Corbin, Daniel Chase, (1832-1918)

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 10/04/2006
  • Essay 7960
Mining and railroad magnate, Daniel Chase Corbin ranks as a major shaper of the growth and prosperity of Spokane, the economic and geographic center of the Inland Northwest. He settled in Spokane in 1889, already an experienced Western entrepreneur and well positioned to survive the Panic of 1893, which depleted the fortunes of Spokane’s earliest tycoons. The bulk of Corbin’s wealth was based on his railroads that “stitched the [Idaho Panhandle and British Columbia Kootenay] mines to Spokane,” enriching and forever changing his adopted city (Fahey, Inland Empire, 3). Over the years, he was substantially involved in other enterprises as diverse as banking, real estate, irrigation, beet sugar production, and coal mining. Corbin often was pointed out as Spokane’s richest man as he passed in his buggy, its superb team driven at top speed by a coachman. But unlike many of his wealthy predecessors and contemporaries, Corbin was not a civic leader or benefactor, at least in any obvious way, and, upon his death, his wealth remained with his descendants. His personal and family life was full of enigmas, and his aloof demeanor did not make him popular in the community. Furthermore, his secretiveness about earnings and assets would not be allowed under today’s business regulations. Yet Corbin’s contribution to his adopted city was massive, his railroads and other ventures enabling such wealth to pour into Spokane that, during his time, it became the hub of the “Inland Empire.”

Early Years

Daniel Chase Corbin was born on October 1, 1832, at Newport, New Hampshire, to Austin and Mary (Chase) Corbin.  His father was a prosperous farmer and timberman.  Daniel and his brother, Austin Jr., five years older, attended local public schools.  Historian John Fahey’s attempts to discover substantive information about Corbin’s early years were fruitless.  In a rare newspaper interview granted during his old age, he would only say: “What I did in my youth didn’t amount to much of interest to anyone but myself” (Fahey, Inland Empire, 5).  Although his brother Austin attended Harvard Law School, D. C. Corbin did not seek higher education but left home at the age of 19 and migrated steadily westward until settling in Spokane in 1889.

Corbin’s first stop was in Iowa, where he surveyed and speculated in land, partly at the behest of eastern financiers connected with his family.  As Iowa became too settled for his liking, he took up a homestead near Nebraska City, on the western bank of the Missouri River.  In 1858, he visited the Colorado mines, was impressed with their potential, and gained knowledge that would serve him later.  From Nebraska, he continued to deal in land, opened a stage station near Fort Kearney and launched a freighting business to haul supplies to army posts and blasting powder to the mines.  According to Fahey, “Corbin maintained that he laid the foundation for his personal fortune in Nebraska” with these enterprises (Fahey, Inland Empire, 7). 

Family Life

In 1862, he returned briefly to New Hampshire to marry Louisa M. Jackson, and within a few months the couple moved to Denver where, in 1863, a son, Austin Corbin II (1863-1945), was born.

News of rich ore-strikes in western Montana soon reached Denver, and Corbin saw potential for capitalizing on the prevailing gold fever.  He moved his family to Helena and opened a mercantile business and office for forwarding freight.  A daughter Louise (ca. 1866-1909) was born.  Corbin soon branched out into banking, smelting, and mining interests.  A third child, Mary, joined the family in 1872.  From this time onward, Mrs. Corbin’s health deteriorated.  Her condition, which soon required a wheelchair, was eventually diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis. 

The family set forth on a fruitless search for cures or at least a more favorable climate.  The upshot was that, by the late 1870s, the mother and children were ensconced in Europe while Corbin pursued his business affairs in Montana.  Before long, son Austin returned to his father and would be involved with his business affairs for most of the latter’s life. The daughters would remain in Europe, Louise marrying an English lord and Mary, after a brief and stormy first marriage to Spokane’s acclaimed architect Kirtland Cutter, marrying a wealthy but untitled Englishman.

