Visionary created: Indy 500, Miami Beach and the first U.S. highways
Carl Fisher is little known American, but not his accomplishments
Carl Fisher is Mr. Miami Beach
Bicycle shop proprietor and owner of one of the country’s first automobile dealerships would probably be enough of a legacy for most people.
For entrepreneur Carl Fisher this wasn't sufficient. He also was directly or partial responsible for the creation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, the first transcontinental highway, the interstate highway system and he turned a vast section of Florida swampland into a thriving beachfront city called Miami Beach.
Along the way, Fisher raced bicycles and automobiles. He also made millions from his car dealership and the largest car headlamp manufacturing company in the U.S. And, following his death, this native of Indiana was selected one of the 50 Most Influential People in Florida History.
These are some major achievements for this automobile enthusiast and promotional genius from Greensburg, IN. Very few Americans have heard of Fisher, but nearly everyone knows his accomplishments.
Looking back on Fisher’s early years, one could hardly imagine these achievements where on his horizon.
Flying car, a golfing elephant and other Fisher promo stunts
Fisher was a promotional genius, who developed some great publicity stunts.
• When he started his bicycle shop, the Fisher brothers didn’t have the money to pay for advertising, so Fisher donned a padded suit and rode a bike along a tightrope stretched between two Indianapolis buildings.
• To promote the automobiles he sold, Fisher told residents he would ride one of his new cars through the clouds. Soon he appeared overhead sitting behind the wheel of his Stoddard-Dayton, which was attached to a hot air balloon. Later, Fisher drove back into Indianapolis with the deflated balloon in the back seat.
There actually were two Stoddards. One had its engine removed so it would be lighter to lift. And another fully equipped car was hidden out of town, which he triumphantly drove back to Indianapolis.
Fisher tied some newspaper ads in with the promotion. "Stoddard-Dayton is the first car to fly over Indianapolis, it should be your first car," his ads proclaimed.
• In 1921, Fisher used a pachyderm and a president to promote Miami Beach. He arranged for the press to photograph a baby elephant posing as a golf caddy for vacationing President Warren Harding. The unusual picture intrigued northerners and many felt they had to see this place called Miami Beach.
Such publicity stunts worked and the resort city’s population grew 440 percent between 1920 and 1925.
A birth defect caused Fisher to drop out of school at 12
He was born in 1874 (nine years after the end of the Civil War) with a birth defect that caused blurred vision. The eye defect, known as astigmatism, also caused headaches and eyestrain. This made it difficult for Fisher to focus in school and he dropped out at 12.
He worked odd jobs, saved his money and five years later, he and his brothers opened a small bicycle repair shop in Indianapolis. They charged 25 cents to fix a flat tire.
Fisher was a born promoter. Unable to afford to advertise his promotional stunts helped expand the bicycle business. (See sidebar story. ►)
He also was a bicycle enthusiast and he loved to race bikes, even with his bad eye.
When the first automobiles hit the U.S. landscape it seemed like a natural transition that Fisher would join that industry. In the early 1900s, Fisher converted the bicycle shop into an automobile repair shop and car dealership.
It was the first automobile dealership, or one of the first, in America and they sold several makes, including Oldsmobile, Packard, Stutz and Stoddard-Dayton. The latter was Fisher's personal preference.
To generate interest in the new venture, Fisher staged another publicity stunt. A hot air balloon was attached to a new car and he “flew” his Stoddard-Dayton over his town. (See sidebar story. ►)
He also enjoyed driving his cars around town. At 25, Fisher owned the first automobile in Indianapolis.
In 1904, Fisher and bicycling buddy James Allison formed Prest-O-Lite, a company that manufactured automobile sealed-beam headlamps. The company grew with the automobile industry and eventually they were supplying nearly every headlight for every car in America.
In 1913, Fisher and Allison sold their company to Union Carbide for $9 million ($214 million today).
During this time, Fisher also toured Midwest county fairs with a group that called themselves “the world’s most daring automobile racers.” In 1904, once again despite his poor eyesight, Fisher set the world record time of two minutes and two seconds on a two-mile dirt track.
Motor Speedway originally paved with crushed stone
Fisher and other automobile pioneers longed to have a paved track — a proving grounds — where cars could be tested. In 1909, Fisher, Allison and two other businessmen raised $250,000 and transformed a farm near Indianapolis into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, complete with a 2.5-mile oval track with banked turns and paved with crushed stone.
To give you an idea of the scoop of the racetrack, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's website says, "Churchill Downs, Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl, the Roman Colosseum and Vatican City all can fit inside the speedway's oval, which covers 253 acres."
The first car race had a deathly crash. An automobile suddenly had a blowout, slammed through a fence and knocked down a group of spectators. Six people died, including two spectators and many fans and racers were badly injured.
Fisher was convinced the crushed stone was the problem. So, workers removed the crushed rock and replaced it with 3.2 million bricks, with ¼ inch spacing and cemented them into place. The new speedway picked up a nickname: "The Brickyard." The track has long been covered with asphalt, except for a 3-foot strip of bricks at the start/finish line in tribute to its past.
