Despite family financial strains and a disability, in the late 19th century he became a bicycle enthusiast and opened a modest bicycle shop with a brother. He became involved in bicycle racing, as well as many activities related to the emerging American auto industry. In 1904, Carl Fisher and his friend James A. Allison bought an interest in the U.S. patent to manufacture acetylene headlights, a precursor to electric models which became common about ten years later. Soon Fisher's firm supplied nearly every headlamp used on automobiles in the United States as manufacturing plants were built all over the country to supply the demand. The headlight patent made him rich as an automotive parts supplier when he and Allison sold their company, Prest-O-Lite, to Union Carbide in 1913 for $9 million (equivalent of approximately $220 million in 2016).
Fisher operated in Indianapolis what is believed to be the first automobile dealership in the United States, and also worked at developing an automobile racetrack locally. After being injured in stunts himself, and following a safety debacle at the new Indianapolis Motor Speedway, of which he was a principal, he helped develop paved racetracks and public roadways. Improvements he implemented at the speedway led to its nickname, "The Brickyard."
In 1912, Fisher conceived and helped develop the Lincoln Highway, the first road for the automobile across the entire United States of America. A convoy trip a few years later by the U.S. Army along Fisher's Lincoln Highway was a major influence upon then Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower years later in championing the Interstate Highway System during his presidency in the 1950s.
Carl Fisher followed the east-west Lincoln Highway in 1914 with the conception of the north-south Dixie Highway, which led from Michigan to Miami. Under his leadership, the initial portion was completed within a single year, and he led an automobile caravan to Florida from Indiana.
At the south end of the Dixie Highway in Miami, Florida, Fisher, with the assistance of his partners John Graham McKay and Thomas Walkling, became involved in the successful real estate development of the new resort city of Miami Beach, built on a largely unpopulated barrier island and reached by the new Collins Bridge across Biscayne Bay directly at the terminus of the Dixie Highway. Fisher was one of the best known and active promoters of the Florida land boom of the 1920s. By 1926, he was worth an estimated $100 million, and redirected his promotional efforts when the Florida real estate market bubble burst after 1925. His final major project, cut short by the Great Depression, was a "Miami Beach of the north" at Montauk, located at the eastern tip of Long Island, New York.
His fortune was lost in the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression in the United States which followed shortly thereafter. He found himself living in a small cottage in Miami Beach, doing minor work for old friends. Nevertheless, years after his fortune had been lost, at the end of his career, he took on one more project, albeit more modest than many of his past ventures, and built the famous Caribbean Club on Key Largo, intended as a "poor man's retreat."
Although he had lost his fortune and late in life considered himself a failure, Fisher is widely regarded as a decidedly successful man in the long view of his life. He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1971. In a 1998 study judged by a panel of 56 historians, writers, and others, Carl G. Fisher was named one of the Fifty Most Influential People in the history of the State of Florida by The Ledger newspaper. PBS labeled him "Mr. Miami Beach." Just south of Miami Beach, Fisher Island (which he once owned, and is named for him), became one of the wealthiest and most exclusive residential areas in the United States.
Carl Fisher was born in Greensburg, Indiana, nine years after the end of the American Civil War, the son of Albert H. and Ida Graham Fisher. Apparently suffering from alcoholism, a problem which would also plague Carl later in life, his father left the family when Fisher was a child. Suffering from severe astigmatism, it was difficult for Carl to pay attention in school, as uncorrected astigmatism can cause headaches or eyestrain, and blur vision at all distances. He quit school when he was twelve years old to help support his family.
For the next five years, Fisher held a number of jobs. He worked in a grocery and a bookstore, then later he sold newspapers, books, tobacco, candy, and other items on trains departing Indianapolis, a major railroad center not far from Greensburg. He opened a bicycle repair shop in 1891 with his two brothers. A successful entrepreneur, he expanded his business and became involved in bicycle racing and later, automobile racing. During his many promotional stunts, he was frequently injured on the dirt and gravel roadways, leading him to become one of the early developers of automotive safety features. A highly publicized stunt involved dropping a bicycle from the roof of the tallest building in Indianapolis, which brought on a confrontation with the police.
In 1909 Fisher married a young woman while he was engaged to another. Fisher's previous fiancée sued him for a breach of promise. Meanwhile, he and his new wife Jane went on a business trip for their honeymoon. The couple had one child in 1921, that died at one month old from Pyloric Stenosis. The couple were divorced in 1926.