Mining and Railroading

Beginning in 1885, Corbin became aware of opportunities in the Coeur d’Alene Mining District.  With other investors, including Samuel T. Hauser, he began a series of ventures, the first of which was constructing a concentrator mill for the Bunker Hill and Sullivan mines.  The need for a railroad quickly became apparent, and Corbin beat competitors, including Spokane’s John J. Browne (1843-1912). In 1886 he began construction of two railroad lines, the Spokane Falls & Idaho, as feeder for the Northern Pacific, and the Coeur d’Alene Railway & Navigation Company. These rail lines connected with his steamship operation plying the Coeur d’Alene River and Lake Coeur d’Alene to transport ore, goods, and passengers.  The steamships were a vital link in the transportation network funneling wealth from Idaho’s “Silver Valley” into Spokane, which was rapidly becoming the corporate and residential headquarters for many mining tycoons. 

In 1888, Corbin sold his Coeur d’Alene line to the Northern Pacific, but in 1889 began a new railroad, the Spokane Falls and Northern, running from Spokane to Northport just below the Canadian border.  Eventually he built subsidiaries, the Nelson and Fort Sheppard, incorporated in 1891, leading to Nelson, British Columbia, and the Columbia and Red Mountain, incorporated in 1895, leading to Rossland, B.C., ensuring the flow to Spokane of wealth from the burgeoning mines of that region.

In this endeavor, he beat American copper magnate Frederick Augustus Heinze (1869-1914), a major figure in the Rossland mines and developer of the Trail Creek smelter, in building a railroad.  “American money and American miners dominated Rossland, and American transportation [Corbin’s Columbia and Red Mountain would] carry the camp’s trade south to Spokane” rather than a Heinze railroad west to Vancouver, B.C.  (Fahey, Inland Empire, 157).

Another British Columbia enterprise was the Corbin Coal and Coke Mine near the Montana border. It opened in 1908 and operated until 1935, long after Corbin's death. A Corbin railroad, the Eastern British Columbia Railway, linked this mine to the Canadian Pacific Railway Crowsnest Pass Route. Another company reopened the mine during the 1970s, and the location is still called Corbin.

Corbin’s final railroad venture, the Spokane International, ran up through the northern Idaho panhandle, and by 1906 connected with the Canadian Pacific at Eastport, Idaho.  Corbin was characteristically close to the vest about the financial aspects of the Spokane International.  When the Interstate Commerce Commission asked the cost of building it, Corbin replied, “That is none of your damned business” (Davis, 16).  Under an agreement with the Canadian Pacific, Corbin’s private Spokane International car could attach to CP trains and travel anywhere on its rails. 

Corbin's Engineering Wizard

The technical wizard who deserves most of the credit for building Corbin’s railroads was construction engineer Edward J. Roberts (1857-1949), who managed to lay track and build dizzying trestles in record time over some of the most difficult terrain in the Northwest.  In surveying for the Spokane International, Roberts alerted Corbin to promising British Columbia coalfields, which could provide instant freight for a new railroad.  The result was that Corbin acquired a number of them and organized the Corbin Coal and Coke Company, Ltd. in 1908.

In 1898, at age 66, instead of slowing down, Corbin sought new ventures. He sold his Spokane Falls & Northern Railway stock to the Great Northern for an undisclosed amount, though enough to justify his reputation in Spokane as “that of a man several times a millionaire”  (Fahey, Inland Empire, 190).  Corbin’s final gesture as president of Spokane Falls & Northern was to treat his employees and their families to a $4,000 picnic at Loon Lake, to which they were transported in the railroad's cars.  “For all his gruff manner, his employees respected D.C. Corbin ...” and gave him a gold watch  (Fahey, Inland Empire, 191).

