The history of modern Montauk is intimately interwoven with the impressive figure of one Carl Graham Fisher. In 1925, Fisher purchased the entire peninsula of Montauk - over 10,000 acres in total - to develop as a grand resort. Much of what makes up today's Montauk - it's roads, churches, downtown village, harbor area, golf course, and dozens of commercial buildings and homes, were built by Fisher during a whirlwind of development from 1926 - 32. If it weren't for his considerable vision and investment, Montauk would be a far different place today, then it is. His story is unique, his impact profound.
THE EARLY YEARS
Carl Fisher was one of America's large scale land developers - a Bunnyenesque figure who envisioned entire new cities springing out of the ground. He came to Montauk with an impressive list of achievements to his credit. Born into poverty Jan 12, 1874, in Greensburg, Indiana he left school at the age of 12, to help support his family. Taking as his heroes Lincoln and Napoleon, he set out into the world, determined to mark a mark for himself. From his earliest years he was blessed with an uncanny ability for salesmanship and promotion. He was as well, a gifted athlete, and excelled at swimming, diving, and driving anything with two or four wheels. These two lead Fisher to his first successful business ventures.
Competition bicycling was all the rage at the turn of the century. Endurance races captured the imagination of the public, and spurred on the fledgling bike industry. Fisher became a member of one of the best known bike clubs in the Mid-West, and made quite a name for himself on the circuit. Realizing the money to be made in selling, rather than riding bikes, he opened his first bike shop at the tender age of only 17. Within a few years he had done well enough to transform his bike shop into an automobile showroom, the first of it's kind in Indianapolis. Selling Packards, Stutz's and Reo trucks, the Fisher garage became one of the leading auto dealerships in the country.
Fisher's involvement in the early automobile industry lead to an investment that brought his first fortune. Among the many problems of early motoring, was the poor quality of auto headlights. In 1904 a man walked into Fisher's shop who would change the automobile industry, and Fisher's life. Percy Avery was an older gentleman who had bought the patent to a promising French devise. It consisted of a compressed gas cylinder filled with acetylene gas and an arc lamp. It gave off an intense light far superior to anything in the car market. The only problem - acetylene gas is extremely flammable, and no auto manufacturer would touch it.
Fisher was a risk taker, and put up the money to begin manufacturing this new, compressed gas headlight. Soon, the Prest-O-Lite was standard equipment for most American autos. Fisher's investment in the company soared. By 1917 Prest-O-Lite was nationwide, and caught the eye of the Union Carbide Company. A deal was struck, for the sale at the hefty price of $ 9,000,000.00. Fisher's share - a very tidy $ 6,000,000.00! With that bankroll in hand, the 43 year old Fisher began to look to even bigger, and better projects to lavish his considerable skills upon.
He spent the next years of his life building two projects that hinged on his involvement in the auto industry. Realizing American industry needed a state of the art test track to prefect new cars, Fisher proposed the Indianapolis Speedway. He led the fund raising effort, helped design the track and oversaw its completion. Next, he organized and lead the drive to build the first modern highway linking the East and West Coasts - the Lincoln Highway, and the North and South - the Dixie Highway.
Throughout Fisher's early years he showed a keen eye for real estate. Always interested in the best, his showrooms, offices, plants and homes were showplaces of their kind. In 1913 he took that accumulated knowledge of construction, and made a giant leap into the ranks of the country's biggest real estate czars. While vacationing in south Florida, he couldn't but help notice the barrier island that paralleled the city of Miami. Miami Beach, as it was called, was 3,500 acres of mangrove swamp and beach. Connected to the mainland by a half finished wooden bridge, it was unpopulated, and unwanted. Single handedly, Fisher transformed it into one of the most stylish resorts in the world. He completed the bridge, cut down the mangroves, filled in the swamp, laid out the roads, and build magnificent hotels, homes and shops. It was a prodigious development, and brought him to the height of his fame and fortune. Scarcely 8 years after the sale of Prest-O-Lite he was now worth $ 50,000,000.00.