In 1904, Carl Fisher was approached by the owner of a U.S. patent to manufacture acetylene headlights. Soon Fisher's firm supplied nearly every headlamp used on automobiles in the United States as manufacturing plants were built all over the country to supply the demand. The headlight patent made him rich as an automotive parts supplier and led to friendships with notable auto magnates. Fisher made millions when he and partner James A. Allison sold their Prest-O-Lite automobile headlamp business to Union Carbide.
Fisher also entered the business of selling automobiles, with his friend Barney Oldfield. The Fisher Automobile Company in Indianapolis is considered most likely the first automobile dealership in the United States. It carried multiple models of Oldsmobile, Reo, Packard, Stoddard-Dayton, Stutz, and others. Fisher staged an elaborate publicity stunt in which he attached a hot air balloon to a white Stoddard-Dayton automobile and flew the car over downtown Indianapolis. Thousands of people observed the spectacle and Fisher triumphantly drove back into town, becoming an instant media sensation. Unbeknownst to the public, the flying car had had its engine removed to lighten the load, and several identical cars were driven out to meet it, to allow Fisher to drive back into the city. Afterwards, he advertised, "The Stoddard-Dayton was the first automobile to fly over Indianapolis. It should be your first automobile too." Another stunt involved pushing a car off the roof of a building and then driving it away, to demonstrate its durability.
"Blossom Heath" was Fisher's estate in Indianapolis. Completed in 1913, it was built on Cold Spring Road between the estates of his two friends and Indianapolis Motor Speedway partners, James A. Allison and Frank H. Wheeler. The house included portions of an earlier house on the site and featured a 60-foot-long living room with a 6-foot-wide fireplace where logs burned all day. There were twelve bedrooms and a huge glass-enclosed sun porch. Fisher built a house for his mother on the southern part of the estate. The estate also included a five-car garage, an indoor swimming pool, a polo course, a stable, an indoor tennis court and gymnasium, a greenhouse, and extensive gardens. A newspaper article dated February 2, 1913, described the simple dignity of the house. Unlike some of his friends and neighbors, Fisher built a large but simple house decorated primarily in yellow, his favorite color. It did not contain exotic woodwork, elaborate carvings, or extensive decoration.
In 1928, after Fisher moved permanently to Miami Beach, the Fisher estate in Indianapolis was leased and later purchased by the Park School for Boys. The Fisher mansion was damaged by fire in the 1950s and the rear portion of the house was demolished and replaced with a classroom wing during 1956–57. The property was sold to Marian College in the 1960s and combined with two nearby estates into one 110-acre (0.45 km2) campus. Today none of Fisher's original buildings remain on the Marian College campus.
In 1909, Fisher joined a group of Indianapolis businessmen in a new project. He, Arthur C. Newby (president of National), Frank H. Wheeler (maker of the Wheeler-Schebler carburetor), and James A. Allison (partner in Prest-O-Lite) invested in what became Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which is now surrounded by the city of Indianapolis. The first automobile race in August 1909 ended in disaster. The loose rock track led to numerous crashes, fires, terrible injuries to race car drivers and spectators, and deaths. The race was halted and canceled when only halfway completed
Undeterred, Fisher convinced the investors to install 3.2 million paving bricks, leading to the famous nickname "the brickyard". (This persists, even though it has since been resurfaced.) The Speedway reopened and, on Memorial Day, May 30, 1911, 80,000 paying spectators at $1 admission (and many thousands more unpaid in overlooking buildings and trees) watched the 500-mile (800 kilometers) event, the first in a long line of races known as the Indianapolis 500.
In 1913, foreseeing the automobile's impact on American life, Carl Fisher conceived and was instrumental in the planning, development, and construction of the Lincoln Highway, the first road across America, which connected New York City to San Francisco. Fisher estimated the highway, an improved, hard-surfaced road stretching almost 3,400 miles (5,500 km), would cost ten million dollars. Fellow industrialists Frank Seiberling and Henry Bourne Joy helped Fisher with their promotional skills, together creating the Lincoln Highway Association. Much of the highway was paid for by contributions from automobile manufacturers and suppliers, a policy bitterly opposed by Henry Ford.
Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas A. Edison, both friends of Fisher, sent checks, as well as the current President Woodrow Wilson, who has been noted as the first U.S. President to make frequent-use of an automobile for what was described as stress-relief relaxation rides.
In 1919, as World War I was ending, the U.S. Army undertook its first transcontinental motor convoy along the Lincoln Highway. One of the young Army officers was Dwight David Eisenhower, then a Lt. Colonel, who credited the experience when supporting construction of the Interstate Highway System when he became President of the United States in 1952.
