There are many individuals who deserve credit for the modern American interstate (who aren't named Dwight Eisenhower), but Carl Fisher might be the most entertaining. Excerpted from Earl Swift's "The Big Roads," here's the story of the man who helped bring us stunt advertising, the Indy 500, car headlights, and the modern highway. - Ed.
At nearly 47,000 miles long and at least four lanes wide, the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, as it's formally known, is the greatest public works project in history, dwarfing Egypt's pyramids, the Panama Canal and China's Great Wall. Its construction saw forests felled, mountains leveled, and rivers bridged, tunneled or picked up and moved, and it incorporates nearly three hundred million cubic yards of concrete, enough to fill sixty-four Louisiana Superdomes to the rafters.
It has its problems. It is so big, and its components so expensive, that maintaining the beast has become a real quandary. It represents a spectacular investment in a mode of transport that will wither without new fuel sources. It is clogged with rush-hour traffic that approaches the tie-ups it was intended, in part, to ease. And it has been blamed, and rightly, for a pox of unforeseen consequences: for hastening the messy sprawl of U.S. cities, carving up neighborhoods, gutting a thousand small-town shopping districts, and fostering an interchange glut of motels and fast-food joints as predictable as the roads themselves.
And despite their official name, they didn't spring, fully formed or otherwise, from Ike or his lieutenants: by the time Eisenhower signed the bill that financed the system, in June 1956, most of its physical details were old news. Its routing had been committed to paper for eighteen years. The specifics of its design had been decided for twelve. Franklin Roosevelt had a greater hand in its creation than Eisenhower did, truth be told, and the system's origins go back much farther than him.
Its true parents were career technocrats, anonymous outside their fields.
If it were to bear the name of the man most responsible for its existence, it would be called the Thomas H. MacDonald System of Interstate and Defense Highways, MacDonald being the man who, with his staff, conceived of the network and proposed its construction before World War II.
But to begin at the beginning, one must go even further back than MacDonald—back to the dawn of the motor age, when America's cross-country roads, where they existed at all, were no more than rutted cart paths.
Back to a horse-drawn America, and a guy whose push for interstate highways began on a bicycle.
Out Of The Mud
It started with mud, and manure, and Carl Graham Fisher.
Today, that name is virtually unknown outside of a couple of far-flung American cities, and it's not well-known in those; but a century ago, Fisher was a regular in the sports and business pages of newspapers from coast to coast, and for a spell before World War I, close to a household name.
Trace today's interstate highways back to their earliest incarnation, and there stands Fisher, pushing the idea while Dwight Eisenhower was still at West Point, a full forty years before he gained the White House.
When Fisher was born in Greensburg, Indiana, in 1874, the automobile's American debut was still two decades away. Overland travel was the province of the train: Look at any map of Indiana from the period—or any other state, for that matter—and you'll see tangles of thick black lines converging on the major cities; smaller settlements are reduced to dots on those lines, indistinguishable from those marking their neighbors, the size and character of each less important than its status as a station stop. Most of the old maps don't depict a single road.
They were there, but in hardly the form we think of them. The routes out of most any town in America were "wholly unclassable, almost impassable, scarcely jackassable," as folks said then—especially when spring and fall rains transformed the simple dirt tracks into a heavy muck, more glue than earth. In Indiana, as elsewhere, people braved them to the train and back, or to roll their harvest from their farms to the nearest grain elevator. For any trip beyond that, they went by rail.
Such was the world into which Carl Fisher arrived.
Choosing a line of work came easy, because for a couple of years, Fisher had been caught up in a national craze for bicycles. The streets of Indianapolis, like those of every major city in the country, were busy with "safeties," the forerunners of modern beach cruisers, and with older, far more dangerous "ordinaries," which had enormous front wheels and tiny rear, and saddles perched as high as five feet off the ground. Fisher opened a shop to fix both.
He advertised the business by spending a lot of time on an ordinary himself, and developing a reputation as borderline crazy. He'd always been an athletic, daring kid, handy at walking tightropes, able to sprint backwards faster than friends could do it face-on, and enthralled by speed, especially by the hell-for-leather, white-knuckle speed of an ordinary, which was essentially brakeless: on steep downhills, the best a rider could do was brace his feet on the handlebars, so that if he crashed, which seemed a good bet — the bikes stopped cold, with calamitous results, if that big front wheel encountered an obstacle — he'd at least go flying rightside-up.
He built a bike so big he had to mount it from a second-floor window, then rode it through the city's streets. Indianapolis ate it up. He announced he'd ride a bike across a tightrope strung between a pair of downtown high-rises, and against all reason actually did it while a crowd watched, breathless, from twelve stories below.
