December 1975 | Volume 27, Issue 1
With a wave of his plastic wand Carl Fisher transformed a tangle of mangrove swamps into a peculiarly American resort
Rogers once remarked that Florida would still be known mainly for turpentine rather than for its sunshine resorts if it hadn’t been for Carl Graham Fisher, a brisk little entrepreneur and promoter from Indianapolis. Fisher was the creator of Miami Beach, the focal point of Florida’s boom as a popular winter-vacation resort in the 1920’s, where he is hailed in an inscription on a monument to his memory as a pioneer who “carved a great city out of a jungle.”
Miami Beach, which now has more high-rise hotels than any other seaside resort in the world, was indeed a jungle of swamps and thickly tangled mangrove forests when Fisher and his young wife, Jane, first saw it in 1912. “Mosquitoes blackened our white clothing,” Jane wrote later in her biography of Fisher, Fabulous Hoosier . “What on earth could Carl possibly see in such a place, I wondered crossly as I picked my way through the morass in my white shoes. … I refused to find any charm in this deserted strip of ugly land rimmed with a sandy beach. But Carl was like a man seeing visions. He had pulled a stick and peeled it on our way through the swamp, and when we reached the clean sand he drew upon it a plan of streets and square designs that represented buildings. That damp sand on which he drew is now Lincoln Road.”
Jane recalled Fisher’s exclaiming: “Look, honey, I’m going to build a city here! A city like magic, like romantic places you read and dream about, but never see.”
Over the next few years Fisher and a few co-developers transformed the narrow stretch of island between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay at a staggering cost, sometimes reaching fifty thousand dollars a day, during a long period before any return came back from the investment. Dredging sand from the bay bottom, Fisher filled in the laboriously cleared swamps and made handsome residential islands along the bay shore, built streets, five hotels, parks, golf courses, yacht basins, and polo fields, and imported teams of titled British polo players. He launched nationwide publicity campaigns, flooding newspaper offices with glossy photos of bathing beauties posing on the sands of Miami Beach, and awakened people in the chilly Northeast and Midwest to the attractions of the Florida climate.
Arestless promoter, Fisher always had several irons in the fire. Before he visualized Miami Beach, he had built the Indianapolis Speedway and had conceived the plan for the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental automobile road in the United States, between New York and San Francisco. Later, at the same time that he was creating Miami Beach, Fisher came up with the idea for the Dixie Highway. In 1915 he led a cavalcade of fifteen cars over that north-south route, starting from Indianapolis and ending up in Miami at the newly built Collins Bridge, which he had helped to finance in order to bring prospective land buyers across Biscayne Bay to Miami Beach. This first bridge from the mainland to the beach was the longest wooden bridge in the world at the time, extending two and a half miles. The opening of the Dixie Highway, as Fisher had no doubt surmised, was a strong spur to the wild Florida real-estate boom of the 1920’s.
The boom drew a variety of colorful characters, but none of them was more spectacular than Carl Fisher, who gambled millions of dollars on the future of Florida long before the boom started. He was born in Greensburg, Indiana, in 1874 with 50 per cent vision, a condition that he did not discover until he visited an oculist for the first time at the age of thirty-one. In his youth, despite his semiblindness, he was a bicycle and automobile racer and a cross-country balloonist. On the Harlem dirt track in Chicago in 1904 he drove one of the early racing cars to a world record for two miles, 2:02 minutes. As an advertising stunt when he was selling bicycles, he rode a bike across a tightrope stretched between the roofs of two high buildings in downtown Indianapolis. Later, when he was one of the city’s first automobile drivers and the manager of the local Stoddard-Dayton car agency, he exploited his cars by riding in one of them as it drifted through the sky above the business district, hanging from a huge red balloon.
