Carl Graham Fisher

12/1/1874 - 15/7/1939

Record updated 12-Jan-07

Fisher was an American entrepreneur, a pioneer and promoter of the automotive, auto racing, and real estate development industries. He helped organise the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Carl Graham Fisher
Carl Fisher was born in Greensburg, Indiana, nine years after the end of the American Civil War, the son of Albert H. and Ida Graham Fisher. Apparently suffering from alcoholism, a problem which would also plague Carl later in life, his father left the family when Fisher was a child. Suffering from severe astigmatism, it was difficult for Carl to pay attention in school, as uncorrected astigmatism can cause headaches or eyestrain, and blur vision at all distances. He quit school when he was twelve years old to help support his family.

For the next five years, Fisher held a number of jobs. He worked in a grocery and a bookstore, then later he sold newspapers, tobacco, candy, and other items on trains departing Indianapolis, a major railroad center not far from Greensburg. He opened a bicycle repair shop in 1891 with his two brothers. A successful entrepreneur, he expanded his business and became involved in bicycle racing and later, automobile racing. During his many promotional stunts, he was frequently injured on the dirt and loose gravel roadways, leading him to become one of the early developers of automotive safety features. A highly publicized stunt involved dropping a bicycle from the roof of the tallest building in Indianapolis, which brought on a confrontation with the police.

In 1904, Carl Fisher was approached by the owner of a U.S. patent to manufacture acetylene headlights. Soon Fisher's firm supplied nearly every headlamp used on automobiles in the United States as manufacturing plants were built all over the country to supply the demand. The headlight patent made him rich as an automotive parts supplier and led to friendships with notable auto magnates. Fisher made millions in 1909 when he sold his Prest-O-Lite automobile headlamp business to Union Carbide.

Fisher also entered the business of selling automobiles (with his friend Barney Oldfield, according to the Lost Indiana website. [1]). The Fisher Automobile Company in Indianapolis is considered most likely the first automobile dealership in the United States. It carried multiple models of Oldsmobiles, Reos, Packards, Stoddard-Daytons, Stutz, and others. Fisher staged an elaborate publicity stunt in which he attached a hot air balloon to a white Stoddard-Dayton automobile and flew the car over downtown Indianapolis. Thousands of people observed the spectacle and Fisher triumphantly drove back into town, becoming an instant media sensation. Unbeknown to the public, the flying car had its engine removed to lighten the load, and several identical cars were driven out to meet it, to allow Fisher to drive back into the city. Afterwards, he advertised "The Stoddard-Dayton was the first automobile to fly over Indianapolis. It should be your first automobile too." Another stunt involved pushing a car off the roof of a building and then driving it away, to demonstrate its durability.

In 1909 Fisher married a young woman while he was engaged to another. Fisher's previous fiancée sued him for a breach of promise. Meanwhile, he and his new wife Jane went on a business trip for their honeymoon. The couple divorced in 1926.

"Blossom Heath" was Fisher's estate in Indianapolis. Completed in 1913, it was built on Cold Springs Road between the estates of his two friends and Indianapolis Motor Speedway partners, James A. Allison and Frank H. Wheeler. The house included portions of an earlier house on the site and featured a 60-foot-long living room with a 6-foot-wide fireplace where logs burned all day. There were twelve bedrooms and a huge glass-enclosed sun porch. Fisher built a house for his mother on the southern part of the estate. The estate also included a five-car garage, an indoor swimming pool, a polo course, a stable, an indoor tennis court and gymnasium, a greenhouse, and extensive gardens. A newspaper article dated February 2, 1913 described the simple dignity of the house. Unlike some of his friends and neighbors, Fisher built a large but simple house decorated primarily in yellow, his favorite color. It did not contain exotic woodwork, elaborate carvings, or extensive decoration.

In 1928, after Fisher moved permanently to Miami Beach, the Fisher Estate in Indianapolis was leased and later purchased by the Park School for Boys. The Fisher mansion was damaged by fire in the 1950s and the rear portion of the house was demolished and replaced with a classroom wing during 1956-57. The property was sold to Marian College in the 1960s and combined with two nearby estates into one 110 acre campus. Today the Fisher house (Fisher Hall), garage (Kavanaugh Hall), pool house (Art Annex), stable (Padua Hall), Mrs. Fisher’s cottage (Civic Theatre Offices), and a small outbuilding remain on the Marian College campus.

In 1909, Fisher and several other Indianapolis businessmen invested in what would become the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which is now surrounded by the city of Indianapolis. The first race ended in disaster and was halted and canceled when only halfway completed. The loose rock track led to numerous crashes, fires, terrible injuries to the race car drivers and spectators, and deaths. Ironically, such a thrilling race would probably be considered a success today.

Undeterred, Fisher convinced the investors to pave the now famous "brickyard" track with 3.2 million paving bricks. Attracting 80,000 spectators to the first 500 mile (800 km) race on Memorial Day May 30, 1911, at $1 admission, the Speedway reopened and hosted the first in a long line of five hundred mile (800 km) races known as the Indianapolis 500.

In 1913, foreseeing the automobile's impact on American life, Carl Fisher conceived and was instrumental in the planning, development, and construction of the Lincoln Highway, the first road across America, which connected New York City to San Francisco. Fisher estimated the highway, an improved, hard-surfaced road stretching almost 3,400 miles (5,472 km), would cost ten million dollars. Fellow industrialists Frank Seiberling and Henry Bourne Joy helped Fisher with their promotional skills, together creating the Lincoln Highway Association. Much of the highway was paid for by contributions from automobile manufacturers and suppliers, a policy bitterly opposed by Henry Ford.