In the early years, the speedway staged several motorcycle races and hot air balloon races. The next automobile race was the first Indianapolis 500 held on Memorial Day 1911. It was an immediate success. Over 80,000 fans (paid $1 then – about $24 today) and watched the 40-car field whiz around the track at speeds as high as 75 mph. The 500 mile (200 lap) race was the first in a long line of spectacular Indy 500s.
Ever the promoter, Fisher arranged for the winner to receive a $10,000 prize, an impressive amount at the time when baseball players’ salaries topped out at $10,000 a season. (That’s $244,000 in today’s money.) Before the race, airplanes flew overhead and World War I aviators dropped aerial smoke bombs. And Fisher drove the pace car — his Stoddard-Dayton touring car.
The Indy 500 has become an American icon that's followed by millions every Memorial Day. Over the years, the stands have been expanded. The speedway currently seats 257,000 people. Coupled with infield seating some 400,000 fans can attend this annual international race.
While the Indianapolis Speedway had a paved racing surface, most of America's early 20th century roads were nothing more than rutted dirt pathways or tire-trapping mud trails. Fisher had a solution. In 1913, he announced that the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental highway, would be built. The proposed 3,142-mile long paved roadway would connect New York City with San Francisco.
Fisher put an ad in the programs of the 1912 and 1913 Indianapolis 500 "jabbing the government for not getting involved in the highway idea," according to Speedway Historian Donald Davidson.
Fisher conceives of the Lincoln and Dixie highways
It took ten years for Fisher’s project to see fruition. Today the Lincoln Highway parallels US 1, US 30, and I‑80 (plus other routes). In several western states sections of I-80 are paved directly over the Lincoln Highway.
America’s automobile industry flourished because of his highway. In 1900, 8,000 cars traveled the meager roads in the U. S. At the 1925 completion of the Lincoln highway there were 25 million cars in America.
The Lincoln Highway spawned numerous imitators. By the mid-20s, the U.S was crisscrossed by more than 250 auto trails and roads. One of those was a north-south route known as the Dixie Highway, another of Fisher’s ideas. In 1914, Fisher proposed his second major roadway would connect Chicago to Miami.
It seems Fisher easily became bored with his projects. Developing new schemes was the fuel that drove him. In his book, “The Lincoln Highway: Main Street across America” author Drake Hokanson says Fisher was always looking for new challenges. “He was the catalyst, the spark plug, the idea man. The details could be left for others to complete – he had to keep moving,” Hokanson wrote.
Fisher soon lined up the support of the governors of Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia for his Dixie Highway idea.
Where others saw swampland Fisher envisioned Miami Beach
At the southern end of the future Dixie Highway, Fisher vacationed in Miami with his friend John Levi. Fisher studied the landscape neighboring Miami, especially a strip of mangrove covered sand on the Atlantic Ocean. As he focused on it he formulated another of his big ideas. He proposed leveling 3,500 acres of swampland sitting across Biscayne Bay from Miami and developing it into the resort city of Miami Beach.
“I’m going to build the prettiest little city in the world right here,” Fisher told Levi. “We’ll kill two birds with one stone. First we dredge the bay to give it a deep channel and at the same time fill the swamp with the sand,” he said, according to MiamiHeritage.org.
Soon he ordered the mangroves leveled, channels excavated and the dredged sand used to form parks, golf courses and polo fields. Islands were built. Canals were dug. Trees and shrubs were planted. And Miami Beach’s road network was constructed.
Fisher built four hotels in Miami Beach — the Lincoln, King Cole, Nautilus and the Flamingo. In 1924, a seven-story office building was constructed according to his specifications. Fisher took prospective buyers to a terrace on the top floor, so they could inspect the beautiful resort city. A telescope was setup on the terrace which allowed investors to get a close-up view of the striking landscape.
The Indiana native envisioned the area being the perfect vacation spot for his business associates in Indiana and other automobile executives in the Midwest, who were tired of their unbearably frosty winters. In order to get tourists and future winter homeowners to his new ocean-front resort, Fisher nurtured the birth of the Dixie Highway. This paved roadway had its southern terminus at the bridge that connected the mainland with Miami Beach.
Carl Fisher: multimillionaire in 1926; penniless in 1929
In 1919, Fisher bought 200 acres from Dana Dorsey, Miami’s first African American millionaire, and constructed Fisher Island. A year later, he traded seven acres of Fisher Island to William K. Vanderbilt II for his 250-foot yacht. The island that bears his name is now one of America’s wealthiest and most exclusive residential areas.
By 1926, Fisher was worth an estimated $100 million. All of that evaporated. First, in the fall of 1926, a hurricane hit the area and destroyed property and tourism. Then, the 1929 stock market crash left him bankrupt.
Fisher died in 1939 at the age of 65. There are some reports that say alcoholism contributed to his death. When he died Fisher was living modestly in a small cottage on Miami Beach. His former partners were paying him a meager salary of $500 per month for promotional work.
According to his ex-wife Jane, it wasn’t financial rewards Fisher sought with all his schemes. In her book, "Fabulous Hoosier," she explained that Carl Fisher didn’t think of his projects "in terms of money.... He often said, 'I just like to see the dirt fly.' "
And fly it did. –TDowling
Looking for more? Check...
• Popular Mechanics’ article “The forgotten man who built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
• Detailed lists of Indy 500 facts: firsts, records, traditions, etc.
• My companion article on the Lincoln Highway.