D.C. Corbin: Railway Builder and Entrepreneur
Daniel Chase "D.C." Corbin
Railway Builder and Entrepreneur
D. C. Corbin spent his early years on the family farm in New Hampshire but in 1852 went west, where he worked surveying lands in Iowa and then in Nebraska Territory. He took advantage of the expanding western economy to set up a prosperous freighting business, which relied principally on military and mining cartage. In 1862, shortly after his first marriage, Corbin moved to Denver, Colo., and in 1865 he went on to Montana Territory. Although he remained active in freighting, ventures such as banking and mining attracted him also. His wife’s ill health eventually led him to abandon some of these interests and distance himself from others, however. After 1872 he spent much time in New York and Europe, hoping to find a place congenial to her, but rheumatoid arthritis would confine her to a wheelchair until her death, in France in 1900.
During the late 1870s, when he was not traveling, Corbin worked with his brother Austin, whose railway, the New York and Manhattan Beach, helped to establish Coney Island, N.Y., as a popular recreational area. He returned to Montana in the fall of 1882 and, spurred by the entry into that territory of the Northern Pacific Railroad, soon joined in organizing the Helena Mining and Reduction Company. The construction of the Northern Pacific helped spark a mining boom in the Coeur d’Alene region of Idaho, and in 1886 Corbin built his first railway, connecting the mines to the Northern Pacific. Legal considerations led him to run the line east from Spokane rather than west from Montana. The Coeur d’Alene Railway was successful but in 1888 Corbin sold it to the Northern Pacific rather than devote his energies to running it. He then turned his attention to Canada, attracted by the newly discovered mines in the Kootenay region of British Columbia. As the example of the Coeur d’Alene suggested, substantial profits could be made by constructing feeder lines to link mines with the expanding transcontinental rail network, and over the next decade Corbin built a series of lines connecting southeastern British Columbia with the railways passing through Spokane Falls (Spokane).
The federal government of Sir John A. Macdonald* and the Canadian Pacific Railway regarded Corbin’s activities as a significant threat to their plans for a national east-west transportation network. In 1889 the CPR invested in a railway in southeastern British Columbia which would link the Arrow and Kootenay lakes; it explained to shareholders that the move was taken “to prevent invasion by foreign lines of the Kootenay district, in British Columbia – a district rich in precious metals and other natural resources.” The following year the government refused to allow Corbin to build a line to Nelson from Spokane Falls. The Vancouver Weekly World claimed that the CPR was behind this ruling: “It was apparent from the first that the Government and all its supporters had accepted the Canadian Pacific Railway view.” Such opposition did not deter Corbin. In the summer of 1890 he completed a rail line from Spokane Falls to the Little Dalles (near Marble), Wash., from which point the Columbia River was navigable into British Columbia. This Spokane Falls and Northern Railway connected with steamers running upriver to the Arrow Lakes, and ultimately with the CPR main line at Revelstoke. By 1892 Corbin’s railway had come to Northport, Wash., close to the British Columbia border. In the same year he secured federal approval to build an extension of it to Nelson (a line whose Canadian section would be known as the Nelson and Fort Sheppard Railway). He completed that work by the end of 1893.
Corbin’s next Canadian project was the Red Mountain Railway, called the Columbia and Red Mountain south of the border. It was a 17-mile line, finished in December 1896, that linked Rossland, B.C., a booming mining town, with the Spokane Falls and Northern Railway at Northport. From there passengers and freight could continue south to Spokane or travel north to Nelson. The worst fears of the CPR seemed to be coming true: as a Spokane newspaper proclaimed, the construction of the Red Mountain Railway “has made Spokane the virtual headquarters of Rossland’s mining men, and the acknowledged trade center of the entire Trail Creek region.” The smelter at Trail, B.C., built in 1896 to treat Rossland ore, was forced to compete with one at Northport. Since the latter was controlled by the owners of one of Rossland’s leading mines, a good deal of the town’s ore went south on Corbin’s line. In 1898 Corbin sold his various railways to John Pierpont Morgan, although James Jerome Hill’s Great Northern Railroad soon acquired them.
After the sale of his lines Corbin pursued various business interests in and around Spokane, but he returned to railway building in 1905, now working in concert with the CPR. His Spokane International Railway ran northeast from Spokane through Idaho and into the East Kootenay region of British Columbia. At the same time he organized a company to work a rich coal seam in the Crowsnest Pass, the Corbin Coal and Coke Company Limited, which operated until 1935. This proved to be his last Canadian venture.
Corbin was remembered as a stern, brusque, and disciplined man who “liked to be talked up to.” He kept his distance from Spokane society, which after his marriage to his housekeeper in 1907 ignored him, and he lived quietly in a large but austere house. He remained active in business until his death, but he was best known as a railway builder. His lines shaped the early economic development of the Kootenays and established Spokane as the commercial centre of Washington, Idaho, and southeastern British Columbia. His career is illustrative of the American competition that forced the CPR to defend its interests in western Canada by building the Crowsnest Pass line and forming a subsidiary, the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada Limited, better known as Cominco.
Biography from Dictionary of Canadian Biography