Mansions and Parks

That same year, Corbin and son Austin built nearby mansions designed by Kirtland Cutter and set on multi-acre landscaped grounds on the fashionable “South Hill” overlooking the Spokane and mountains to the north.  The elder Corbin’s residence “stood apart from the city, like its owner,” and its interior was utilitarian and somewhat spare, atypical of Cutter structures  (Fahey, “Retirement,” 49).  While Austin Corbin’s more expensive mansion was famous for lavish parties, his father’s decidedly was not.  Today D.C. Corbin’s residence houses the Corbin Art Center of the Spokane Parks Department. 

During this period, Corbin began developing land on the north side of town, a 40-acre tract formerly the site of the Washington and Idaho Fair.  In 1890, the fair had mortgaged its grounds for a $15,000 loan from Corbin to be paid in a year.  After three years, the fair could not repay, and Corbin sued.  The court ordered the land sold and Corbin bought it for $16,895, out of which he was repaid his original loan plus interest, thereby acquiring the property for a fraction of its actual value. 

In 1899 he presented to the city a plat of the proposed Corbin Park Addition surrounding the original racetrack and began selling residential lots.  Corbin provided graded streets and concrete sidewalks and planted elms. In 1901 or 1902 (sources vary) he deeded the racetrack oval to the City for a park, thereby enhancing the value of his lots. The addition is now a historic district comprising 86 distinguished homes. 

The Sugar Beet Venture

D. C. Corbin’s next venture was a large sugar beet refinery in Waverly about 30 miles south of Spokane, prompting a temporary burst of growth and prosperity in the tiny town. In his typically thorough fashion, Corbin researched the technical feasibility and potential profitability of growing and processing sugar beets before, in 1899, taking over an undeveloped plan for a sugar company originally proposed by Colonel Edward H. Morrison, Spokane attorney George Turner, and others. 

Prospects looked encouraging, as legislation on both the federal and state levels appeared favorable.  In 1897, the Dingley Act had imposed high tariffs on imported sugar.  Furthermore, the Washington State Legislature allowed a bounty of one-cent-per-pound of sugar produced, from which Corbin’s Washington State Sugar Company would collect more than $67,000 during the three years the bounty was paid.  In addition to trying unsuccessfully to grow his own sugar beets in the Spokane Valley (stones from the rocky soil got embedded in the beets and damaged the refining machinery), Corbin distributed seeds to farmers around Waverly, most of whom preferred to continue raising their customary grains.  An inadequate supply of beets would always hamper the operation, and in 1910, the Waverly refinery closed, an unaccustomed failure for D.C. Corbin, who at his death, held all 5,000 shares of the worthless stock.

The Era of Apple Orchards

Corbin’s next enterprise altered for years to come the Spokane Valley running east of the city to the Idaho border.  By 1908, the best agricultural land in the valley had been taken, and the remainder could be made productive only with irrigation.  Corbin was one of several entrepreneurs to buy up land, mostly for resale, and develop irrigation, mainly through his substantial ownership of the Spokane Valley Irrigation Company.  Colorful brochures promising quick prosperity were distributed throughout the nation.  Many people tired of city life, failing at other work, or exhausted by dry-land farming on the high plains flocked to these 10-to-40-acre plots.  Most of these would-be farmers had no experience growing apples or anything else.  New communities with such names as Greenacres, Otis Orchards, and Apple Way, the main highway, reinforced the bucolic image.  Gravity irrigation drew water from Liberty and Newman lakes near Spokane and other lakes across the border in Idaho, as well as from the Spokane River.  Corbin’s main project was a wooden aqueduct, locally but erroneously called the Corbin Ditch, that brought water from the Spokane River at Post Falls, Idaho, to the valley.

The Spokane Valley prospered for some time as a major apple-growing area. In 1908 the city of Spokane launched a National Apple Show and hosted the National Irrigation Congress. However, by 1920 a combination of factors had brought about the decline of valley fruit culture, resulting in the bankruptcy of many small farmers: frequent oversupply of apples, severe frosts, competition from Wenatchee and Yakima, fluctuating prices, disease, transportation costs, unreliability of water supply, etc.  The last apple show was held in 1917.  Truck farms replaced apple orchards, and more recently, suburbs and shopping malls have sprawled from Spokane toward the Idaho border.

