From Newsday


Riding the LIRR Together

Austin Corbin, a man who dreamed big, put the line on track for making money and meeting the 20th Century

By Sidney C. Schaer | Staff Writer

Article tools

IN THE LATE spring of 1882, Chester A. Arthur, president of the United States, was invited to travel via a private express train to the Babylon estate of Austin Corbin, president of the Long Island Rail Road.

Although Arthur may have only anticipated catching trout in a lake on Corbin's 15-acre estate, the railroad's new savior had bigger fish to fry.

Both men were transplanted New Englanders in their mid-50s who had shrewdly found success in what was to be known as America's Gilded Age. Only in office eight months, Arthur's improbable rise to national prominence had come after he succeeded President James A. Garfield, the victim of an assassin's bullets. Corbin, meanwhile, a lawyer and financier, was 17 months into his presidency of a railroad that was all potential. Corbin was bent on erasing the LIRR's notorious image as ``two streaks of rust and a right of way,'' and on May 29, 1882, he wanted to demonstrate more than a well-stocked trout pond to the new president.


A man who always thought big, Corbin was thinking at the moment of creating a deep-water, international steamship port at Fort Pond Bay in Montauk - a terminal for which a refurbished Long Island Rail Road was a crucial link. But to accomplish his plan of a New York-to-London ``boat-train'' capable of speeding transatlantic passage of both people and freight, Corbin would need all the powerful friends he could get. You couldn't have a more powerful friend than the man in the White House.

Though there is no record of what the two men discussed during their visit, it's hard to imagine Corbin letting the opportunity pass without mentioning his grandiose idea - especially after arranging for rail traffic to be cleared so that the presidential party could make the 37-mile return trip from Babylon back to the railroad's depot in Long Island City in just 40 minutes.

``President Arthur's Excursion. Speeding Over Long Island at the Rate of About a Mile a Minute,'' was the headline that appeared several days later in the Brooklyn Eagle. In its account of Arthur's two-day Long Island sojourn, the newspaper reported that the president, whose permanent home was in Manhattan, had questioned how long it would take for Corbin's private coach to travel between the estate in Babylon and the city. Corbin saw his chance to show both the president and the influential former U.S. Sen. Roscoe Conkling of New York, who was traveling with him, exactly how much had been accomplished since he had taken command of a collection of bankrupt railroads that had been consolidated under one banner less than two years before.

According to the Eagle's account, Arthur's entourage marveled that ``they had never ridden so rapidly and did not think such great speed could be attained with safety on a Long Island railroad.''

Until his death in a carriage accident 14 years later, Corbin pursued his transatlantic dream relentlessly. Though he never achieved this goal, he did succeed in something ultimately much more significant for Long Island. He built the LIRR into a profitable enterprise, expanding routes pivotal to the development of the Island in the 19th Century, as well as setting the stage for the railroad to become America's busiest commuter line in the 20th Century.

Bald, bearded and brusque, Corbin was also something of a ruthless businessman who engineered a monopoly that made him at times a target of resentment and derision. At one point, he was sarcastically labeled the ``King of Long Island.'' And there is no question that he displayed ethnic prejudices that today would not be tolerated.

Nonetheless, in assessing Corbin's legacy to Long Island and to the railroad, Garden City historian Vincent F. Seyfried, author of a seven-volume history of the LIRR, concluded: ``It was Corbin who spent millions modernizing the roadbed and equipment and keeping the road in the forefront of first-class carriers. No other president of the road before or since commanded the immense wealth, wide influence, expert financial knowledge and potent political connections that Corbin did. Fittingly, his sixteen-year presidency of the road can be regarded as the Golden Age of the Long Island Rail Road.''

When he took over the railroad in 1881 at age 53, Corbin was the embodiment of what historian Daniel Boorstin identified as America's generation of ``go-getters.'' His father was a small-time New Hampshire lawyer and politician, but Corbin had emerged with greater aspirations, and pursued an ever-changing array of them throughout his life.

Born July 11, 1827, the year America chartered its first railroad, Corbin grew up in Newport, N.H. He taught school until he had enough money to attend Harvard Law School, and after graduating in 1849, went to work with Ralph Metcalf, who eventually became governor of New Hampshire.

In 1851, Corbin heard the siren song of America's western frontier, and moved with a friend to Davenport, Iowa. For the next 14 years, Corbin made his life in the Midwest, grabbing opportunities as they came. Within three years of arriving in Davenport, he was a partner in a banking firm. He was especially fond of purchasing tax liens on properties, which allowed him to develop skills in real estate speculation. And when the National Banking Law was passed at the height of the Civil War, Corbin was at the head of the line to acquire a federal charter, organizing the First Bank of Davenport.

After the war, Corbin, now married, decided to come back east and open a small private bank, moving his family to a house in Brooklyn Heights. But he discovered a completely new enterprise after his son, Austin Jr., took ill and Corbin brought his family to the Brooklyn seaside to help him recuperate.

Where others saw a barren beach, Corbin saw a new business opportunity: a grand resort only 10 miles from Manhattan. In the next two years, he solicited investors and patiently acquired nearly two miles of beachfront property that he would call Manhattan Beach. And that's how Corbin discovered railroads. He needed a way to get people to the hotels he was planning.

Corbin's first venture was to create the New York and Manhattan Beach Railway, purchasing leftover cars and engines from the 1876 Centennial Exposition of Philadelphia and building a railroad from Bay Ridge to his fledgling beach resort. On July 19, 1877, the 350-room Manhattan Beach Hotel opened on 600 acres of pristine property. Three years later, in 1880, Corbin opened a second, even more opulent resort, The Oriental. Two years later, he would build another mammoth hotel, the Argyle, in Babylon.

Corbin's resorts were a success, but they were seasonal. It was his tiny Brooklyn railroad that led him to a more challenging and potentially more lucrative enterprise: the takeover of the Long Island Rail Road. It was a risky idea, to say the least. The rail line that linked Long Island to Manhattan (by ferry) was in a sorry state. Never a smooth-running enterprise, the roots of its financial woes went back 50 years, to when the railroad's tracks were first laid.

The original route, planned in the 1830s, was designed not to move people around Long Island, or even to New York City, but to expedite passage between New York and Boston. It traversed the spine of the Island, from Brooklyn to Greenport, where a ferry brought passengers across Long Island Sound.

But when a faster, all-rail route to Boston supplanted the LIRR by bypassing the Sound, what remained was an operation with few local customers and huge debts, a railroad reluctant to expand to the relatively populous Long Island shoreline communities that it had intentionally ignored for quick but short-lived profits. In turn, while the LIRR struggled, other railroads -- the Flushing and North Shore, the Central and the South Side -- were constructed to serve those communities. But in the 1870s, cut-throat competition between the various lines was driving them all into bankruptcy. By 1877, a court-ordered consolidation was under way.

Corbin saw this situation as a fine personal opportunity. Even as he launched his bustling seaside resorts, he organized a syndicate of investors from New York and Boston to take over the railroad and complete the reorganization. On Dec. 31, 1880, he became the 46-year-old railroad's 17th president.