The following is the second in a two-part series. To read the first part, click here.
In July of 1879, Austin Corbin put pen to paper to spell out his thoughts. As he was addressing a delicate matter, he didn’t want any confusion about where he stood: “We do not like the Jews as a class,” he wrote, beginning his formal attempts to prevent Jews from visiting his new hotel on Coney Island. By this point, Corbin was the president of the Long Island Railroad and the Manhattan Beach Railway and Hotel. He got both positions, not surprisingly, through theft and corruption.
Corbin first took interest in Long Island shortly after returning from the Midwest and establishing his New York banking firm, as we wrote about in the first installment of this series. A doctor advised that the sea air would be beneficial to his sickly child, and while visiting what is now Coney Island, he saw the opportunity to build an oceanfront resort at Manhattan Beach in Gravesend. The town was poorly managed, but there were property claims to all the beach land – just not terribly well-defined claims. Corbin’s solution was to hire the town’s corrupt surveyor and have him begin acquiring parcels by hook or by crook. Some he bought, others he just needed to survey out of existence.
In the 1870s, Coney Island was a disreputable place, populated by muggers, gamblers and petty thieves. It had been turned into this mess by Boss Tweed, the corrupt political leader of New York’s Tammany Hall political machine. Though Tweed was exiled from power by 1877, the power of Tammany persisted, and one of its minor operators, John McKane, was the boss of Gravesend when Corbin took an interest. He almost certainly proceeded with McKane’s blessing.
Once Corbin had title to the Manhattan Beach properties, he constructed the Manhattan Beach Hotel, opening it in 1877. And it was grand: 108,000 square feet, 250 rooms, with a veranda 30-feet wide and 600-plus feet long. President Ulysses S. Grant helped cut the ribbon on the hotel at ceremonies on July 4, and over its 25-year life it would host musicians such as John Philip Sousa and Victor Herbert, along with wealthy and famous New Yorkers of the day. Access to its grounds and beaches was tightly controlled. Corbin retained the Pinkerton guards, as he had in the Pennsylvania mines, to patrol the property and keep out those he considered undesirable from the less ritzy end of the beach. Visitors were subject to search and inspection before entering. The hotel was barely two years old when he tried to bar all Jewish patrons.
Anti-Semitism was hardly unheard of at that time, but it was not uncontroversial. The prior summer, hotel operator and judge Henry Hilton (no relation to the Hilton hotels of today) made headlines when he refused to admit a Jewish patron to his Saratoga Springs Grand Union Hotel. Corbin’s similar stance resulted in both he and Hilton being featured in a Puck cartoon, depicting them churlishly harassing a Jewish caricature.
For what it’s worth, Corbin’s bigotry was not confined to anti-Semitism. He made headlines again in the later years of his life for barring a Chinese passenger from being seated in the cabin on one of his ferries. While it doesn’t seem to have been a major element in his life, Corbin did take his point of view seriously, and he served as a founding member in the short-lived, but ominously named, American Society for the Suppression of the Jews.
Controversy aside, the Manhattan Beach Hotel prospered and Corbin set his sights on establishing a second hotel on the ocean: The Oriental. He turned to Tammany gangster John McKane again for assistance. Despite ongoing scandals, the Tammany machine was difficult to topple. In part this was because it was embraced by both Democrats and Republicans who, much like today, were both controlled by the same interests. Tammany thrived by demanding kickbacks for government contracts, licenses and favors, but would faithfully deliver on promises – taxpayers and the public be damned. Though Tammany started as a Democratic apparatus, it took money from anyone, regardless of affiliation.
McKane, while successful in cleaning out the lesser criminals from Coney Island, was not successful in improving the overall image of the island. Under his control, it became known as ‘Sodom by the Sea.’ Home to three racetracks, it was a destination for pleasure-seekers of all sorts. Eventually McKane would be sentenced to prison for his corruption, but in the 1870s he was still the boss of Gravesend. McKane advised Corbin that he could acquire from the town the property on which to build his second hotel through a simple town meeting vote, which McKane could deliver for a price.
On the night of the town meeting, Corbin and McKane packed the town hall with his guards and employees, blockaded Corbin’s opponents from entering the building, and voted him the land to build the hotel on for $1,500, roughly one one-hundredth of what it was worth. The controversial land grab would be the subject of lawsuits and legislative investigations, but Corbin and his friends beat back every challenge and the Oriental opened its doors, as planned, in 1880. This time President Rutherford B. Hayes was guest of honor.
The illegal tactics Corbin used in acquiring the land were part of the pattern of his life. In 1880, he gained control of the Long Island Railroad, bringing it out of bankruptcy. As its president for 16 years, he expanded it dramatically, with little regard for the property rights of those who stood in his way.