Corbin as Husband and Father

D. C. Corbin cannot have derived much satisfaction from his family nor they from him.  Although his son Austin was with him during the boy’s formative years as a sort of apprentice, then later as an adult business associate, Corbin was separated for many years from his wife and daughters, ostensibly because of their mother’s health. 

He provided well for them financially, enabling his wife to live at expensive European spas and his daughters to attend private schools.  However, the personal contacts were infrequent and may have lacked paternal affection.  Daughter Louise’s “commonplace book,” showing Corbin to have been with her in France in 1885, bears only this impersonal inscription from her father: “Be polite to your equals, kind to your inferiors, and always honest and true.  Nice, April 19, 1885.  D. C. Corbin.” (Arksey, 9)

In 1888 Louise married Robert Walpole, 12 years her senior, soon to be the fifth earl of Orford, making Louise a countess and the mistress of Mannington and Wolterton halls in Norfolk, England.  At first glance, the marriage bears the marks of a late nineteenth-century stereotype: “rich American girl marries into English aristocracy, replenishing the sagging fortunes of her husband and his family while providing her tycoon father with titled in-laws to add luster to the company letterhead” (Arksey, 7).  

Typical of many such English noblemen, Robert Walpole was land-rich but cash-poor, and the two stately homes he soon inherited were badly in need of restoration.  D. C. Corbin was 56 at the time of his daughter’s marriage, and the earl could reasonably have expected her to outlive her father.  However, in 1909, after two decades as a minor ornament of English society, Louise died.  That same year, The Christmas issue of the Spokane Daily Chronicle unabashedly published a list of Spokane’s richest men and how they made their money.  D. C. Corbin was among the 14 in the top category, listed at “$1,000,000 and up.”

When D. C. Corbin died in 1918, he left to that branch of the family only a trust fund for his granddaughter from which she could not draw income until the death of her father, the earl.  In the meantime, Lord Orford’s diary makes it clear that, during his marriage, little money had been forthcoming from his rich American father-in-law.  Corbin visited Lord and Lady Orford at their country estates and townhouse in London, where he gave his daughter a box at the opera, among other things. The signatures of Louise’s sister Mary and first husband Kirtland Cutter appear in the guest book at Manington and Wolterton halls, and Cutter’s Spokane architecture bears evidence of the influence of these stately homes. Louise and her husband included Spokane several times in their extensive travels.

Patrimony and Parsimony

In the meantime, D. C. Corbin’s wife, Louisa, had died at Harrowgate, England (some sources say in France) in 1900.  Immediately upon her death, the three children sued their father for half of his estate, claiming as justification their mother’s share under Washington community property law.  Corbin countered that he was actually a resident of New York (where he had lived at one time and continued to have numerous business dealings) and that his 1889 assets of $250,000 had been “accumulated in said state of New York” (Arksey, 14).

This amazing claim leaves one to wonder about all the money he had made in Nebraska, Montana, and the Coeur d’Alenes, not to mention the value of mining, railroad and land holdings listed on page after page of the lawsuit.  Corbin had been present during the Great Spokane Fire of 1889, clearing out his office ahead of the flames.  Despite this evidence, he prevailed, with the court decision based on New York property laws that would enable him to hold onto his wealth.  Ironically, in a 1903 interview, Corbin asserted: “I was born in New Hampshire.  But I’m of the west and northwest, and since arriving at manhood I have lived but little in the east” (Arksey, 14).

Final Dramas

The final personal drama of Corbin’s life involved his second marriage, in 1907, to his Swedish housekeeper, Anna Louise Larson, many years his junior.  Fortunately for Corbin, the worst of it occurred after his death.  She had been “prepared for her marriage [ostensibly by Corbin himself] by attending eastern schools, including Columbia University, and by travel in Europe, and her previous marriage had been quietly dissolved” (Fahey, Inland Empire, 226).  As a result of this marriage, Corbin was ostracized by Spokane society, and even his relationship with Austin cooled. Upon his death in 1918, he left Anna his house and bonds, but no outright cash. 

