- Historic Sites
The Man Who Invented
With a wave of his plastic wand Carl Fisher transformed a tangle of mangrove swamps into a peculiarly American resort
December 1975 | Volume 27, Issue 1
Collins was a berry farmer and farm-machinery dealer from Moorestown, New Jersey, who had invested five thousand dollars in a coconut-growing project on Miami Beach in the 1880’s. The plan was to bring shiploads of coconuts from Trinidad and other Caribbean islands and to plant them on the barrier beach, where Collins and his fellow horticulturists had bought land from the government for as little as seventy-five cents an acre. The venture failed; rabbits and rats ate the planted coconuts.
Buying out his partners, Collins became the owner of 1, 670 acres on the beach and stayed there to grow avocados, mangos, and various vegetables. He planted the Australian pines along what later became Pine Tree Drive to protect his orchards from the wind, and dug the canal that now extends along Dade Boulevard to ship his avocados to the railroad in Miami and to haul fertilizer to his beach farm. In 1912 Collins and his son-in-law, Thomas J. Pancoast, spent a hundred thousand dollars on the first wooden bridge from Miami Beach to the mainland, not so much to bring their produce to market as to attract real-estate buyers to the beach. But by the time Fisher arrived on his vacation, they had run out of money and the bridge was unfinished.
Fisher later told his wife and friends that after meeting Collins he decided to put fifty thousand dollars into completing the bridge, not from interest in the development of Miami Beach, but because he was impressed by the old man’s courage in undertaking such an enterprise. “That little Quaker is the bravest man I ever met,” Fisher said.
For his fifty-thousand-dollar loan Collins gave Fisher bonds on the bridge and a plot of land 1,800 feet wide running across the beach from the bay to the ocean. Fisher bought another 260 acres beside it, extending from the present site of Nineteenth Street to Fourteenth Street. That was when he began to draw diagrams on the sand. Among the few people in Miami at the time who did not think Collins and Fisher were balmy were the two Lummus brothers, J. E. and J. N., both presidents of local banks who had lent Collins money when he started the bridge. The brothers bought some 600 acres at the south end of the beach, where, as J. N. Lummus said, the mangrove trees were so thick a man couldn’t get through them without an axe.
On June 12, 1913, the Collins Bridge was opened to traffic, with many of its wooden planks not yet nailed down. Carl Fisher wasn’t there; he was in Indianapolis, organizing a trailblazing automobile expedition of seventeen touring cars and two trucks to travel across the Rockies to San Francisco, dramatizing the need for his proposed Lincoln Highway. The trip took thirty-four days, with the cars backing up steep grades to keep their gasoline flowing to the engines. Fisher had left his close friend John H. Levi at Miami Beach to begin the backbreaking work of clearing the jungles and filling in the swamps with dredged fill.
Later, when Florida’s real-estate boom gathered momentum, developers were able to sell lots that were under water or covered with pine trees. The wizard salesman D. P. Davis in Tampa collected three million dollars in down payments on eight hundred proposed acres on a group of man-made islands before the islands were made. But the preboom developers on Miami Beach—Fisher, Collins, and the Lummus brothers—had to spend money making their land attractive and livable first and take chances on being able to sell it later. The work of clearing, filling, and resurfacing the jungle island went on for five years, with a steady drain of expense and only a few lots sold, at low prices. Fisher was building golf courses before he ever saw a golfer and digging yacht basins when there was not a yacht in sight. He offered to give lots away free in order to encourage people to build homes on the beach, but there were a scant half-dozen takers. Families liked to spend a day on the ocean side of Miami Beach with a picnic lunch, but they could not imagine living there, despite Fisher’s promises of streets, stores, electricity, water, and schools, all of which seemed ridiculous. For years during World War I Fisher had a sign on a choice oceanfront lot offering it free to anybody who would build a $200,000 hotel on the site. It drew only smiles. In the twenties the lot was part of a parcel that Fisher sold to N. B. T. “No Back Talk” Roney for two and a half million dollars, and Roney built on it the Roney Plaza Hotel at a cost of $2,800,000.