Kim Hayden shared the March/April 2019 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. There’s an excellent article about Carl Fisher and his part in establishing the interstate system across America. Fisher was born in Greensburg Jan. 12, 1874. Joe Westhafer gave a program about it several years ago and said Fisher lived here until he was 12 years old.
The Post article “Driving Into the Future,” written by Richard Ratay, began: “Like Stonehenge, the pyramids of Giza, and Mick Jagger, the U.S. Interstate highway system is one of those marvels that seems to have been around forever. The reality is quite the contrary. In fact, most superhighways are scarcely more than 50 years old.”
Ratay tells how America was ready to travel long distance by car, but there were no system of roads and highways. “All that was needed was someone to help pave the way,” he wrote. “That person was Carl Fisher of Indianapolis...” He tells of Fisher’s early life, a poor student (bad eyesight), and that he learned how to sell about anything by “hawking” newspapers, tobacco and candy.
Fisher became involved in the “bicycling wave.” When he was 17 he and his two brothers opened a bicycle shop. Realizing that automobiles were becoming more popular than bicycles, he purchased a French-made 2.5 horsepower DeDion Bouton and turned his bicycle shop into an automobile dealership.
Fisher showed Indianapolis the durability of automobiles by pushing a seven-passenger car off the top of a tall city building. When the car came to rest on the street below, Fisher’s brother hopped in the car and drove off. But, wrote the author, “considering Fisher’s flair for showmanship, it’s likely some chicanery and an identical car was involved.”
Ratay tells of Fisher’s founding of Prest-O-Lite and investing in what would become the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But the 1909 debut race had a tragic outcome when the loose gravel and tar crumbled under the stress of the cars’ maneuvering. Large chunks of rock hurled in every direction, dozens of onlookers were injured and six people, including two drivers, were killed. So, the track was repaved with 3.2 million 10-pound brick, improving safety for drivers and spectators, and the Speedway became known as The Brickyard.
As the auto industry grew and the headlamps he manufactured used more and more, Fisher knew automobile owners wanted to drive way beyond the limits they then had. That’s when he conceived his the idea of a paved highway spanning the country from coast to coast. In 1912, he called together some wealthy friends for a dinner party in Indianapolis to pitch the idea. Goodyear’s owner wrote a check for $300,000 that night, others pledged support and he received checks from friends Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Henry Ford did not help because he believed the government should be responsible for building better roads. Packard Motor Company’s president sent Fisher a check for $150,000 and requested the highway be named for a man both he and Fisher regarded as a hero. So the project was called “The Lincoln Highway.” However, later that month Fisher had collected only $1 million toward his $10 million goal.
Fisher, as usual, had a plan. When motorists drove the route he was sure they would compare the paved road to the unimproved sections and they would lobby the local officials to finish the dirt roads. He guessed right again in areas where taxpayers lived, but in areas where few people lived there would be few funds for paving the roads.
The highway was “3,389 miles long and crossed the Mississippi at Clinton, Iowa, folded in sections of the Mormon Trail and snaked up and over the Sierra Nevada at the Donner Pass before ending at San Francisco.” The Boy Scouts even got involved by posting signs bearing the Lincoln Highway emblem through the forests, across the plains and up steep mountainsides.
The article tells that The Great Depression couldn’t stop the road construction started by Fisher. President F. D. Roosevelt saw that building roads would put Americans back to work and it did. FDR and Congress put $1 billion into road projects between 1933 and 1938.
Fisher died of a gastric hemorrhage on July 15, 1939, at age 65. His epitaph in the “Miami Daily News” read: “Carl G. Fisher, who looked at a piece of swampland and visualized the nation’s greatest winter playground, died ... in the city of his fulfilled dreams.”
Oh yes, he also saw the possibilities for Miami Beach.
Thanks to Kim Hayden for the Post.
Decatur County resident Pat Smith may be contacted via this publication at firstname.lastname@example.org.