On April 29, 1921, there was a mysterious fire at the Corbin mansion.  Firefighters discovered separate simultaneous origins of the fire, and Anna Corbin and Louis Lilge, variously described as the live-in chauffeur or caretaker, were charged with arson.  For several months, the trials provided sensational front-page copy for the Spokane newspapers. Accounts revealed a plan to collect insurance, allegedly concocted by Lilge, to which Anna claimed to have agreed only under threat of bodily harm to herself and her nephew, whom she was raising.  Lilge, for his part, asserted that she had been trying unsuccessfully to seduce him. 

According to Anna Corbin’s testimony, “the plan was broached by Lilge ... when he became aware that thru the terms of the will of the late Mr. Corbin, Mrs. Corbin was in desperate straits for money, the income left her being a yearly amount less than half the cost of keeping up the house for the period.  The will, according to her confession, forbids her remarrying or selling the house” (Spokesman-Review, May 5, 1921). 

This was not strictly true, but Mrs. Corbin would have had to divide the receipts from such a sale with the other heirs.  Lilge was acquitted; Anna Corbin was judged insane and sent to the mental institution at Medical Lake for three years.  Upon her release, she returned to the Corbin mansion, which she turned into a boarding house, living there until her death in 1950 at age 79.  In 1945, concerned about the cost of upkeep and taxes, she deeded the house to the Spokane Park Board, which paid her $15,000 and granted her life tenancy.

Death and Legacy

Corbin’s own death occurred in 1918.  During the spring he had broken his leg in a fall and then an old intestinal condition had flared up.  Corbin survived a surgery, but pneumonia set in and he died on June 29 at age 85.  Newspaper estimates of his wealth were wildly exaggerated, some as high as $12 million.  Historian John Fahey put his estate at $679,564, two thirds of which went to his son Austin.  In addition to the provision for his widow, the will set up trusts for his daughter Mary and for his grandchildren. 

Although locations in Montana, Idaho, and British Columbia were named for Corbin, it was on the city of Spokane that he most left his mark. “No man of his time had molded Spokane as had D. C. Corbin, who viewed its high buildings and long streets from his tall-backed, rung rocking chair on the wide porch of [his] austere house” (Fahey, Inland Empire, 224).

Sources: Laura Arksey, “Spokane’s English Connection,” Columbia Vol. 12, No. 3 (Fall 1988), pp. 7-14; W. L. Davis, S.J., “D.C. Corbin and Spokane,” The Pacific Northwesterner Vol. 11, No. 1, (Winter 1967), pp 13-16; John R. Fahey, Inland Empire: D. C. Corbin and Spokane (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965); John R. Fahey, “Irrigation, Apples, and the Spokane Country," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 84, No. 1, (January 1993), pp. 7-18; John R. Fahey, “The Retirement of Daniel Corbin,” The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 7, No. 4, (Fall 1963), pp. 50-60; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Spokane Falls and Northern,” (by "John R. Fahey) (accessed September 15, 2006); Jim Kershner, “Noble Branch,” Spokesman-Review March 11, 1996; “Mrs. Corbin Confesses to Home-Burning Plot …” The Spokane Press , May 5, 1921; Dorothy Rochon Powers, Heritage from Heroes (Spokane: Fairmount Memorial Association, 1993), 199-200;  Carlos A. Schwantes, Railroad Signatures Across the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993), 139-140;  Spokane Daily Chronicle ,December 25, 1909; Spokesman-Review, May 5, 1921; Newspaper clipping and photograph files of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture; Newspaper clipping files of Tornado Creek Publications; Encyclopedia of British Columbia (Madeira Park, B.C.: Harbour Pub., 2002), 149.
Note: This essay was expanded slightly on March 11, 2008, and corrected on March 15, 2013.

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