The most notorious case involved the theft of lands owned by the Montaukett Indian Tribe by Arthur Benson, a friend and business partner of Corbin’s. Benson successfully strong-armed the Native Americans off their land at Montauk, and partnered with Corbin to build resorts, housing and a shipping terminal at the tip of Long Island. Corbin’s hope was that trans-Atlantic passengers would arrive at Montauk and use his railroad to reach New York, a full day faster than they could on a ship. The ill-conceived plans were flawed in many ways, most significantly by the fact that the proposed port at Montauk was too shallow to serve as the competition that Corbin envisioned for New York Harbor. Nevertheless, Corbin was on the verge of winning Congressional approval for a duty-free port at the time of his death. Had not repeated lawsuits by the Montauketts over the tactics used to get control of their land slowed the developments, Corbin’s plans might have moved further. Nevertheless, his port plans provide the punctuation mark at the end of his railroading career.
Perhaps one of the oddest business ventures Corbin undertook was operating an Arkansas plantation. How did a New Hampshire Yankee wind up running a southern plantation? No surprise, it was politics and land speculation that took Corbin down this road.
In 1869, John C. Calhoun, grandson of the South Carolina senator of the same name, acquired Sunnyside Plantation in Chicot County, Ark., with Corbin’s backing. In the post-Civil War period, Calhoun had become convinced there was a lot of money to be made operating plantations using former slaves as a labor force. His business model worked once, and so he and his brother Patrick looked to replicate the success.
Sunnyside, however, was never a great success. The Calhouns owed substantial debts to their backers. Their system of paying for labor through sharecropping and tenant-farmer relationships, as well as traditional wages, was effective enough. But there was nothing they could do about the vagaries of agriculture. Creditors expected payment, regardless of whether the crop was a good one or the market price for the crop was weak.
After several reorganizations, the property finally reverted to Corbin in 1886. The Calhouns concluded that the path to easy money lay not in the hard work of farming, but in New York, so they extracted what profits they could from their properties and set out for the city.
At the start, the project was a bust for Corbin. The African American populace that had been willing to work with Calhoun balked at working for skinflint Corbin. In addition, the farming economy was depressed. So for several years, the bulk of the plantation properties went unused. By the early 1890s, however, Corbin found the cheap labor he wanted: Prison inmates. Arkansas’ legislature employed a system of leasing prisoners to farms, and later it agreed to a sharecropping arrangement with Corbin, further insulating him from the risks of farming.
Why did Corbin win such a favorable arrangement from the government? Railroads. With his usual grandiosity, Corbin established a tiny rail system to bring his cotton from the field to his gin. And he stationed his personal steamboat, the “Austin Corbin” on Lake Chicot, where it impressed the residents. Most importantly, he the charmed the Arkansans with his plans to build a railroad that would both serve the local needs and add a much needed east-west line to the state.
But Corbin had an even more profitable scheme in mind. He struck a bargain with the mayor of Rome, a socialite-loving gadabout known as Prince Ruspoli. For a fee Ruspoli would recruit struggling Italian peasants to come to America and send them overseas to the U.S., where Corbin would fleece them. He charged them inflated prices for everything from boat passage to the tools and equipment they would need to work the land assigned to them when they arrived. If they made it 20 years, they would own their plot.
After some political tap dancing to get around the laws that made it illegal to bring foreign contract labor to the country, Corbin put his plan in motion in 1895. The plan did manage to establish some pockets of Italian-Americans in Arkansas, but did not accomplish one of his central goals – directing Italian immigration away from New York and toward the center of the country.
Returning to New Hampshire
By now it will come as no surprise to learn how Corbin accumulated his 20,000-acre park in New Hampshire. Corbin and Benson started his collection of exotic animals on land he acquired on Long Island. It was part zoo, part hunting preserve, part animal-breeding operation. By the late 1880s, however, Corbin decided he needed more room and began looking to his native New Hampshire for land. In 1889, his agents began acquiring struggling farms and assembling his acreage in the depressed region. The few who held out had their land blocked in on all sides, and Corbin persuaded the towns to stop maintaining their roads. They eventually sold.
He then began stocking the park with a wide variety of deer, elk, bison, and wild boar. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of animals that Corbin imported were dead within a year because they were not suited to the climate and conditions. But some of the herd lived on, and the park was a popular stop for Corbin’s wealthy and famous friends who would visit for a day or two of shooting.
By this point, Corbin was still an energetic man. Toward the end of his career he suffered some setbacks. He lost control of the New England Railroad, and efforts to buy the New Hampshire Railroad were rebuffed. And on a broader scale he was widely reviled. The satirical magazine Puck in 1890 highlighted him again, this time among a pack of his wealthy colleagues bidding to buy the United States presidency and vice presidency. (Who would be in that picture today, Lloyd Blankfein? Jamie Dimon? Warren Buffett? George Soros? David and Charles Koch?)
