By Ken Zurski
Carl G. Fisher was a bicycle enthusiast. He built them, he raced them, he even delicately guided one across a tightrope just to prove there versatility. He was nicknamed “Cripple,” or “Crip” for short, because his friends thought he was destined to suffer a permanent injury. As one worrisome acquaintance described: “He frequently, in bursts of speed, took spills and ended up with many bruises and cuts.”
Undeterred, after dusting off, Fisher would try it again.
That was his style.
Born in Greensburg, Indiana in 1874, as a young boy Fisher moved to Indianapolis with his mother after his parents separated. Due to a severe case of astigmatism, he dropped out of school early and worked odd jobs, like a grocery store clerk, to support his family. At age 17, along with his two brothers, Fisher opened a bicycle shop.
With the advent of the automobile, Fisher saw another business opportunity. “I don’t see why an automobile can’t be made to do anything a bicycle can do,” he told a friend. In 1904, Fisher converted his bicycle business into an automobile repair shop. To promote his new venture, he asked a crowd to gather at a downtown Indianapolis building. He then pushed a vehicle off the roof. The vehicle landed on its tires, still upright. The crowd roared its approval. It was showy and effective, similar in style to a more famously known promotional trickster named P.T. Barnum. Fisher later admitted he deflated the tires so the car wouldn’t bounce.
Despite his knack for self-promotion, Fisher had more serious concerns about the newfangled motor vehicle. First was being able to drive it safely in the dark. He invented a headlight that used compressed gas to light the way. It was a revolutionary idea. Soon, the Fisher-patented lights were being manufactured in plants throughout the Midwest. The process however was not safe for workers. The chemical tanks kept blowing up. “Omaha left at four-thirty,” one wire read announcing the unfortunate closing of another plant. The tanks were eventually lined with asbestos and the blasts stopped. The headlights became the standard and Fisher in turn became a very wealthy man.
With money and power in his hands, Fisher took to the automobile like he did the bicycle – with deering-do. He raced a modified Mohawk on small tracks at fairgrounds in Indiana mostly built with wooden boards. But Fisher wanted more. He wanted more speed. more thrills and more excitement. Inspired by European tracks that had long straightaways and sweeping curves, Fisher suggested a proving ground track in Indianapolis would be beneficial to the automobile industry as a whole, testing the limits of engines and body styles. Plus, the racing would be a hoot too.
He and other local financiers put up $250,000 in capital to build the track, a two-and a half mile oval, that became known as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. On Aug 9 1909, the first car races took place. It was a disaster. Six drivers were killed along with two spectators. The race was scheduled for 300 miles, but Fisher mercifully stopped it at 235 miles. The drivers and their machines, Fisher explained, were not the issue. The problem was the track, made of crushed stone, was too rough. The frequent tire blow outs led to disastrous and deadly results. Fisher had to make a change.
He recommended they pave the tracks with bricks instead. But it was costly. So he convinced his investors to help pay for it. Over 3-million bricks were laid. On Memorial Day 1911, the first 500-mile race was run. Driver Ray Harroun in a vehicle named “Wasp” won the inaugural contest with an average speed of just over 74 mph. “There were but four tire changes,” the winning vehicle’s manufacturer boasted the next day. “Three of the original tires finished the race.” The bricks, they subtlety implied, made the difference.
The track later picked up the moniker, “Brickyard.”
Fisher didn’t stop with improvements to racetracks however. He felt everyday drivers were being shortchanged by the lack of public roadways. At the time, most roads were just dirt paths and few went long distances. In 1912, at a dinner party for automobile manufacturers, Fisher unveiled an ambitious plan to build a highway that would span the country, from New York to California. He urged the auto executives to come aboard. Within 30-minutes, he had hundreds of thousands of dollars in support.
Ironically, the one man who refused to contribute was an automobile pioneer from Detroit who thought the automakers should stick to making automobiles, not roads. The government, he explained, should be responsible for that.
His name was Henry Ford.
Thanks to Fisher’s persistence, however, Lincoln Highway (today it’s portions are more formally aligned with the coast-to-coast Interstate 80), became the first transcontinental highway for motor vehicles.
But Fisher’s testament, such as it is, lie in the bricks. Still a fixture at the track’s finish line.
On July 9, 1918, near Nashville, Tennessee, in an area known as Dutchman’s curve, two trains collided head-on creating such a frightful noise that many claimed it could be “heard for miles.”
It was 7:00 on a warm summer morning and both trains on the Nashville, Chattanooga & St Louis line were running late.
The westbound or outbound passenger train to Memphis had just pulled out of Nashville’s Union Station packed with passengers. The eastbound train was heading inbound to the Nashville station from Memphis. Both veteran engineers had orders. The inbound train had the right of way on the curve’s one-way track. The outbound train would have to wait at the double-tracks just outside of the station for the other train to pass. But something went horribly wrong. A green light was given to the outbound train to proceed, meaning someone had seen or heard the incoming train pass. But when the tower operator checked his papers, there was no record of the Nashville-bound train coming through.
In reality, the inbound train was running nearly 35 minutes behind schedule.
The operator frantically telegraphed the dispatcher who immediately sent an urgent message back. “Stop him” was his order. But how? At the time, there was no direct communication with the engineers in either train. Only a warning whistle was used for emergencies. The whistle blared, but the outbound train was too far along for anyone to hear it. By this time, the inbound train was chugging to the curve.
Both trains were moving at top speeds of 60 mph. Then a moment of sheer terror. The engineer of the outbound train caught a glimpse of the other train coming around the bend, directly in his path. He pulled the emergency brake, but there wasn’t enough time. Then that sound that could be heard for miles. “The ground quaked and the waters of nearby Richland Creek trembled,” one writer later described. “The wooden cars crumbled and hurled sideways, hanging over the embankment. One train telescoped the other.”
In all, 101 people were killed, mostly traveling soldiers and African-American laborers from Tennessee and Arkansas. Many were leaving or returning to work at a munitions plant in the Nashville area.
Besides what went wrong, there was more scrutiny.
After only a few days of front page news, the press was accused of being mostly dismissive. Perhaps it was due to the number of war stories that filled the papers at the time. But some believe the wreck itself, while tragic, just wasn’t exploitative enough. Most of the dead were minority migrants and laborers. Many were killed beyond recognition. Basically, it just wasn’t as easily sensationalized as other disasters at the time, like the wrecks involving circus trains…or the fate of a fun-filled chartered steamboat.
Four days before the Nashville train wreck another tragedy hit the papers that shook a nation. On July 5, a wooden steamboat named the Columbia collapsed and sank in middle of the Illinois River near Peoria, Illinois. The 87 dead were mostly women and children enjoying a holiday cruise to a local amusement park. The survivor stories that followed were stark and dramatic. “The only thing that kept me afloat,” one woman passenger reported, “were the bodies beneath me.”
The investigation that followed the train wreck, cited human error, specifically blaming the man who could not defend himself, the engineer of the outbound train, David Kennedy. Only speculation supports the theory that Kennedy mistook a switch engine hauling empty cars for the inbound train. Kennedy was killed instantly in the wreck. A folded “schedule” was reportedly found underneath his body.
The other engineer William Floyd was also killed. He was one day from retirement.
The Nashville wreck to this day is still the deadliest train accident in the history of the U.S.