E2: PARTNERS! The Triumphs and Tragedies of Elias Webb & Edward Corbin
You’ve probably never heard the names Elias Webb and Edward Corbin, but their legacy still
resonates in Colorado even though both men died over 120 years ago.
Webb and Corbin had a hand in nearly everything modern in the mountain town of Salida. They
constructed iconic buildings that still stand. And the men helped establish a building & loan, church,
private school, and a top-notch fire department. You can trace much of the city’s attitude of selfless
community service and even the first use of electricity to Elias Webb and Edward Corbin.
Entrepreneurs, leaders, and builders, politically active and civic-minded, Webb and Corbin freely
gave their time and money. Salida’s current citizens owe a debt of gratitude to these partners, almost
certainly, without even being aware.
Yet, their friendship, a brotherhood, actually, ended decades too soon because of tragedy,
leaving only one question: What would have been their impact on Colorado if both men lived out their
Elias Webb photograph From the Salida Regional Library archives, Webb as a Mason.
Salida Hose Company No. 1 Photographs and newspaper articles from The Mountain Mail, 1880-1881.
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The Triumphs and Tragedies of Elias Webb & Edward Corbin
You’ve probably never heard the names Elias Webb and Edward Corbin, but their legacy still resonates in Colorado even though both men died over 120 years ago.
Webb and Corbin had a hand in nearly everything modern in the mountain town of Salida. They constructed iconic buildings that still stand. And the men helped establish a building & loan, church, private school, and a top-notch fire department. You can trace much of the city’s attitude of selfless community service and even the first use of electricity to Elias Webb and Edward Corbin.
Their combined reach extended to Leadville, Malta, Bonanza, Sergeants, Pitkin, and Denver.
Entrepreneurs, leaders, and builders, politically active and civic-minded, Webb and Corbin freely gave their time and money. Salida’s current citizens owe a debt of gratitude to these partners, almost certainly, without even being aware.
Yet, their friendship, a brotherhood, actually, ended decades too soon because of tragedy, leaving only one question: What would have been their impact on Colorado if both men lived out their natural lives?
Sit back, turn up the volume, and let’s explore the intriguing story of the triumphs and tragedies of Elias Webb and Edward Corbin.
Welcome to History Does Rhyme. I’m your host, Steve Chapman. You can find every episode on this site and for free on HeartOfTheRockiesRadio.com and HistoryDoesRhyme.com. You can contact me on Facebook at History Does Rhyme.
Each week, we’re going to chat about the past, diving deep into stories you only thought you knew, and exploring a few tales you’ve never heard.
Elias Webb and Edward Corbin first meet in Joliet, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, while working at a mercantile business owned by George Chittenden. The two men will not separate again until the untimely death of Corbin.
Edward Corbin was born in 1855, in the tiny community of Plainview, Illinois, a few hours from where he will meet his lifelong friend and business partner. Corbin drops out of college to begin a career as a merchant, a decision that will make him wealthy and, indirectly, lead to his tragic ending.
Elias Webb arrives in the mercantile business along a more difficult pathway. Webb is eleven years older than Corbin and was born in 1844 in New York. When the War Between the States begins, Webb is 18 and a schoolteacher. He leaves the world of education to become a soldier in the Union Army, serving as a Second Lieutenant.
The war years take a toll on Webb, as it does most men. He is discharged from the 32nd infantry of Wisconsin because of sickness but determined to serve the cause, Webb immediately reenlists, this time in the 36th infantry of Wisconsin. He receives severe injuries in the battle of Cold Harbor, and everyone thinks the young man will die. But he recovers and serves with honors until the war ends in 1865 when Elias Webb was 21.
Through their years of work in the mercantile business, Webb and Corbin bond and decide to follow the railroad’s westward expansion, determining the mining towns of Colorado to be full of opportunity. They are correct. A few years before leaving the civilized world of the East, Elias Webb marries his employer’s daughter, a woman named Mary Chittenden. Two of Mary’s brothers also venture into Colorado’s wild country, occasionally partnering in
business with the friends.
Elias Webb and Edward Corbin first settle in Malta, just outside of Leadville. Both towns are within the California Gulch, an 18-square mile area that ultimately produces nearly $50 million in gold in today’s money. Miners need food and supplies, and the two men from Illinois intend to be the primary provider.
