By Mary T. Kronenwetter
Photos/Images courtesy Newport and Croydon
Historical Societies and Richards Free Library
In the late 1800s, Newport-born entrepreneur Austin Corbin II created a 26,000-acre wildlife preserve and private hunting park spanning the townships of Cornish, Croydon, Grantham, Newport and Plainfield. The majority of the park is in Croydon, with over 10,000 acres. 1,151 acres lie within Grantham’s borders. Corbin’s intention was to bring together at his preserve, “all the animals of the world that can live there harmoniously.”
Austin Corbin II
Corbin was born in Newport in 1827 and attended a one-room schoolhouse. He put himself through Harvard Law School before heading to Iowa where he soon switched from law to more lucrative land speculation and banking. In1863, the family moved to New York where he entered the railroad business, acquiring a controlling interest in the Long Island Rail Road and the presidency of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. He developed Coney Island’s Manhattan Beach and Manhattan Beach railroad and built three grand hotels there – The Oriental, Argyle and Manhattan.
America’s Gilded Age – the period post-Civil War, post reconstruction (1865-1901) saw unprecedented economic, territorial, industrial, and population expansions rooted in industrialism, railroads, banking and real estate speculation. One characteristic of the period was the American upper class’s opulent self-indulgence – think of The Breakers and other Newport “cottages.” Newly-minted American tycoons often copied European fashion and tradition, including creating “Deer Parks” or game preserves.
Corbin’s Long Island estate housed deer, elk, and antelope, but when the animals outgrew the space, Corbin decided to build his own wildlife preserve back in New Hampshire. Upon returning to Newport, he demolished his childhood home, except for the room in which he had been born, and built the mansion around that room. He built a suspension bridge over the Sugar River and the Northville rail station for his private railroad cars.
Corbin and his wife, childhood sweetheart Hannah Maria Wheeler, had returned to New Hampshire during a period of farm abandonment and decline in agriculture-based economy due to the effects of the Industrial Revolution. The state, in what has become known as the New Hampshire Summer Home Movement, was encouraging wealthy out-of-towners and returning native sons to buy up farms and create summer homes far away from the polluted cities.
By 1889, Corbin’s agent, Croydon native Sid Stockwell, had acquired between 265-373 deeds. The final cost of the land averaged $5 per acre. That same year, the preserve was registered with the State of New Hampshire as the Blue Mountain Forest Association, a limited membership proprietary hunting club. Austin Corbin’s enjoyment of his park was short lived. In 1896, a month before his 69th birthday Austin Corbin was killed in a runaway carriage accident in the driveway of his Newport mansion. Corbin’s son, Austin Corbin III took over management of the park until he died in 1938.
Building the Park
“Blue Mountain Forest” refers to the tinge of the park’s blue spruce and includes granite-topped Croydon Peak, the highest peak in Sullivan County (2,781 feet) and forest-summited Grantham Mountain (2,661 feet). There were also existing roads with farm buildings, machinery, a schoolhouse, orchards, vineyards, sawmills and a cemetery within the lands purchased. Some farmhouses were turned into camps for wardens or hunting members, but most were left to slowly deteriorate. Much of the pasture from former farms was allowed to revert to forested land, but some meadows were maintained and planted with rye, buckwheat, clover, carrots, and turnips for the animals.
The enclosing fence is 36 miles long and 12 feet high, with three feet of underground fencing to keep the boar from tunneling out. There were originally nine gates, each with a keeper’s lodge including four public or pass gates. Corbin added 15 miles of roads with granite watering troughs placed every four miles. A number of buildings were built including the Central Station clubhouse, winter-feeding sheds, barns and kennels.
Horses and other working animals were used by the rangers for transportation around the park and for dragging out carcasses that had been taken by hunters. English foxhounds trained for deer and elk, bloodhounds, French boarhounds, and Great Danes from Denmark assisted the hunters.
The Animal Garden
Indiginous wildlife in the park included snowshoe hare, ruffled grouse, wood duck, mink, fisher, otter, raccoon, and skunk. Deer, bear, wolf, and panther had been extinct for several generations in Sullivan County before the park was built. After the arrival of the game stock inside the fence, these species and others began to reappear outside and then inside the fence.