MIAMI OF THE NORTH
Always restless, with boundless energy, Fisher was no sooner finished with Miami Beach, than he started looking for his next great challenge. He found it here in Montauk. 3 times the size of Miami Beach, almost entirely undeveloped, it was to be the culmination of his life's work. He bought all 10,000 acres in 1925, for the relatively modest sum of $ 2,500,000.00. He estimated it would take another $ 7,000,000.00 to build it. "Miami in the Winter, Montauk in the Summer", was Fisher's slogan. He would provide the elite who had flocked to his Miami Beach, with a comparably exclusive summer resort just hours from the social centers of New York, and Newport.
As it's primary lure for the globe trotting set, Montauk would become the Sportsman's Paradise that was then in vogue for the very rich. As embraced by the gentry of the 1920's, a proper summer's vacation should consist of vigorous outdoor activities, centered around the main pursuits of the not so idle rich - yachting, fishing, golfing, shooting, tennis, polo and swimming. Naturally, it would be ideal if your prospective vacationers could carry on all of these diverse activities in the exclusive company of their social and economic peers. In short, for Fisher's dream of a "Miami of the North" to succeed, he would need to construct a first class destination, that offered the litany of activities the Astors, Vanderbilts, Goulds and others of that gilded time wished to pursue. Diversity of activities, in a socially homogeneous setting, was Fisher's aspiration, and Montauk was designed to provide that backdrop. His 1932 promotional brochure emphasized this - " Now Montauk Beach, through the vision and resources of a group of distinguished builders, is being transformed into America's finest out-of-door center, where the real aristocrats of modern America may find new health, new relaxation, new ways to play amid luxurious surroundings."
By the time Fisher arrived, Montauk was already well known amongst connoisseurs, as a first class fishing and hunting retreat. Ever since the late 1800's well heeled sportsmen had gone "on Montauk" for extended expeditions. What they found was a beautiful, rustic outpost nearly untouched by the modern era. Teaming with geese, ducks, turkeys, fox, rabbits, and deer, Montauk was a shooter's heaven. Inshore and offshore, no finer fishing could possibly have been found on the East Coast. However, as a first class resort - or a resort of any kind - it left nearly everything to be desired. Outside of a small Inn that stood on the site of today's Montauk Manor, and a few private homes, there were no accommodations for guests. The only road leading into town was a winding dirt path along the shore - today's Old Montauk Highway. All that existed in the current downtown area was a hanger on the eastern shore of Fort Pond, that housed a World War I observation balloon. On the shores on Fort Pond Bay, near the current rail road station, the then village of Montauk crowded the water with fishing shacks, warehouses, commercial docks and piers. In general there was no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing, and little in the way of creature comforts any where in town.
Fisher was faced with the formidable task of transforming this 10,000 sleepy acres, into a world class resort. Like everything he did, he threw his considerable energies into the task. Never one to procrastinate, it's said he planned the entire development in a day, while sitting at anchor in Fort Pond Bay aboard his yacht, the Shadow K. Within weeks of his purchase, a work crew of some 800 men were busy round the clock, clearing roads, installing power, and laying the infrastructure for a large scale, modern village. On June 1, 1927 the palatial Montauk Manor was open, and it's 178 modern guest rooms filled with summer vacationers.
Guests could choose from a number of daily activities. An oceanfront bathing pavilion, complete with outdoor pool and 1600' of boardwalk along the beach, was constructed on the site of the current Surf Club. 18 quality holes of golf could be played at today's Montauk Downs. Tennis any one? Choose from 12 outdoor courts near the Manor, or 6 indoor courts at the now, sadly abandoned playhouse next to the Manor. If polo was your game - and darling, everyone loved polo - playing fields complete with paddocks, stables and herds of ponies were established at the current Deep Hollow Ranch. The horsy set could also trail and beach ride, and even ride to the hounds in a traditional English fox hunt! Add to all this the nearly unlimited fishing and hunting Montauk always provided, and it's easy to see how a visitor's day was filled. Established in his headquarter suite atop his six story Montauk Improvement Building - at that time the tallest building on Long Island - Fisher watched his plans become a reality.
