Carl Graham Fisher, bicyclist and good roads pioneer

May 3, 2012

Big Roads, by Earl Swift (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

During my years as a cyclist in Indiana, I prized a republished, large-format atlas of the state’s road system as it existed in 1868. With a yellow highlighter, I gradually marked the roads still existing a century later when I cycled over them for the first time. Over the years, many miles of Indiana’s old roads turned yellow. When we moved from the state in 1995, I gave the atlas to my neighbors who had joined me on some of those miles.

In the Atlas, these roads are solid black lines, which suggest a sturdiness that they, in fact, did not possess. This is Earl Swift’s description of roads in the late 1800s (reported in his book The Big Roads):

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.

These were the roads which Carl Graham Fisher, born in Greensburg, Indiana, in 1874, encountered in his growing up years. At the age of twelve and living in Indianapolis, Carl quit school and went to work. Five years later, using money he’d saved up in that short time, he opened a shop to repair bicycles—both the high-wheel ordinaries that were on their way out and the new-fangled safety bikes that would soon dominate the trade.

Swift describes Fisher’s daredevil showmanship and aggressive entrepreneurial methods. “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.”

This sixth-grade dropout, as Swift describes him, decided that he would have the biggest bike shop in town and persuaded a bike maker from Columbus, Ohio, to bankroll him $50,000 to establish it. Fisher became the central figure in the “city’s cycling fraternity.”

In 1880, early in the bicycle craze, a national organization for cyclists had been organized with the name The League of American Wheelmen and by the time Fisher opened his big store it had enrolled 100,000 members. In 1892, the League established a magazine entitled Good Roads which, says Swift, became a national advocate for improving traveling conditions. The Good Roads Movement which resulted was so strong that politicians could not ignore it.

In 1893, a national Office of Road Inquiry was opened under the leadership of General Roy Stone. The transformation of America’s roads began to move forward.

Meantime, Carl Fisher had to figure out new ways to keep busy. His interests moved in two directions: the quarter-mile wooden oval for bike racing that his friend Arthur Newby built north of downtown Indianapolis and “carriages and bikes fitted with lightweight gasoline engines.”

In 1900, Fisher and his bike-racing buddy Barney Oldfield visited the nation’s first auto show in New York. Soon after returning home, he closed his bike shop and opened one of the nation’s first car dealerships, the Fisher Auto Company.

All of the reasons why cyclists wanted good roads were also important to motorists. Despite the widespread interest, however, progress was slow, partly because the federal government was doing little and, as Swift writes, the real work was left to the states.

Fisher’s comment: “The highways of America are built chiefly of politics, whereas the proper material is crushed rock or cement.” He was convinced that industry had to take the lead.

So 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 (31).

Fundamental decisions were still to be made–about government and industry; local, state, and federal responsibilities; routes; nearly every aspect of roadway design and construction. Fisher’s interest moved past roads to other, grander projects: Prest-O-Lite lighting systems for automobiles, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the east-west Lincoln Highway and the north-south Dixie Highway, and the development of Miami Beach.

My regard for Carl Graham Fisher, however, remains focused on his initial contribution to cycling and good roads–some of which have become prized routes for modern-day cyclists like me. Although Earl Swift portrays many other heroes in the history of American roads, Carl Graham Fisher, the kid from Greensburg, Indiana, is my favorite.

Note: A variant of Fisher’s story, also written by Earl Swift, can be read at this link. The portrait of Fisher is from the Library of Congress and appears frequently.