Nevertheless, Corbin was still pursuing his schemes well into the 1890s: his seaport, his plantation and his railroad expansions. He scoffed at the notion he might retire . . . right up until June 4, 1896. On that day, while riding in a carriage on his expansive New Hampshire estate, he popped open an umbrella to create some shade from the sun and spooked his horses. They bolted and dumped him eight feet onto a rock wall that cracked open his head. The carriage driver died quickly. Corbin survived another six hours, as his family and physicians made their way to Newport, via private trains naturally, arriving in time to watch him expire.
Austin Corbin’s death was a shock. At just 68, few expected to be rid of him anytime soon. The newspapers of the day recounted his business successes.
His estate, however, was soon tangled in litigation. His wife’s one-time maid, Mathilda Nelson, sued the estate in October, 1896. Apparently Corbin’s mistress, she claimed he was a “frequent visitor” to her apartments and had promised to provide $50,000 for her. The estate lawyers claimed that Nelson was trying to blackmail them, and The Brooklyn Eagle chastised Nelson, who they described as a pretty blonde Swede, in an article headlined: An Affliction of Millionaires. “Women of a certain class seem to delight in notoriety of this kind. They will proclaim that they had irregular relations with rich men and make claims upon the property which was left.” The estate settled an unspecified amount on Nelson to resolve the matter. Four years later, Nelson committed suicide.
More significantly, the estate was also sued by Corbin’s daughter, Anna Corbin Borrowe, who had been on the outs with the family because they didn’t approve of her marriage. In 1898, the estate executors made a filing showing that it was worth $1.6 million after settling Corbin’s debts – initially its value was placed at $4.9 million. Where had all the money gone, she wanted to know? So she sued her mother, brother and brother-in-law. Her charges were largely directed at her brother-in-law, Corbin Edgell. She claimed he had squandered more than $200,000 on the Sunnyside Plantation, that he had not properly managed the Corbin Park property in New Hampshire, and that he had sold off stock in the Long Island Railroad and other interests at a bargain price in an effort to further his own interests. She ultimately could not prove malfeasance, but the suit was costly. By the time the case was settled in 1904, the value of the estate had plummeted further to just $290,000 – at least that’s what the Corbins told the tax collectors.
Sunnyside Plantation suffered badly after Corbin’s death. None of his children took interest in the property. Promised improvements to the irrigation system were never completed, and the Italian immigrant laborers were beset with malaria, as a result. Disillusioned by the unfair treatment and illness, many simply moved on. Within a few years, the plantation was a wreck. The planned railroad, of course, was never built until others developed it years later.
In 1906, the corporation that owned the Manhattan Beach Hotel stopped making payments on its $5 million mortgage. It was sold at auction for $3.5 million, and operated for several more years until the Legislature banned racing on Coney Island in 1910. The Manhattan Beach was unceremoniously torn down in 1911, its owners assuring that the Oriental was strong and would continue operating. The Oriental was then torn down in 1916. In 2007, residents of Corbin Avenue on Coney Island successfully petitioned to strike Austin Corbin’s name from the history of their street. In attempt to sweep away the stain of Corbin’s anti-Semitism, the city declared that it was renaming the street in honor of revolutionary war hero Margaret Corbin (no relation).
The Long Island Railroad will turn 180 years old next year. Since Corbin’s time at the helm, it returned once more to bankruptcy in 1949 before being taken over by the state in 1966. The Pennsylvania and Reading Railroad, which came to symbolize the speculative bubble that caused the 1893 financial panic, continued its up-and-down history until 1976, when the last of its rail assets, known then as the Reading Railroad, were sold to Conrail. It lives on as a space on Monopoly boards, and its shell corporation has been reborn as a movie theater chain.
Corbin Park remains a non-profit wildlife preserve used for hunting by its members. In 1902, Teddy Roosevelt was one of its famous visitors. Other famous guests included presidents Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover, Woodrow Wilson, Yankee Joe DiMaggio (you know they weren’t Red Sox fans), and of course financiers, including Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan. In 1908, the Corbin family furnished the park service with 300 buffaloes from the park to assist in repopulating the species in the western states. The Corbin family retained control over the park until 1944, when it was transferred to a group that included Mortimer Proctor of the Vermont Proctor political dynasty. It is one of two Corbin Parks in the U.S. today. Spokane, Washington, also has a Corbin Park named for Daniel Chase Corbin, Austin’s brother. He was a railroad magnate in his own right on the West Coast, equally prosperous, though perhaps a bit less venal – he married his Swedish maid. Daniel’s Spokane home, the Corbin House, is also still around today. It very nearly wasn’t, however, since Corbin’s widow in 1921 plotted to burn it down in an insurance scam that went wrong. But that’s another Corbin story for another day.