Carl Fisher carved path from swamp to glamour
The dreams of an Indiana school dropout became the impetus for the stunning development of one of the nation’s hotspots.
Mangroves and swamps once covered most of the city that is now known for its glamorous hotels, condos and nightlife. It was entrepreneur Carl Fisher who planted the seeds of change that would create a tropical playground for wealthy Northerners – Miami Beach.
Not everyone bought into Fisher’s vision at first. No one was interested in buying the swampland and initially, Fisher could not even get people to take the land for free.
But Fisher, whose earlier business ventures had made him a millionaire by the time he was 35, would not be deterred. He created one publicity stunt after the other – from parties to parades – to get attention. And his plans worked.
“Fisher was a brilliant entrepreneur and a publicity genius,” said Gregory Bush, an associate history professor at the University of Miami.
Born in Greensburg, Ind., in 1874, Fisher suffered from an astigmatism that caused blurry vision, which forced him to drop out of school at age 12. He worked in a grocery store and sold cigars and newspapers on trains leaving from Indianapolis. By age 17, Fisher owned a bicycle repair shop.
He upgraded from selling bicycles to selling cars. By 1909 Fisher was a millionaire. After selling his automobile headlamp business, Prest-O-Lite, to Union Carbide, he opened a successful race track, the Indianapolis Speedway.
While on vacation with his wife, Jane, in Miami, Fisher visited his friend, John H. Levi, and fell in love with the area’s beauty and environment. Across the bay, Fisher noticed a swampy, under-populated barrier island and began thinking of ways that he could transform the swampland into a resort.
“His wife didn’t like it much, but he absolutely saw visions of what it could be,” Bush said.
With the car industry prospering, in 1913 Fisher helped develop one of the nation’s first east-west highways. A year later, he was working on a plan for a second national road, Dixie Highway, which could connect motorists from the North to the South.
Fisher’s dreams finally were shared by New Jersey resident John Collins, who had tried previously to develop Miami Beach but failed, Bush said. When Collins ran out of money, Fisher paid for the completion of the Collins Bridge, which connected Miami to Miami Beach.
Population rose, tourism rose and Fisher’s wealth rose. But the boom would be short-lived.
On Sept. 17, 1926, a hurricane hit, destroying property and tourism. And with the stock market crash of 1929, followed by the nation’s Great Depression, Fisher lost his real estate holdings and later declared bankruptcy.
History expert Paul George said drinking and women led to Fisher’s downfall. “He was always rolling the dice,” said George, a history professor at Miami Dade College. “His capital ran thin. He overinvested in hotels and infrastructure, and ultimately he was not the greatest money manager.”
Fisher died impoverished in 1939 before accomplishing his goal of creating a bustling city, but he is credited with the having the vision and laying the plans for the tourism gold rush that later happened in Miami Beach.
“Miami Beach has continued to develop in such a magical way,” George said. “I think he’d be proud.”
Fisher Island, an area Fisher once owned just off of Miami Beach, is named in his honor. The private barrier island can be reached only by ferry or boat. Its residents are among the wealthiest in the nation. And in 2000, it had the highest per capita income in the United States, according to the U.S. Census.