Carl Fisher next turned his attention to creating the Dixie Highway, a network of north-south routes extending from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to southern Florida, which he felt would provide an ideal way for residents of his home state to vacation in southern Florida. In September 1916, Fisher and Indiana Governor Samuel M. Ralston attended a celebration opening the roadway from Indianapolis to Miami.
The future City of Miami Beach became Fisher's next big project. On a vacation to Miami around 1910, he saw potential in the swampy, bug-infested stretch of land between Miami and the ocean, and in his mind transformed the 3,500 acres (14 km2) of mangrove swamp and beach into the perfect vacation destination for his automobile industry friends—he called it "Miami Beach". He and his wife bought a vacation home there in 1912 and he began acquiring land.
The Collins Bridge across Biscayne Bay between Miami and the barrier island that became Miami Beach was built by John S. Collins (1837–1928), an earlier farmer and developer originally from New Jersey. Collins, then 75 years old, had run out of money before he could complete his bridge. Fisher loaned him the money in trade for 200 acres (0.81 km2) of land. The new 2 1/2-mile (4 kilometers) wooden toll bridge opened on June 12, 1913.
The bridge replaced an old ferry service and connected Miami Beach and the mainland, providing a critical link between the established city of Miami and the new town. The Collins Bridge was awarded the title of being "longest wooden bridge in the world."
Fisher financed the dredging of Biscayne Bay to create its vast residential islands. He later built several landmark luxury hotels including the famous Flamingo Hotel and attracted the wealthy and celebrated to visit the community, several of whom took up permanent residence there.
Although a dedicated enthusiast of automobile travel, Fisher was aware that wealthy vacationers in those days often preferred to cross the long distances to southeastern Florida by railroad, a tradition begun by some families years earlier with Henry M. Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) and the resorts he established at places like St. Augustine and Palm Beach, and eventually Miami, the southern terminus of the FEC, where he built the famous Royal Palm Hotel.
In developing Miami Beach's potential for resort hotels, Fisher needed a transportation connection the 5 miles (8.0 km) from the FEC railroad station in Miami.
The solution he developed was the Miami Beach Railway, an electric street railway system which served the additional purpose of providing electric service. He and other investors formed the Miami Beach Electric Company and the Miami Beach Railway Co. It began service on December 14, 1920 and ran from downtown Miami, where it shared tracks with Miami's own trolley system, to the County Causeway (renamed MacArthur Causeway after World War II). After crossing Biscayne Bay to Miami Beach, the tracks looped around the section of Miami Beach south of 47th Street. Around 1926, Florida Power and Light acquired Fisher's streetcar system, and expanded it, double tracking the line across the causeway. However, while sale of electric service was a growth industry across the United States, the street railway portion went into a period of decline, along with the entire industry. All rail service between Miami and Miami Beach was terminated on October 17, 1939.
However, even with the new street railway connecting with the FEC, while wealthy people came to vacation, only a few were buying land or building homes. The U.S. public was apparently slow to catch on to the vacation land and homes Fisher envisioned for Florida. His investments in Miami Beach were not paying off, at least not until he again utilized his promotional skills which had worked so well years earlier in Indiana.
Ever the innovative promoter, Fisher seemed tireless in his efforts to draw attention to Miami Beach, a story recounted by PBS. Fisher had acquired a baby elephant named "Rosie" who was a favorite with newspaper photographers. In 1921, he got free publicity all across the country with what we would call today a promotional "photo-op" of Rosie serving as a 'golf caddy' for vacationing President-elect Warren Harding. Billboards of bathing beauties enjoying white beaches and blue ocean waters appeared around the country. Fisher even purchased a huge illuminated sign proclaiming "It's June in Miami" in Times Square.
During the Florida land boom of the 1920s, real estate sales took off as Americans discovered their automobiles and the paved Dixie Highway, which through no coincidence led to the foot of the Collins Bridge. There were less than 1,000 year-round residents of Miami Beach in 1920. In the next five years, the resident population of the Miami Beach area grew 440%. People from all over the country flocked to South Florida in hopes of getting rich buying and selling real estate. They sent home tales of riches being made when orange groves and swamp lands were subdivided, sold, and developed.