Fisher was the spirited leader of a group of Indianapolis motor enthusiasts that included Barney Oldfield, the champion racing driver, Gar Wood, later to become the speedboat king, Eddie Rickenbacker, and James A. Allison, designer of the Allison aircraft engine. It was with Allison that Fisher organized the Prest-O-Lite company to manufacture compressed carbide gas fuel for automobile headlights. The early automobiles lacked enough generating power for electric lights, and carbide gas lamps, in which calcium carbide was dissolved by a slow addition of water, were undependable. Fisher and Allison proposed to put on the market tanks of ready-made compressed carbide gas that could be carried on the running board to provide fuel for the car’s headlights. Their experiments were dangerous. The first Prest-O-Lite factory in Indianapolis exploded and shattered windows for miles around. The city council ordered the plant to move to the country-side outside the thickly populated area. As the company expanded and established works in Chicago, Omaha, and New Jersey and on the Pacific coast, there were explosions all over. For a few years Fisher spent most of his time travelling around the country, rebuilding destroyed factories, reassuring frightened workers, and appearing in court at lawsuits. But at last the tanks were safeguarded with an asbestos lining, and the business became highly profitable. In 1912 Fisher and Allison sold Prest-O-Lite to Union Carbide for nine million dollars.
Three years earlier, while he was still coping with explosions, Fisher had a grim experience at the opening of the Indianapolis Speedway. Inspired by the huge bowl-shaped concrete speedway at Brooklands in England, Fisher built the automobile track in 1909 in partnership with Allison, A. C. Newby, and Frank Wheeler as a proving and testing ground for car manufacturers; the idea behind it was to make Indianapolis—instead of Detroit—the center of the growing automotive industry. Auto races would be staged on the two-and-a-half-mile oval to pay expenses of the speedway plant, the most elaborate layout of its kind in North America. The track was surrounded by three miles of whitewashed fence, and on the grounds there were forty-one various buildings, a landing field for aircraft and four miles of gas pipes to inflate balloons, three thousand hitching-post spaces for horses and buggies, and a number of grandstands, each with room for seventy-five hundred people. In his haste to get the speedway ready for a grand opening in the summer of 1909, Fisher made a bad mistake. Instead of the hard paved surface he had planned originally, the track was covered with a mixture of crushed limestone and gravel to cut down on expenses.
When the racing cars roared around the curves of the track, they pulverized the loose stone and gravel and threw up clouds of blinding dust that resulted in the death of two drivers on the first day. In the big race on the third and final day of the meet, a 300-mile event with sixteen of the world’s best cars and drivers, the crowd of twenty-two thousand spectators pushed close to the fences along the track. Nearing the 200-mile mark, a local favorite, Charles Merz, lost control of his car when a tire blew off its rim, and crashed through the fence into the crowd. The accident killed his mechanic co-rider and two spectators and seriously injured several others. At the same time on the north turn another dust-blinded driver went through the fence and into the crowd, narrowly missing a throng of people. Fisher stopped the unfinished race. That was the last time in his flamboyant career as a builder and earth-mover that he was known to economize. In a few days he began to rebuild the track with a brick surface.
It was also in 1909, when Fisher was thirty-five, that he found enough spare time to marry a tall, strapping fifteen-year-old named Jane Watts. On the morning of the wedding day he sent a German band to her house to wake her up. When she moved into Fisher’s Indianapolis apartment, the bride found on the living-room sofa a pillow with a leather cover bearing the message “A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.” Over the bed in the bedroom, along with pictures of Napoleon and Lincoln, Carl’s two heroes, there was a patch of sandpaper for striking matches.
“There was—there would always be—a stand on one side of the bed holding a jar of salted peanuts, and on the other side a spittoon,” Jane wrote. “My bridal struggles against that spittoon resembled the crusades of Carrie Nation.”
After rebuilding the speedway and selling Prest-O-Lite, Fisher promised his wife a long vacation in Miami, where he had bought a bay-front house through the mail, sight unseen. He did not become interested in Miami Beach until he noticed the structure of an unfinished wooden bridge extending toward it across Biscayne Bay from Miami. “Where does it lead to?” he asked. When he heard about John S. Collins, the remarkable old Quaker who at the age of seventy-five was trying to build the bridge, Fisher found himself getting involved.
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.
