Miami Beach History
Carl Fisher Biography
Carl Fisher didn't think in terms of money. He often said "I just
like to see the dirt fly." Indeed plenty of dirt flew during his
fast-paced life. Before he built Miami Beach, he built racetracks
and roadways. His early love of bicycles and automobiles culminated
in a desire to create destinations.
Born in 1874 in Greensburg, Indiana, Fisher quit school at age 12
and five years later opened a bicycle repair shop in Indianapolis.
A successful entrepreneur, Carl made millions in 1909 after he sold
his Prest-O-Lite automobile headlamp business to Union Carbide.
Carl loved speed and broke a record in 1904, driving an automobile
two miles in 2.02 minutes around a track. As much as speed, he loved
publicity and gimmicks. In 1911, after his Indianapolis Motor Speedway
failed to attract large numbers, he built a 500-mile track and drew
more than 80,000 people to a race onlookers described as "the greatest
spectacle in sports."
Soon Miami Beach caught Fisher's eye. Foreseeing the automobile's
impact on American life, he was instrumental in the construction
of the first transcontinental highway, the Lincoln Highway, from
New York to San Francisco, in 1913. People questioned his next project,
the Dixie Highway. What need could there be for a highway running
from Indiana through the Deep South and terminating in Miami Beach?
Fisher couldn't convince people of the value of Florida real estate.
Even when he was literally giving land away in the late teens, he
had no takers -- until a president and a pachyderm came along. Gimmicks,
which Carl relied on from time to time, would propel Carl Fisher
Carl had acquired a baby elephant named Rosie who was a favorite
with newspaper photographers. In 1921 a picture of Rosie as a golf
caddy for vacationing President-elect Warren Harding "fixed Miami
Beach in the public's mind as a place you had to see to believe."
Publicity stunts worked; the population ballooned some 440 percent
from 1920 to 1925. At the height of the '25 land boom, the Fisher's
Estate was estimated at $100 million. Ever restless, he decided
to build a northern Miami Beach at the tip of Long Island. He envisioned
Montauk as a Miami for the summer, but it was doomed. In the wake
of Fisher's southern success, the resort market had become saturated.
Carl Fisher's downward spiral began in 1926. He and Jane divorced
after 17 years of marriage. The boom leveled off, and Miami Beach
began to experience a backlash in the northern press, which regularly
ran stories on shady land deals and charlatans.
Nature had its own plans for Miami Beach. In September, a major
hurricane slammed into the city. Structural damage was terrific;
113 people were killed in Greater Miami. The storm generated still
more negative publicity for Miami Beach, and tourism dropped in
1927. The following year the city rebounded somewhat, but the boom
was gone for good.
Carl Fisher couldn't rebound. He had borrowed against his Miami
Beach properties to build Montauk, which was completed in time for
the stock market crash. By then Miami Beach couldn't get him out
of his hole. When the Great Depression hit, tourism -- and Fisher's
fortune -- dried up.
The Pancoasts, Fisher's former partners in the Miami Beach Improvement
Company, offered the entrepreneur a salaried position. He took it,
fruitlessly dedicating himself to reviving Miami Beach's reputation.
Shortly before his death, Carl built Key Largo's Caribbean Club,
a fishing club for men of modest means, "a poor man's retreat."
It became a gambling establishment after he died.
The self-made Fisher had become self-destructive. During Prohibition
Carl was drinking heavily and was bootlegging. Transporting alcohol
was a challenge, but drinking it became an addiction that would
cost him his life. By 1938 Carl had cirrhosis. Periodically his
body had to be drained of excess fluids, up to 20 pounds at a time.
Desperately seeking a cure, Fisher consulted a veterinarian who
specialized in the liver and lungs of animals.
On July 15, 1939, at age 65, Fisher died of a gastric hemorrhage
His epitaph in the "Miami Daily News" read: "Carl G. Fisher, who
looked at a piece of swampland and visualized the nation's greatest
winter playground, died ... in the city of his fulfilled dreams."
Carl, however, hadn't looked at Miami Beach as romantically. "Wasn't
any goddamned dream at all," he once said. "I could just as easily
have started a cattle ranch."