolis.
Within a few years he started a second business with another partner, James Allison, this time to buy the patent rights to and to manufacture acetylene headlights for America’s fast-growing automobile industry. Quickly that venture’s product became standard equipment on most vehicles built in this country. Nine years after it started operations, Union Carbide purchased the company for $9 million, and suddenly Fisher and Allison were worth the equivalent in today’s money of over $100 million.
Neither man retired.
James Allison would go off into numerous other ventures, including the Allison transmission company, still so named today. Fisher was already thinking about his next big project even before Prest-O-Lite Headlights sold.
Fisher would join other Indianapolis businessmen in building a race track for the city, as automobile racing had taken over the public’s attention and made bicycle racing seem lame by comparison. And in August of 1909 the Indianapolis Motor Speedway held its first race —which had to be stopped, simply because the dirt and loose rock track caused too many wrecks, injuring both drivers and spectators. Fisher was not discouraged; he quickly sold the investment group on rebuilding the track with paving bricks. Two years later, on Memorial Day of 1911, 80,000 paying spectators watched the first true Indianapolis 500 race.
Already Fisher was thinking of his next big project. He believed that for the automobile industry to truly take off and touch everyone and every city in America, we needed a coast-to-coast highway. That idea was not Fisher’s alone; no, Object Lesson Roads, or paving one mile of decent road in parts of New England to encourage more road construction, had been around for almost two decades. Nationwide, the Good Roads Movement was promoting highways, too.
Further, Champ Clark, the Speaker of the U.S. House the year the Indy 500 first ran, brought up the possibility that it was time for the government to get involved in building roads — apparently, at first, to wide yawns from the other elected Congressmen. At the time, many states had laws forbidding them to get involved in improving roads within their borders. Sounds about right.
Which is why it took visionary business leaders, like Carl Fisher, to get the ball rolling. He did so by calling for a dinner event of the Who’s Who of Northern Indiana on September 10, 1912. He proposed that they all pitch in, and promote to bring in donations, to build a coast-to-coast rock highway from Times Square in New York City to San Francisco. Oh, and Fisher thought it should be completed by May of 1915, when the Panama-Pacific Exposition was due to open on the West Coast. It would take until the summer of the following year for the Lincoln Highway Association to be legally formed, with the stated mission of moving all legal traffic from the Atlantic to the Pacific — without toll charges.
That day a group of so-called Trail-blazers left Indianapolis in 17 cars and two trucks to scout out the best route for this highway. The potential routes east of the city were already known, and some had roads of varying quality already in place.
By fall they were ready to go, but the $10 million Fisher had told his associates the road would cost in the end paid for a low-ball highway. Henry Joy of Packard Automobiles was a major player in the Lincoln Highway Association and many individuals inside the automobile industry— but not Henry Ford — contributed. So did Thomas Edison and Teddy Roosevelt. Then-President Woodrow Wilson even kicked in five bucks. And by 1916 people were crossing the country on the Lincoln Highway.
It was not what we’d consider highway today, but more like an upscale wagon train trail over much of its route. In fact, road guides suggested that you could make the trip in your car in 30 days, if you could average 18 miles an hour for at least six hours a day and carried spare tires, gasoline, tools, and spare parts to fix your car — and tools to dig it out of the mud.
Over the next few years it slowly started becoming more of an improved road, often paved. So much improved that the Lincoln Highway, by showing so clearly how much America’s new middle class of motorists wanted better roads, almost seemed to embarrass the federal and state governments into action.
But by then Carl Fisher had moved on his next big visionary dream. A North-South highway from upper Michigan to Miami, Fla., which would become known as the Dixie Highway. The first part of the highway was done within a year, and Carl Fisher would lead a caravan of motorists south. There he moved onto his next big idea: It was that same Carl Fisher who became the primary developer of Miami Beach. (By 1928 he had moved there permanently, but by then he was already coming up on hard times. More on that in a moment.)
Fisher built the first electric rail line from the train station in Miami out and across the toll bridge he funded to Miami Beach in 1913. There was work to be done on altering that 3,500 acres into property that wealthier Americans might consider for their winter or retirement homes. But at the time it was slow going, possibly because the nation’s attention had been drawn tithe Great War, which started the following year in Europe — or maybe because of Florida’s reputation as an alligator wildlife refuge, featuring more mosquitoes than one person could possibly kill in a lifetime. In fact, by 1920 Fisher had only around 1,000 people living on Miami Beach.
But here again, his promotional skills kicked in, and billboards of bathing beauties cropped up around the northern states; and like the Sirens called to Ulysses, they suggested things would be better if one only moved South. Further, a land boom in Florida took over after the recession of the early 1920s. By 1925 another 3,500 people had bought land and built homes on Miami Beach.
Good thing, because Carl Fisher was already off on his next big project: What he referred to as “the Miami Beach of the North” — developing Montauk, at the very eastern tip of Long Island, in 1926. But this was one idea too far.
The Florida land bubble had burst the year before; as a percentage, the losses were as high as or higher than those during the 2008Financial Meltdown. Worse, a hurricane physically wiped out the Miami region in 1926. The problem was that Fisher’s new Long Island project depended heavily on proceeds’ continuing to come in from his Florida development. He did manage to get Montauk Manor built, still standing today as a famed hotel, but it went slowly. And when the stock market crashed in 1929, Carl Fisher saw his entire $100 million-plus fortune disappear.
Now living in a small cottage in Miami, Fisher was lucky; a few of his longest-standing friends pitched in each year and sent him a healthy stipend to live on, worth around $8,000 a month in today’s money. His last project was, appropriately, a fishing retreat for poor men, the famed Key Largo Caribbean Club. Alcohol had either replaced, or kept alive and unfulfilled, the dreams and visions of grandeurs Fisher could bring to fruition.
Carl Fisher died thousands of miles away, in the summer of 1939, just months after the last 42-mile stretch of his Lincoln Highway was finally put under modern pavement. Within just a couple of months of his death, his electric rail line from Miami to Miami Beach was shut down forever.
It is hard to believe, but there was once a time in America when a man with only a 5th-grade education could become one of our first car dealers and manufacture the headlights that turned night into day for America’s motorists in motoring’s earliest days. He could be a crucial founder of the Indianapolis 500 Motor Speedway, convince business leaders to build the first coast-to-coast interstate highway, and then turn around and create another one from Michigan to Miami. And then Carl Fisher created what we now know as Miami Beach. And, although his last great venture didn’t bear fruit under his watch, there’s no doubt he saw what Montauk, Long Island, would one day become.
Best of all, Carl Fisher demanded roads without tolls so motorists could make the most of their newfound freedom to travel. And this is a man who ultimately lost everything —but in a day and time when others who admired him contributed each month so he wouldn’t become homeless or completely destitute. The executives at General Motors did the same thing for the impoverished founder of GM, Billy Durant.
And on the day of his funeral, his old dealership partner Barney Oldfield was there, acting as one of his pallbearers. Oldfield had been the first to see the real potential in Carl Fisher, and stayed with him to the very end.
© Ed Wallace 2018
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org