As Fisher’s money dwindled and the dredging went on, his Prest-O-Lite partner, Jim Allison, urged him to give up the effort, but he was determined to stick it through. “When you get hold of a bull by the tail and he’s going downhill, you can’t let go,” he said. Waiting for the customers to come, Fisher watched grass and flowers being planted on the filled swamps and argued with John Levi about street plans. He ordered Levi to make Lincoln Road, his proposed east-west shopping thoroughfare, at least a hundred feet wide, with two sidewalks on each side, one for walking and one for window-shopping, because it was to be America’s rue de la Paix. Fisher built his first hotel on Lincoln Road; he named it, of course, the Lincoln Hotel. He would have named the whole island after Lincoln, but it was already too commonly known as Miami Beach, which became its official name when the small settlement incorporated as a town in 1915.
Fisher also built on Lincoln Road an office building for his real-estate business at a time when his sales staff consisted of one man, Pete Chase, who sat twiddling his thumbs under an umbrella at the Miami Beach end of the Collins Bridge, waiting for any likely-looking prospect who might wander in from the mainland. Desperate for customers, the Lummus brothers and Collins engaged a well-known barker, Edward E. “Doc” Dammers, who gathered crowds by offering raffles of crockery and silverware as a come-on. Dammers was supposed to be able to sell ice skates in Hawaii. Fisher, striving to make his would-be ocean-side city an elegant resort, refused to stoop to hiring Dammers. One day Fisher was approached by Sheriff Dan Hardie, who ran a bathing beach and dance hall for daytime visitors at the Lummus end of the beach. The sheriff asked if Fisher would contribute five hundred dollars toward bringing a carnival to the beach as a tourist attraction. Fisher said: “Dan, I’ll give you five hundred to keep it away.”
Miami Beach began to pay off shortly after the end of the war, when the combination of peace, prosperity, the rise of automobile travel, and the effect of Fisher’s illustrated publicity campaigns (featuring bathing beauties) brought the first big influx of northern tourists into southern Florida. The turning point may have been the day not long after the Armistice when the first procession of polo ponies was led across the bridge to the beach. In the 1920’s polo was a symbol of money. Around the same time Pete Chase came out from under his umbrella and made his first big sale to a lady who bought a lot for twenty thousand dollars. When Chase called up with the exciting news, Fisher said: “Bring her over and we’ll open up a bottle of champagne.”
When the first real money came in, Fisher plowed it back into luxurious improvements—more hotels, Roman-style swimming pools, more golf courses, handsome dredged-up islands on the bay—and bigger publicity campaigns. The little Lincoln Hotel was soon overshadowed by larger and plushier ones: the Flamingo, with a lighted dome of jewelled glass; the Nautilus, which went up when the land around it was still being filled; the King Cole, which featured English-style sideboard buffet breakfasts of kippers and kidneys for guests who wore riding clothes and boots whether they rode horses or not, for that was the dress of the leisure class seen in the silent movies of those days. Fisher spent fifty thousand dollars at the King Cole to put up a group of British polo stars he had brought from England, among them the Marquess of Waterford and Lord Cromwell. The two peers became entranced with Miami Beach and spent seventy-three thousand dollars on a piece of property. When they received the tax bill, they made the mistake of paying the assessment instead of the tax. “Polo did a lot toward making our tropical paradise cosmopolitan and smart,” Jane Fisher said.
Bringing over the British polo players was also a sound investment because it attracted to Miami Beach a score of polo-playing American millionaires such as Julius Fleischmann, the yeast king; James Hastings Snowden, the oil king; Harvey Firestone, the rubber king, whose four polo-playing sons made up a team of their own; and Stephen “Laddie” Sanford, who had water for his horses shipped down from New York.
Will Rogers, who hailed Fisher as the “midwife” of the new Florida, poked fun at his newly dredged lots of island estates. Calling the dredges all-day suckers, Rogers said: “Carl rowed the customers out in the ocean and let them pick out some nice smooth water where they would like to build, and then he would replace the water with an island, and today the dredge is the national emblem of Florida.” Rogers also claimed that Fisher “rehearsed the mosquitoes” so that they would not bite a customer until after he bought.
