Carl Graham Fisher and the Lincoln Highway

In my 2009 book, "Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry", I wrote the following:

In 1915, a real-estate developer stood on the corner of Lincoln Road and Washington Avenue, watched the jungle of mangrove trees being chopped down and said, "Gentlemen, Lincoln Road will become one of the most beautiful shopping areas in the world."

That developer was Carl Graham Fisher, and the legacy of his accomplishments lives on to this very day, as indicated by the following list of developments and projects that he envisioned and then created.

  • Miami Beach
  • Fisher Island
  • Montauk, Long Island
  • The Indianapolis Speedway was built by Fisher, and the Indianapolis 500 is regarded by many as the world's premier automobile-racing event
  • The Lincoln and Dixie highways. Fisher raised private funds for these two road projects, which were forerunners of the U.S. Interstate Highway System.

On July 7, 2013, the New York Times reported on the remnants of the Lincoln Highway, "Cross-Country, by a Road Less Traveled" by Rebecca Flint Marx:

"Hidden amid the flash of 42nd Street in Manhattan, like a tarnished penny on the floor of a nightclub, is a small brown sign bearing the words "Lincoln Highway." To those who notice it at all, it's a random curiosity, a beacon without context. It betrays no indication that it points the way to a road that once stretched across the continent, one that traced the trails forged by early pioneers and augured the future of car travel in this country....When it was born a century ago this year, it became the country's first transcontinental automobile highway, stretching across 13 states from Times Square to Lincoln Park in San Francisco."

My book describes how Fisher was able to raise money to construct the Lincoln Highway:

Fisher next turned his restless energy to a problem that had plagued the automobile industry for years, namely, bad roads. Driving an automobile in those days was a real adventure as motorists not only had to deal with inadequate roads but also a lack of directional signs. Drake Hokanson, in his history of the Lincoln Highway, pointed out that the 180,000 registered motor vehicles in the United States in 1910 had only 2.5 million miles of road to drive on (with only 7 percent of those miles improved in any manner).

"The highways of America," Fisher wrote his writer friend Elbert Hubbard, "are built chiefly of politics, whereas the proper material is crushed rock or concrete." Fisher met the road problem like he did any other problem- head on. At a September 1912 dinner party for automobile manufacturers at the Deutsches Haus in Indianapolis, Fisher unveiled his plan for a highway spanning the country from New York City to California, "A road across the United States! Let's build it before we're too old to enjoy it!" Fisher urged the auto executives. His idea was to build a coast-to-coast highway in time for the May 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Fisher estimated that a transcontinental highway would cost $10 million, and he sought pledges from the automobile executives present at the dinner. Just 30 minutes after his talk, Fisher received $300,000 from Frank A. Seiberling, of the Goodyear Company, who pledged the amount even without first checking with his board of directors.

A few months after the Indianapolis dinner, Fisher received a letter from Henry Joy, Packard Motor Company president, pledging $150,000 for the proposed roadway. Joy, a leading force behind getting the coast-to-coast highway built, suggested that the road be named for Abraham Lincoln. On July 1, 1913, the Lincoln Highway Association was created with Joy as president and Fisher as vice president. The association's goal was to:

...procure the establishment of a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to lawful traffic of all description without toll charges: such highway to be known in memory of Abraham Lincoln, as "The Lincoln Highway."

Fisher, as he had for his other ventures, employed a direct method for raising money. He wrote one Lincoln Highway Association official that it was easy to get contributions from people. "You should first give them a good dinner, then a good cussing, whenever you want money," Fisher explained. Although this technique worked with most people, it did not work with one of America's leading automobile manufacturers- Henry Ford. Despite help from U.S. Senator Albert Beveridge, Thomas Edison, and Hubbard, all close Ford friends, and a personal appeal from Fisher, Ford refused to give any financial assistance to the Lincoln Highway. He declared it was the government's responsibility, not industrialists, to build better roads. The association announced the Lincoln Highway's intended route at the annual governors' conference in Colorado in late August 1913. The planned route ran for 3,389 miles, from Times Square in New York to Lincoln Park in San Francisco and passed through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. As work progressed on the first U.S. transcontinental highway, Fisher turned his sights elsewhere, especially to improving a jungle of swamps to be known as Miami Beach.

Carl Graham Fisher was a developer extraordinaire. He built four spectacular hotels in Miami Beach (Flamingo, Nautilus, King Cole, Boulevard) and one in eastern Long Island (Montauk Manor).

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