The art of the swap, which helped fund the Collins Bridge, was apparently the source of great satisfaction to Fisher. He had bought another 200 acres (0.81 km2) that now form Fisher Island from Dana A. Dorsey, South Florida's first African American millionaire, and had begun some development there in 1919. Five years later, in 1924, he traded seven acres of Fisher Island to William Kissam Vanderbilt II of the famous and wealthy Vanderbilt family, for the latter's 150-ft steam yacht "Eagle". Vanderbilt used the property, later expanded to thirteen acres, to create an enclave even more luxurious and exclusive than many of Miami Beach's finest.
By 1926, Fisher was worth an estimated $100 million, and could have been financially secure for life. However, he was always known for moving from project to project, and success had never stopped him from attempting something new. In her 1947 book, his ex-wife Jane Watts Fisher quoted him as replying, when she had hoped that he would slow down at some point, "I don't have time to take time." Instead, he redirected his promotional efforts to yet another new project far to the north.
In 1926, Fisher began working on a "Miami Beach of the north". His project at Montauk at the eastern tip of Long Island in New York was to provide a warm season counterpart to the Florida development. He and four associates purchased 9,000 acres (36 km2) and built a luxurious hotel, office building, marina, and attractions. The project built roads, planted nurseries, laid water pipes and built houses. He built Montauk Manor, which still exists as a luxury resort today (pictured at right). He also built the Montauk Tennis Auditorium.
However, after the real estate boom became a land "bust" in Florida around 1925, followed by a devastating hurricane in September 1926 which wiped out much of Miami Beach, tourism dropped off severely and Fisher's investments there were hit hard. His financing for the Montauk venture was dependent upon income from the Miami properties. Then, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 struck, followed by the Great Depression. The Montauk "Miami Beach of the north" project went into receivership in 1932.
The losses in his real estate ventures and the Crash of 1929 left Fisher virtually penniless. Always a man whose lifeblood seemed to be new dreams and projects, by the mid-1930s, he was living in a small cottage on Miami Beach and received a US$500 per month salary from his former partners to do promotional work. US$500 in 1935 had the same buying power as $8,567.20 in 2013.
Shortly before his death, as what turned out to be his last project, Fisher developed and built Key Largo's Caribbean Club, a fishing club for men of modest means, "a poor man's retreat." Ever the promoter, Fisher would probably have appreciated the value of the publicity as, about 8 years after his death, the Caribbean Club became famous as the filming site for the 1947 film "Key Largo" starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Almost 60 years later, in 2007, filled with Bogart memorabilia, it is still in business as a tourist attraction.
Carl G. Fisher died July 15, 1939 at age 65 of a stomach hemorrhage in a Miami Beach hospital, following a lengthy illness compounded by alcoholism. His pall bearers included Barney Oldfield, William Vanderbilt, and Gar Wood. He was interred at the family mausoleum at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.
Will Rogers remembered Fisher as a Florida pioneer with these words:
Fisher was the first man to discover that there was sand under the water...[sand] that could hold up a real estate sign. He made the dredge the national emblem of Florida.
Howard Kleinburg, an author and Miami Beach historian described Fisher:
If you look at Fisher's entire life, it's a marathon. It's a race. It was a race to achieve the top of whatever field he was in at the time. Everything he did he went into it with his heart, his soul, his money, and he would not stop until he reached the end. He wanted to be there the quickest and first...
In 1947, Jane Fisher, his ex-wife (who married him in 1909 and was divorced in 1926), wrote a book about his life. Fabulous Hoosier was published by R.M. McBride and Co. She wrote:
He was all speed. I don't believe he ever thought in terms of money. He made millions, but they were incidental. He often said, "I just like to see the dirt fly."
In 1971, Carl Graham Fisher was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, and in 1998, PBS produced a program about Fisher titled Mr. Miami Beach as a part of the American Experience series.
Carl Fisher's legacies include promotion and distribution of an early form of headlights for motor vehicles in the U.S. auto industry, his early automobile dealership, the Indianapolis 500, and a national system of paved highways in the United States which followed the trends established by the National Auto Trails and the transcontinental east-west Lincoln Highway and the north-south Dixie Highway. He has also a school in Speedway, Indiana named for him titled Carl G. Fisher Elementary School.
In modern times, Montauk, with the huge Tudor-style hotel he built now a hotel-condominium project, remains a small but popular tourist destination. The Miami Beach area has some of the most valuable real estate in the world, home of the revitalized South Beach area with its restored art deco buildings and Fisher Island at the southern tip. And, at Speedway, Indiana, just outside Indianapolis, each Memorial Day, the race cars still pound the famed "brickyard" at the Indianapolis 500.
Fisher was named to the List of Great Floridians.