Actually, Fisher did not believe in high-pressure selling. He would not allow his agents to make a pitch to a visitor in his hotel lobbies, and, as business boomed, he ordered Pete Chase and other salesmen to raise the price of any lot that did not sell and to keep on raising it until they sold it. Fisher frowned on selling to real-estate speculators; he wanted to sell only to people who were going to build a home of their own on the lot. He had a reputation as a scrupulously honest businessman, but he became hot-tempered and mean when he thought he was being double-crossed. When Miami Beach was getting crowded, Fisher leased property on the government-owned island of Soldier Cay, three miles to the south, and built there at a cost of twenty-five thousand dollars a dock and a home as a hideaway where he could rest and think. Without his knowledge the government sold the island from under him to a private buyer who asked Fisher to leave and offered him three thousand dollars for the house and dock. Fisher went to the island with a load of dynamite and blew up both house and dock.
Fisher hated personal publicity. One evening at a yacht-club dinner, when he was praised for boosting motor-boating, the commodore asked him if he would like to say a few words. “I would not,” Fisher snapped without moving from his chair. At another dinner he heard Miami Beach being described as “Fisher’s Dream” and interrupted testily: “Wasn’t any goddamn dream at all.” Yet he was always thinking up publicity schemes to get the name of Miami Beach on northern newspaper pages. He kept on the beach an elephant named Rosie who became nationally known from pictures showing her helping with construction work and welcoming visiting celebrities. When the genial President, Warren G. Harding, was entertained at Miami Beach after his inauguration in 1920, he played golf, with Rosie serving as his caddy for a few holes. Pictures of Harding with the elephant carrying his golf bag landed on front pages across the country.
As a publicity stunt Fisher staged a race on Biscayne Bay between ten identical motorboats, each one piloted by a famous automobile-racing champion who had never driven a boat before. The racers included such stars as Tommy Milton, Ray Harroun, Pete De Paoli, Louis Chevrolet, and Harry Hartz. The race turned out to be a disaster—six of the boats collided and sank—but the publicity was widespread.
Fisher was one of the first Florida developers to put Venetian-model gondolas with singing gondoliers in his canals and lagoons. On a European trip Jane had a red, gold, and black gondola shipped from Venice to Miami, complete with fringed pillows, and remembered to enclose with it one gondolier’s costume. Fisher made copies of the boat and the costume and hired natives to operate a fleet of gondolas in Venetian garb, singing and strumming guitars. The flashy Mizner brothers, Addison and Wilson, did Fisher one better when they built a canal designed after the Grand Canal of Venice at their Boca Raton retreat for millionaires. They had electric-powered gondolas made to order in Venice. Wilson Mizner insisted that authentic Venetian gondoliers should be imported from Italy. It was pointed out to him that there was no need for an oarsman in an electric boat, and, besides, there might be trouble if the gondolier tried to push the boat one way while the skipper was at the wheel steering it in the other direction. “We’ll have him use a fake oar,” Wilson said. “Then the son of a bitch can’t do any harm.”
The Florida boom became dangerously inflated by the mid-twenties, when property on Flagler Street in Miami rose to the price of $70,000 a front foot and a lot in the business section of Miami Beach, bought for $800 a few years earlier, was sold for $150,000 in 1924. Five ocean-front lots on the beach jumped in price within months from $16,000 to $150,000. The Miami Daily News , loaded with real-estate advertising, printed an issue of 504 pages, the largest in newspaper history. Real-estate dealers found no office space available and rented tables in hotel dining rooms between meal hours. Everybody went into the real-estate business; freight cars stood unloaded in the Miami yards because the freight handlers were buying and selling lots. Alarmed by the near-hysterical situation in Florida, a group of northern banks ran newspaper ads warning depositors against going there to buy and sell, because they would find themselves trying to sell lots “to the other fellow who is going to Florida to sell lots to you.” A magazine article on the boom reported that a man in Jacksonville had parlayed two quarts of bootleg gin into $75,000. He swapped the gin for an option on a piece of land near Bade City and made $40,000 by selling the option to a subdivision operator. Putting the $40,000 into another land speculation, he ran it up to $75,000.