Carl Fisher next turned his attention to creating the Dixie Highway, a network of north-south routes extending from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to southern Florida, which he felt would provide an ideal way for residents of his home state to vacation in southern Florida. In September 1916, Fisher and Indiana Governor Samuel M. Ralston attended a celebration opening the roadway from Indianapolis to Miami.

The future City of Miami Beach became Fisher's next big project. On a vacation to Miami around 1910, he saw potential in the swampy, bug-infested stretch of land between Miami and the ocean, and in his mind transformed the 3,500 acres (14 km²) of mangrove swamp and beach into the perfect vacation destination for his automobile industry friends -- he called it "Miami Beach". He and his wife bought a vacation home there in 1912 and he began acquiring land.

The Collins Bridge across Biscayne Bay between Miami and the barrier island that became Miami Beach was built by John S. Collins (1837-1928), an earlier farmer and developer originally from New Jersey. Collins, then 75 years old, had run out of money before he could complete his bridge. Fisher loaned him the money in trade for 200 acres (0.8 km²) of land. The new 2 1/2 mile (4 km) wooden toll bridge opened on June 12, 1913. It replaced an old ferry service and connected Miami Beach and the mainland, providing a critical link between the established city of Miami and the new town. The Collins Bridge was awarded the title of being "longest wooden bridge in the world."

Fisher financed the dredging of Biscayne Bay to create its vast residential islands. He later built several landmark luxury hotels including the famous Flamingo Hotel and attracted the wealthy and celebrated to visit the community, several of whom took up permanent residence there. At the south end, he built a huge hotel-casino with Roman swimming pool and a Dutch windmill. But, while wealthy people came to vacation, only a few were buying land or building homes. The U.S. public was apparently slow to catch on to the vacation land and homes Carl envisioned for Florida. Fisher's investments at Miami Beach were not paying off, at least not until he again utilized his promotional skills which had worked so well years earlier in Indiana.

Ever the innovative promoter of the Florida land boom of the 1920s, PBS tells of his efforts to draw attention to Miami Beach. Carl had acquired a baby elephant named "Rosie" who was a favorite with newspaper photographers. In 1921, he got free publicity all across the country with what we would call today a promotional "photo-op" of Rosie serving as a 'golf caddy' for vacationing President-elect Warren Harding. Billboards of bathing beauties enjoying white beaches and blue ocean waters appeared around the country. Fisher even purchased a huge illuminated sign proclaiming "It's June in Miami" in Times Square in New York City.

During the Florida land boom of the 1920s, real estate sales took off as Americans discovered their automobiles and the paved Dixie Highway, which through no coincidence led to the foot of the Collins Bridge. There were less than 1,000 year-round residents of Miami Beach in 1920. In the next 5 years, the resident population of the Miami Beach area grew 440%.

The art of the swap, which helped fund the Collins Bridge, was apparently the source of great satisfaction to Carl Fisher. He had bought another 200 acres (0.8 km²) that now form Fisher Island from Dana A. Dorsey, South Florida's first African American millionaire, and had begun some development there in 1919. He traded Fisher Island to William Kissam Vanderbilt II of the famous and wealthy Vanderbilt family in exchange for a 250 foot yacht in 1925. Vanderbilt used the property to create an enclave even more luxurious and exclusive than many of Miami Beach's finest.

By 1926, Fisher was worth an estimated $100 million, and could have been financially secure for life. However, Carl Fisher was always known for moving from project to project, and success had never stopped him from attempting something new. When she had earlier hoped that he would slow down at some point, in her 1947 book, his ex-wife Jane Watts Fisher quoted him as replying "I don't have time to take time." Instead, he redirected his promotional efforts to yet another new project far to the north.

In 1926, Fisher began working on a "Miami Beach of the north". His project at Montauk at the eastern tip of Long Island in New York was to provide a warm season counterpart to the Florida development. He and four associates purchased 9,000 acres (36 km²) and built a luxurious hotel, office building, marina, and attractions. The project built roads, planted nurseries, laid water pipes and built houses.

However, after the real estate boom became a land "bust" in Florida around 1925, followed by a devastating hurricane in September 1926 which wiped out much of Miami Beach, hit Fisher's investments hard, and tourism dropped off severely. His financing for the Montauk project was dependent upon income from the Miami properties. Then, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 struck, and the Montauk project went into receivership in 1932.

The losses in his real estate ventures and the Stock Market Crash of 1929 left Fisher virtually penniless. Always a man whose lifeblood seemed to be new dreams and projects, by the mid 1930s, he was living in a small cottage on Miami Beach and received a US$500 per month salary from his former partners to do promotional work.

Shortly before his death, as what turned out to be his last project, Fisher developed and built Key Largo's Caribbean Club, a fishing club for men of modest means, "a poor man's retreat." Ever the promoter, Fisher would probably have appreciated the value as about 8 years after his death, the Caribbean Club became famous as the filming site for the 1947 film Key Largo starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In 2006, filled with Bogart memoriablia, it is still in business as a tourist attraction.

Carl G. Fisher died July 15, 1939 at age 65 of a stomach hemorrhage in a Miami Beach hospital, following a lengthy illness compounded by alcoholism. He was interred at the family mausoleum in Indianapolis.