Along with another partner, Edward Dale, the company of Webb, Corbin and Dale operate in Malta throughout the boom years, well into the late 1880s. The trio eventually purchase most of their competitors to lock down the market.
But the two pals from Illinois have their sights on greater success and soon leave the Malta operation in the hands of Edward Dale so they can relocate to the up-and-coming community of Cleora.
Cleora is to be the primary hub in central Colorado until a legal conflict between two competing railroad companies results in Cleora quickly becoming a ghost town. The center of railroad traffic and commerce move a few miles down the road to a little sandbar on the Arkansas River’s edge. This flat, dusty, barren patch of land becomes Salida, and the town grows into a regional economic powerhouse.
Elias Webb and Edward Corbin are part of the new town’s success from day one. The year is 1880.
What neither man can know is that they will soon become wealthy and powerful beyond their wildest dreams. They also cannot imagine that Edward Corbin, now only 25 years old, will be dead before the decade was over or that Elias Webb’s life will also be cut short.
The boomtown of Salida, Colorado, is as violent and uncivilized as any in the frontier. There are brutal fights, murders, over 20 saloons, brothels, and gambling houses. No law exists for the first six months and no strong law officer for the first two years. 1880 is a chaotic, dangerous time, and a town appearing out of the dust offers ample opportunity for wealth and endless possibilities for death.
Webb and Corbin open a grocery store and soon constructs the first brick building in the city. The young men from the East invest everything in the exploding community’s future. That original brick building still stands in downtown Salida and has changed little since being constructed in 1883.
Beyond growing a business, Elias Webb and Edward Corbin invest time and money to help Salida transform from a dusty camp to a thriving community.
In today’s dollars, the Webb and Corbin grocery produce about $3 million in sales in their first year of business, and the company doesn’t even begin in earnest until the summer of 1880. The upstairs of their large building houses the Masonic lodge, of which both men are active members. Webb soon becomes grandmaster of the local fraternity, and Corbin serves as treasurer.
Elias Webb is a founding member of Salida Hose Company Number One, the firefighting team. He is on the front lines of numerous blazes, which repeatedly threaten to destroy the new city, and Webb serves in several positions of management for the group.
Edward Corbin, one of the most respected men in town, is elected mayor in 1887 by an overwhelming majority.
Those two positions, firefighter and mayor, illustrate the differences between the friends and possibly explains their intense friendship.
Elias Webb is a large man, over 220 pounds, friendly, vivacious, and a natural at making friends and motivating those around him. Edward Corbin is studious and quiet, rarely appearing in the newspapers, and never associated with anything controversial. Corbin seems to be the brains, and Webb appears to be the soul. A perfect combination for business, much less friendship.
The two men work tirelessly to grow their company. They are visionaries who understand the real money is in wholesaling groceries to the endless mining camps that regularly pop up in the region. Both Webb and Corbin travel continuously by train to establish and grow operations in Bonanza, Sergeants, Sedgwick, and Pitken—among the most prosperous communities during the boom years of mining.
By leveraging their close location to the new rail line, Webb and Corbin buy in bulk, lowering shipping costs and providing an advantage when selling against other grocers. They chose the perfect spot to develop a wholesale empire.
Not long after moving to Salida, Edward Corbin marries a woman also named Mary. He and his wife build one of the finest houses in town. Of course, his partner, Elias Webb, also has a place considered among the best.
Life is terrific for the young visionaries—each are regulars at high society parties and events.
Both men are instrumental in the Presbyterian Church’s rapid establishment and, several years later, the Presbyterian College. They also help create a private school and are stockholders in the original building and loan designed to assist the working class in affording homes.
Elias Webb is a co-founder of the Salida post of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternity for former union soldiers. This organization holds considerable influence in the United States conducting Memorial Day services and becoming prominent political advocates. Webb is also the Chairman of the 1882 Salida library association.
But life is not all peaches and roses for the partners.
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Elias Webb desires political success but fails twice at being named a nominee for State Senator, and he loses in his run for mayor. Webb does serve as Chairman of the county Republican Party and is elected trustee on the town council.
In the middle of their unrivaled success, Webb and Corbin, along with everyone in Salida, battle two devastating fires. The first, in March of 1886, nearly consumes their building. Only the heroic efforts of firefighters save the structure and prevents the inferno from destroying the entire city.