Stories of option and binder deals—a binder is an option on an option—made Fisher leery of the boom. Shady speculators called binder boys were weakening the real-estate market by buying options, rather than property, and reselling them at fancy profits. A dealer could get an option on a lot for a 10 per cent down payment on an agreed purchase price. The second payment, which would close the purchase, was not due until at least thirty days later, after the title search and the recording of the deed. In the meantime the option holder could sell the option to somebody else; sometimes an option was bought for a thousand dollars and then sold and resold five or six times, reaching a price of perhaps sixty thousand dollars before the deed to the lot itself changed hands. Late in 1925 there began to be many deals in which the closing payment was never made; after a series of fast option sales the original owner found himself still owning the property. That started the deflation of the swollen Florida real-estate bubble.
Fisher tried to stop option swapping on Miami Beach by raising the down payments and enforcing his rule against selling to anybody except prospective homeowners, much to the indignation of his own sales staff, who had done a $23,000,000 business over the previous year. Seeing widening cracks in the boom, Fisher began to unload some of his own property. In 1925 Jane and he had separated, and she was living in Paris. He sold a piece of land that he had given to her earlier and wired her $86,000. She spent the whole $86,000 in one afternoon on jewelry in a shop on the rue de la Paix, the Parisian Lincoln Road.
By that time Fisher had lost interest in Miami Beach and was busy planning to build “the Miami Beach of the North” at Montauk, on the eastern tip of Long Island, a hundred and twenty miles from New York City. With a small group of backers, including his old partner in Prest-O-Lite, Jim Allison, he had bought nine thousand acres at Montauk for two and a half million dollars; he was building an enormous hilltop hotel, the Montauk Manor, and a six-story office building, and was digging a channel between Great Pond and Lake Montauk. At fifty-two Fisher was starting another performance like the one at Miami Beach, gambling a fortune on an opulent resort before a lot was sold.
In collaboration with the Pennsylvania Railroad, which then owned the Long Island Railroad, Fisher was also concocting a scheme to make Montauk a transatlantic-passenger-ship port. He was certain that travellers arriving on ocean liners from Europe would be delighted to disembark at Montauk and travel from there to Manhattan by train, thus cutting a day of travel time from their journey. But Fisher and the Pennsylvania never had an opportunity to test their theory; the Montauk development didn’t last that long.
The bottom fell out of the Florida real-estate boom in 1926, and in September of that year Miami Beach was demolished by a disastrous tropical hurricane. Worrying about losing their tourist trade, the local businessmen tried so hard to hide the storm damage from the rest of the country that the Red Cross had trouble raising money for urgently needed relief work. Fisher halted work at Montauk to put his diminishing funds into repairing hurricane destruction. Then came the Wall Street crash of 1929, and the Montauk project was never resumed.
Fisher spent his remaining years in poor health at Miami Beach, watching his property there passing into the hands of Montauk bondholders. Nobody knows for certain how much money Fisher made at Miami Beach—estimates of his holdings at the peak of the boom run from twenty million to a hundred million dollars—but it is certain that he lost most of it at Montauk. When he died in 1939, he left forty thousand dollars. Fisher ended up in a small house on a side street. When he was forced to move out of his previous Miami Beach home, a huge castlelike mansion with a tower overlooking Biscayne Bay, he said with a shrug: “Hell, it was too far for me to walk to the front door.”
Miami Beach, a resort dedicated to perpetual youth, is a city with no cemeteries. But after Fisher’s death the city council proposed to pay him a rare honor. It offered a mausoleum in a park bearing his name so that his would be the only dead body on the beach. Fisher’s family decided, however, to bring his ashes back to Indianapolis, his real hometown. Like most people at Miami Beach, even its creator had gone there originally only as a visitor on a vacation.