Thomas Ryan was hired in 1890 to begin importing animals. Ryan went to Canada to see what could be done about getting “any wild animals there except bears, panthers, wolves and foxes.” Moose, along with elk and caribou, were captured along the Canadian border. The caribou did not long survive the change in food and habitat. The moose lasted until the 1940s.Reindeer from Labrador and pronghorn antelope also did not survive. Elk or wapiti deer came from Northern Minnesota. Bighorn sheep as well as Himalayan goats were brought in but couldn’t adapt to the change in habitat. Gamebirds such as Chinese pheasant and Bobwhite quail were imported. The extinct beaver was reintroduced.
When the first shipment of Canadian white-tailed deer arrived in Newport, the entire town turned out to see a real live deer– deer having been hunted out in the region over a generation earlier. European red deer, roebuck, fallow and mule deer died off, but the white-tailed deer flourished. When the large animals such as deer, moose and bison arrived at Northville Depot, they were herded the five miles down the road to the park, the bison accompanied by cowboys!
Wild boar were imported from the Black Forest of Germany and Russia and prospered on an omnivores diet of grubs, roots and vegetation, supplemented in severe winters with corn from the park rangers. Originally, the boar were hunted on horseback, with javelins and Austrian boarsetters. Many boar escaped when portions of the fence blew down in the 1938hurricane and boar can occasionally be seen today in surrounding towns.
Corbin had seen “100,000 buffalos at one time” out West and was determined to help avoid their complete extinction. During the second half of the 19th Century, hunters, encouraged by the federal government, slaughtered over 60 million bison. As western expansion progressed, the bison were shot to clear land and transcontinental railroad tracks and assist in the extermination of Plains Native Americans, who relied on the bison for their survival. Thousands of bison were killed just for their tongues (a delicacy) and “hide hunters” sought buffalo leather.
Bison were imported from Oklahoma, Montana, Wyoming, Manitoba and Texas. The park also donated bison to a number of zoos and preserves across the country. Scotsman Billy Morrison was in charge of caring for the Corbin bison herd. He arrived at the park after bringing a herd of Angus cattle from Scotland. Corbin once considered crossing the bison with cattle, to secure a superior beef animal but that never happened. The Corbin Park bison were said to be 10% larger than normal, attributed to the excellent conditions of the Corbin Park Range and winter hand feeding. The herd was destroyed after an outbreak of brucellosis in the 1940s.
Blue Mountain Forest naturalist Ernest Baines, author of Wildlife in the Blue Mountain Forest also championed the national campaign to save the nearly extinct buffalo. He elicited help from President Theodore Roosevelt, who had visited Corbin’s park in 1902. Baynes was instrumental in the formation of the American Bison Society in 1905.
Visiting the Park and Famous Guests
When the park was built, it was open to the public. In addition to park passes, applicants were given a map of the park and printed instructions, signed by Mr. Corbin, warning them not to approach the animals or in any way to attempt familiarity with them. Sometime after the turn of the century, public access was discontinued. However, deer drives, boar hunts and game dinners were part of the Newport Winter Carnival for a number of years in the early 20th Century.
Visitors included Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover and Woodrow Wilson. When Edward VII, Prince of Wales, visited the park he was invited to shoot one bison, but ignored the request and shot six. Joe DiMaggio, The Yankee Clipper visited in the 1940s and went snowshoeing. Cornelius Vanderbilt and JP Morgan, personal friends of Austin Corbin II, would often visit Corbin’s Newport estate as did Cornish Colony artists Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Maxfield Parrish. While living in Vermont, author Rudyard Kipling visited the park. His book, Captains Courageous, includes a character, Slatin Beeman, based on Austin Corbin II.
Of the almost 20 species introduced into the park, only boar, elk, deer and beaver now remain alongside the indigenous species within 26,000 acres of conserved forestland. Today, the Blue Mountain Forest Association is the only active private hunting preserve in New Hampshire. In Wild Life in the Blue Mountain Forest, Ernest Baynes wrote, “Of all the works of the late Mr. Austin Corbin, the preservation of that herd of bison was the one that would earn his country’s deepest gratitude. His experiment led to the founding of the American Bison Society and was connected, directly or otherwise, with the formation of some of our national parks.”