Now a minor celebrity, Fisher put out word that he'd throw a bike off the roof of a downtown building, and award a new machine to whomever dragged the wreckage to his shop. This time the police tried to stop him, planting sentries outside the building the morning of the stunt. They were no match for the budding showman: Fisher was already inside, and at the appointed hour, tossed the bike, then escaped down a back staircase. When the cops showed up at his shop, a telephone call came in. It was Fisher, with word that he was waiting at the precinct house.
A spin on even a safety bike was likely to be a jarring experience in the 1890s, when city streets were paved, assuming they were paved at all, with cobblestone, brick or uneven granite block, and snarled with carts, buggies and horsemen. Outside the business districts, roads dwindled to little more than wagon ruts. In suburban Indianapolis, as out in the sticks, a sprinkling of rain could turn them to bogs; their mud lay deep and loose, could suck the boots off a farmer's feet, prompted travelers to quit the established path for the open fields. Some swallowed horses to their flanks; the unfortunate buggy that ventured down such a muddy lane soon flailed past its axles in the ooze. Even on hard-packed roads, mud formed dark rooster tails behind surreys, spattered long skirts, caked shoes. American business was conducted in mud-soiled suits, as were law, medicine, and church services.
Cyclists thus found their hobby not as pleasant as it could be, to say the least, and the League of American Wheelmen committed to doing something about it. A year after Fisher opened his store, the league launched a magazine, Good Roads, that became an influential mouthpiece for road improvement. Its articles were widely reprinted, which attracted members who didn't even own bikes; at the group's peak, Fisher and more than 102,000 others were on the rolls, and the Good Roads Movement was too big for politicians to ignore.
Yes, the demand for roads was pedal-powered, and a national cause even before the first practical American car rolled out of a Chicopee, Massachusetts, shop in 1893. A few months ahead of the Duryea Motor Wagon's debut, Congress authorized the secretary of agriculture to "make inquiry regarding public roads" and to investigate how they might be improved.
Throughout America, bicycle builders and wagon factories were experimenting with self-propulsion by steam, electricity, small engines. Two years later, in January 1900, Fisher and his old bike-racing buddy, Barney Oldfield, visited the nation's first auto show at New York's old Madison Square Garden. The experience changed both of them. Oldfield would become America's first car-racing star, and such a celebrity that his name was part of the lexicon for a full quarter-century: A cop's standard greeting to speeding motorists in the teens and twenties was, "Who do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?"
As for Fisher, he returned to Indianapolis with a new business model. He closed the bike shop and opened the Fisher Auto Company, among the nation's first car dealerships.
In 1900, eight thousand machines were registered in the United States. In 1903, the count had quadrupled, to nearly 33,000, and more than doubled again over the next two years. With cars practically selling themselves, the Fisher Auto Company's owner was not long content to simply move product. Early in the new century, he, Oldfield and their old barnstorming partner, Arthur C. Newby, took up auto racing, and toured county fairs much as they had on bikes.
Failing eyesight be damned, Fisher won races throughout the Midwest and the Ohio valley. In the summer of 1903, when Oldfield achieved the long-sought grail of covering a mile in a minute, Fisher wasn't far behind; he posted speeds in the mid-fifties, and reputedly set a world's record for two miles from a running start at a track outside Chicago—two minutes and two seconds. Horseless Age numbered him among "the best-known track racers" in 1904.
In 1904, an inventor named Percy C. Avery approached him for backing on a project he couldn't bring to market himself. Until then, automotive headlights had been lifted, unchanged, from horse-drawn carriages—they relied on kerosene or candles, which blew out at any speed above a horse's trot.
That September he, Avery and one of Fisher's old cycling friends, James Allison, incorporated as the Concentrated Acetylene Company, better known as Prest-O-Lite, and started making the first practical headlight.
It was revolutionary. The driver turned a valve to start the gas flow, turned it off to kill the lights, and when the tank ran low turned it in for a refill. Prest-O-Lite became original equipment on many American makes, beginning with the 1904 Packard; photos of just about any high-end car taken between 1905 and, say, 1913, depict a tank on the running board. Fisher and Allison became rich beyond their dreams.
Even as Carl Fisher sold increasingly sophisticated cars capable of ever-greater speeds, a good road to drive them on remained hard to find. America's principal overland routes were descended from prehistory—they'd started as game trails, had been commandeered by Indian hunting parties, and later widened into wagon roads by white settlers. Over decades of use, they'd been cleared of stumps—at least the big ones—but much of their engineering remained the work of buffalo and elk.
