One man’s vision led to Miami Beach gold rush

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.

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6 responses to “One man’s vision led to Miami Beach gold rush”

  1. Kevin says:

    I had no clue about the influence that Carl Fischer has in the area. In fact, I had never even heard the name before. Nice job on the article; it really enlightened me.

  2. Allison B says:

    The article originally caught my eye because I saw Indiana in the lead. I grew up there, and I’m always pleased to learn about influential people from my state. They’re not so abundant…
    Also, I found it interesting that Fisher Island was named for Carl Fisher. I’ve seen the island and I’ve heard about it (I think my uncle ran into Oprah jogging on Fisher Island once.), but I didn’t know anything about its history or who Fisher was. It was nice to put two and two together.

  3. Sierra Eboni says:

    When I started writing about Carl Fisher I had never heard of him before. But writing about Miami Beach and Fisher’s life was very intriguing.

  4. Melayna Dong says:

    I think it’s amazing how people can see potential in places where no one else can. I can’t even imagine how difficult and impossible the task must have seemed at first but somebody had to do it. His perseverance amazes me. Where would you even begin when you are trying to build a city? Unfortunately, he didn’t get to see his vision turn into a reality but if he could, I’m sure he would be happy.

  5. Com Student 116 says:

    It is easy to forget that Miami Beach was once swampland. I think it is crazy how land can be transformed so dramatically. One hundred years later, that swampland is now home to some of the wealthiest people in the world. I wonder which celebrities live in the area. Carl Fisher seems to have been a great visionary and it is sad that he didn’t see his dream fulfilled. His story is very intriguing in that he dropped out of school, but was so successful in life. In the end, maybe he forgot how to persevere.