Perhaps Fisher's most ambitious piece of engineering was the re-configuring of present day, Lake Montauk. It was, until 1927, a true lake - fresh water, land locked, and as such of no use to Fisher. He needed a yacht club, with deep water berths capable of docking the grand vessels of the Vanderbilts, Astors, and Whitneys. Unfortunately, Montauk's only available anchorage, at Fort Pond Bay, was unsuitable - it was unprotected and subject to devastating storms and high tides. Fisher did the only logical thing, in light of Montauk's geography. He blasted open a new channel from Block Island Sound connecting Lake Montauk to the open sea. Once done, he dredged roughly half the Lake to a depth of 12 feet and established the Montauk Lake Club on Star Island. It remains in operation today, capable of docking ocean going vessels to 150'.
Montauk in the 1920's was a cosmopolitan resort, a Monte Carlo on the Atlantic that attracted the world's elite. The Montauk Manor was the most luxurious hotel on Long Island, a favorite of the New York/Newport crowd which at the time even boasted of direct streamed service to Manhattan. Each night of the Summer season lines of limos would disgorge scores of blue bloods and society swells, bound for champagne dinners and secret midnight rendezvous within the Manor's cavernous rooms. The Star Island Casino, next to the Yacht Club, was jumping every night, with fine food, aged wine, beautiful women, and the ever present sound of money hitting the tables. It was there that the then mayor of New York, Jimmy Walker, was nearly arrested one night, during an infrequent raid by the local authorities. For the first few years, Carl Fisher's dream city was a concrete, and very profitable, reality.
Fisher had planned for everything, everything that is, except weather and the Great Depression. On September 17, 1927, a tremendous hurricane hit Miami Beach. Although the damage was not as severe as reported, that year's tourist season was a bust. That October, the bottom fell out of the stock market, and real estate values began a dizzying fall. Since much of Fisher's wealth was based on real estate, his fortune began to crumble. Within the year his empire had lost a third of its value, and the banks that held his notes began to become nervous.
As his credit began to thin, Fisher sold his holdings - the Speedway, Miami Beach hotels, homes, yachts, land nearly everything that could be liquidated. Stretched beyond even his formidable means, his empire collapsed into bankruptcy in 1932. Three years later, Fisher declared personal bankruptcy. When he died in 1939, his personal finances had dwindled to a paltry $52,198. Although Montauk itself had a few good years in the 1930's and 40's, Fisher's dream of another Miami Beach was buried along with him. Without his considerable talent and salesmanship, Montauk was left with the imposing infrastructure of a grand resort, but with few of the details completed. Within years of its zenith, much of Fisher's Montauk fell into decay and ultimately abandonment. By the 1950's his office building stood empty, the beautiful Montauk Manor was a brooding wreck, and his grand boulevards ran off to nowhere. Montauk was left with no other choice, but too fill in the gaps as best it could, resulting in a somewhat uneven, but always interesting community.
Montauk today is an amalgam of Fisher's original vision of a get-a-way for the rich, and the reality of an affordable vacation village. Admittedly, Montauk now has over 3,000 quality hotel rooms, some 50 restaurants, a thousand deep water boat slips, a world class golf course, and some of the most beautiful ocean and bay beaches in the world. Even some of Fisher's original projects have been resurrected in the past few years, and brought back to life. The Manor, and Fisher's old Improvement headquarters on the green, are now deluxe condominiums. The Yacht Club is in new hands, with restoration of its remaining Fisher sections, in full swing. The original golf course is even better than ever, as the Montauk Downs. Yet for all this, Montauk retains a small town quality that resists all change, all improvements. That's to it's credit - it's one of the basic values that has made Montauk such a popular vacation spot. Here you feel at home, comfortable and relaxed, instinctively aware you're a welcome addition to the community.
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