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. He was a man of big ideas and the energy to see them through, and one of his inspirations was ancestor to the great tangle of highways binding the continent. 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 hardly in 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, the son of a hard-drinking country lawyer and his tough, determined wife. The couple separated when Carl was young; Ida Fisher moved her three boys forty miles to Indianapolis, where the boundlessly energetic Carl quit school at twelve and set out to make a fortune. He was bright-eyed, talkative, a natural salesman. And he was disciplined: at fifteen he landed work as a news "butcher," hawking newspapers, books, candy, and tobacco aboard intercity trains; at seventeen, he’d squirreled away $600, a goodly sum at the time, and decided to open his own business.
Choosing a line of work came easily, 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 and tiny rear wheels, and saddles perched as high as five feet offthe 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 backward 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 bike stopped cold, with calamitous results, if that big front wheel encountered an obstacle — he’d at least go flying right-side up.
It didn’t much faze Fisher that he was half-blind with astigmatism and had so many wrecks that his friends dubbed him "Crip." Just climbing onto one of the machines gave him a thrill. Racing them was intoxicating. In short order he landed a spot on a traveling race team led by a speed demon named Barney Oldfield and toured county fairs throughout the Midwest. The shop thrived.
By and by, Fisher decided to branch into sales. Impressed with Pope-Toledo bikes, he took the train to Toledo and asked their maker, Col. Albert A. Pope, to make him the brand’s Indianapolis distributor — and to help get him started by parting with a boxcar of bikes at cost. Pope agreed, which provided Fisher enough of a profit margin to give away fifty. He had a friend make a thousand toy balloons, then took out newspaper ads announcing that the balloons would be loosed over the city, fifty containing numbered tags that could be exchanged for a new bike. The stunt created a sensation. The sale of Popes spiked across the state.
Fisher was just getting started. 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 offthe roof of a downtown building and award a new machine to whoever 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.
As sixth-grade dropouts go, he was doing well. But not well enough to suit him: aiming to have the grandest showroom in Indianapolis, he called on another leading bike maker in Columbus, Ohio. George C. Erland was so charmed by the brash young man that he bankrolled Fisher to the tune of $50,000, a fortune then, and sure enough, Fisher soon had the biggest store in town, with all brands for sale up front and a dozen repairmen working in the back. It became a gathering place for the city’s cycling fraternity — members of the local Zig-Zag Cycle Club, among whom Fisher had several close friends, and of a national organization called the League of American Wheelmen. And on any given day, the conversation came around to cycling’s most urgent need: roads on which to ride.
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 offa 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.
And mixed with the mud was a liberal helping of manure, for city and country alike were dependent on the horse. The situation was grim enough in small towns, where the population might number a few hundred humans and a few dozen animals. It was far nastier in Fisher’s Indianapolis, which despite bicycles and electric streetcars was home to a horse for every 14 people, or Kansas City, which had a horse for every 7.4. Boston’s Beacon Hill, one observer recalled, had a "rich equine flavor."
Crossing a street could be an unsavory affair. In New York City, by one estimate, horses left behind 2.5 million pounds of manure and sixty thous...