Carl Fisher and Miami Beach: 1900-1920.


Carl Fisher (in the foto Fisher at the Harlem racetrack, near Chicago, Illinois) was energetic and colorful, a generous, domineereing, daring audacious, profane, hard-drinking, pratical-joker man’s man.

His child bride, Jane, saw her future written on leather pillow in his bachelor digs: “A woman is only a woman, a good cigar is a smoke.” He believed in middle- American values and conventions while routinely ignoring or defying them himself.

He was innovative and instinctively entrepreneunal, pragmatic and brash, a sophisticated business-man and a social diamond in the rough. And he thrived on action. When Fisher was at the peak of his success in Miami Beach he started another resort in Montauk, Long Island.

Why, he was asked, when you don’t need the money? Hell, he said, I just like to see the dirt fly. Fisher didn’t need the money when he began work on Miami Beach; he was already a multi-millionaire from the sale to Union Carbide of his Prest-o-Lite company, which manufactured a headlight that ran on cornpressed gas.

But the challenge presented by Miami Beach, combined with the potential for profit, made the project irresistible.

Promotion was a large part of the Beach’s success, something Fisher had an abundant talent for. As a teenager, he opened a bicycle repair shop – it was the beginning of the bicyle craze – and made a name for it by riding across a tightrope stretched between the two tallest buildings in town.

When automobiles came in, he publicized his dealership and became a kind of local cult hero by floating around the Indiana countryside in a stripped-down Stoddard-Dayton attached to a hot-air balloon. Spurred on by fellow automobile maniacs like Barney Oldfield  and Louis Chevrolet, he used some of the profit from Prest-o-Lite to create the Indianapolis

Speedway in 1909 as a testing ground for the latest technology, later turning it into the country’s best -know racetrack. He was also a leader in the good-roads movement. In 1913, seated behind the wheel of his Premier, Fisher blazed the way for the first transcontinental  paved road, running from New York to San Francisco to publicize the need for highways and to test their building techniques.

The Lincoln Highway – named after one of Fisher’s heroes – inspired other highway projects, including the north-south route Fisher undertook next.


At the time, Fisher was among the few people who could comprehend the deep effect the automobile would have on American life. He started work on the Dixie Highway almost immediately after he had begun developing the Miami Beach, in the foto the Fisher Casino in South Beach, because he knew that although only an elite owned cars at the time, many more people would be able to afford automobiles in the near future and that drivers would go anywhere a highway could take them.

Just as the cargo railroad had settled vast reaches of the United States – Florida, most recently – and the commuter rail had made once-exclusive seaside resorts like Coney Island and Atlantic City accessible to the nearby urban masses, highways would transform the American map as well as its way of life.

Fisher was aware that he was following in the footsteps of Henry Flagler, the cofounder of Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller, who had carved out his own domain in Florida.

Flagler had first visited the state on a honeymoon to St. Augustine and Jacksonville with his young second wife in 1883. Although he was long retired, there was something about the place that stirred his entrepreneurial instincts.

He bought two railroads in northern Florida, formed the Florida East Coast Railway, and extended the line down the coast, reaching Key West just days before he died.

Of course, providing a means of getting to Florida wasn’t enough – he had to build places for the tourists to stay, so grand that they would be reason enough to come down, and each of the major stops along the line acquired a huge resort hotel.

It was, in fact, the first time that tourism was the industry that developed a new territory (although that is now standard in most developing countries)., a Cool Guide to South Beach.

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