Carl Fisher had grown rich by recognizing trends ahead of the next guy, and though he was now enjoying a full-on boom in auto sales, it was plain that it couldn't last: The industry would achieve its full potential only if the country's sad road situation were fixed—and only if, in the meantime, cars improved to better navigate roads as they were.
Every year, America's more than 250 automakers achieved new advances in safety and practicality—their products were sturdier, faster-stopping, more reliably free of catastrophic flaw. But they didn't measure up to their European kin, a fact underscored whenever they raced. Fisher came away from one such contest with the seed of an idea, that what the country needed was a big, high-speed proving ground where new cars and ideas could be put through their paces, a place where reliability, speed and strength could be tested. "It seems to me," he wrote to Motor Age magazine, that "a five-mile track, properly laid out, without fences to endanger drivers, with proper grandstands, supply stores for gasoline and oil, and other accommodations would net for one meet. . .a sufficient amount to pay half of the entire cost of the track." He was convinced, too, that Indianapolis, which at the time vied with Detroit as an automotive center, was a logical place for it.
In the fall of 1908, he bought a farm northwest of the city, and the following February incorporated the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company with James Allison and two other old friends: Arthur Newby, his bike and car barnstorming partner, who'd gone on to create the National brand of motor car; and Frank H. Wheeler, the head of a carburetor company. A three-day extravaganza of auto racing loomed, and as the arriving competitors started to practice — among them Oldfield and Louis Chevrolet, a Frenchman who'd soon lend his name to a division of just-created General Motors—the track's asphalt lost its tenuous grip on the gravel beneath. Deep gouges opened in the turns. Tires kicked up clouds of dust and stone. By the first day of auto racing at America's first speedway—Thursday, August 19, 1909—the track was wildly dangerous, its surface shredded, the air filled with shrapnel. Just past halfway in a 250-mile race, Chevrolet caught a rock in his goggles that sent glass into his eye, and had to be walked to the hospital. Minutes later, the car carrying Wilfred Bourque and his mechanician, Harry Holcomb, veered off the track, nosed into a ditch and flipped, slinging Holcomb into a fence post that "laid bare his brain," as the Times put it, and trapping Bourque beneath his machine. "The accident was witnessed by nearly 10,000 persons," the newspaper reported, "and women fainted and the faces of men blanched as they saw the car leave the track and turn over upon the daring occupants, crushing out their lives."
The American Automobile Association, which sanctioned early races, threatened to withdraw if the track wasn't overhauled by the next day.
Word reached Fisher that the AAA was thinking about washing its hands of the speedway for good. He persuaded Newby to underwrite paving the entire track with ten-pound bricks, then went to the papers. "We are ready to spend $100,000 or more, if necessary, to make the speedway safe for spectators as well as drivers," he announced. "When the job is completed, we definitely will have the world's finest and safest race course; and I'm sure everyone connected with racing will want to return to Indianapolis at the earliest opportunity."
Crews laid down 3.2 million bricks over the next two months. Turns were rimmed with concrete walls. The Brickyard was born. The first Indianapolis 500 took place two springs later, and eighty thousand fans showed up. Carl Fisher drove the pace car.
It may seem counterintuitive, but part of the motor car's appeal came down to money. While buggies might be cheaper to buy, their drive trains were mighty expensive to maintain: Horses required stabling, feed, and health care, which nationally amounted to $2 billion a year, or as much as it cost to maintain all of America's railroads. Feeding the typical horse consumed five acres of tillable land per annum; devoted to food for people, the nation's feed-producing cropland could support millions.
City and country alike were changing to accommodate the new technology—filling stations now dotted the roadside by the thousands—except in a key respect: the roads themselves. "Hard roads, smooth roads, and, above all, lasting roads," the Times reported, "are now the cry from every section of the country."
No one cried louder than Fisher. He had little faith that government would fill the need; the feds were building scattered demonstration roads, but left the real work to states and localities, most of which, it seemed to him, didn't know what they were doing. "The highways of America are built chiefly of politics," he wrote to a friend, "whereas the proper material is crushed rock or concrete."
It was up to the industry to get things started, to provide an example of what could be accomplished with imagination and will, to inspire others. So it was that in the late summer of 1912, Carl Fisher began talking up a new project, a transcontinental highway, a rock road stretching across a dozen states or more, from New York to California. A highway built to a standard unseen in the United States—dry, smooth, safe, not just passable but comfortable in the rainy seasons. A road built for the automobile. For the future.
This story originally appeared in "The Big Roads" by Earl Swift and was republished with permission of the author and publisher.
Photos Credit: Library of Congress, AP, Getty