Heroics aside, it is strange that the fire company choose the Webb and Corbin building to make their stand against the out of control fire. Or maybe it isn’t at all peculiar. Yes, theirs is one of the few brick buildings in town, so it is easier to defend. Yes, with an alley between the building and the next block, it is a natural fire break to prevent the flames from leaping forward. Still…Webb and Corbin are two of the most powerful and influential men in the region. Their business in unparalleled in economic success, and Webb is an active founding member of the fire company. Webb and Corbin’s
building also survive a second fire, in 1888, an inferno that levels most of the downtown area.
Elias Webb and Edward Corbin have an extraordinary gift for recognizing opportunity and unquestionable courage in pursuing their ambitions.
In 1880, not long after arriving in the new town of Salida, they buy 300 lots from a landowner and become one of the primary real estate sources for those desiring a place to build a home. They are also the sole agents for Studebaker wagons, the finest manufacturer in the nation.
Webb and Corbin quickly invest heavily in mining. In 1882, the two men buy into the Lawrence Lode, part of the Whale Lode, one of the region’s more profitable mining strikes. They later purchase the entire mining operation with a new partner, William Robertson. Robertson owns the Chaffee County Bank.
Adding William Robertson to the mix is another stroke of genius. It allows Elias Webb and Edward Corbin to access a new source of funds and learn the business of banking. Webb uses the knowledge to help establish the Salida Building and Loan. Corbin use the friendship with Robertson to purchase a swath of downtown, after the fire of 1886, and build the Central Block, which still stands. The land costs $250,000 in today’s money, and the syndicate, which includes local real estate tycoon William Roller spends another $350,000 to construct the buildings.
A year later, in 1887, Roller, Robertson, Webb, and Corbin, along with five of Salida’s wealthiest businessmen combine to create one of the nation’s first electric companies.
Let’s add some context to the electric company endeavor.
Thomas Edison built his first electric plant in New York City in 1882. Most of the United States wouldn’t see electricity until between 1900 and the 1930s. Embracing such cutting-edge technology is brilliant and typical of the daring chances Salida investors took. By 1887, when the Electric Illuminating Company of Salida starts the little sandbar settlement is one of the West’s most modern cities. In addition to electric light, the downtown area boasts nine multi-story buildings, a mecca by any definition of the times.
Adding to the glory of the downtown area is the Salida Opera House. Edward Corbin led the charge to raise money for this stunning edifice in 1888. This grand building is considered one of the finest opera houses in the State, seating 600. Around the time Corbin is elected Chairman of the opera house and begins managing the new company, Webb moves to Denver to pursue riches in real estate.
The mutual change in direction begins a year earlier, in 1887, after the pair sells their grocery operation to local competitors, Gillette and Whitehurst.
But the clock is ticking on Edward Corbin’s life. The end is near. Keep listening.
Before relocating to Denver, Elias Webb becomes Vice President of the Salida Building and Loan Association. But Webb seeks more significant challenges and, with one of his brothers-in-law, forms Wolfe, Webb, and Chittenden, a real estate and lending company. The three men combine to invest $5 million in today’s money and grow the enterprise into one of Denver’s largest and most influential firms.
Although heading in different directions, geographically, Webb and Corbin remain close. They co-own numerous businesses and Elias Webb stays active in the Salida social scene, regularly returning for events and parties.
Perhaps a coordinated effort, the two men walk a parallel path even while living in different cities. While Webb tackles real estate and lending in Denver, on December 27, 1889, Edward Corbin becomes a major stockholder in the newly formed Chaffee County Abstract and Investing Company.
Two days later, he is dead.
On the evening of December 28, 1889, Edward Corbin enjoys a night out with several close friends, including business partners William Robertson and G.W. McGovern. Corbin is 34 years old, independently wealthy, and a respected man of considerable influence. He had a tooth extracted earlier that day, a simple procedure with no complications. Or so he thinks. Corbin arrives home at a reasonable hour, 9 p.m., and bids a happy farewell to his friends before
turning in for the evening.
That night, Edward Corbin awakens with intense headaches. As the night progresses, Corbin’s pain becomes unbearable. Likely, he is suffering from a dry socket—a condition caused when a blood clot fails to form following a tooth extraction. Typically, a blood clot begins immediately at the site of a removed tooth. The clot serves as a protective layer over the underlying bone and nerve endings in the empty socket. When a clot fails to form, the bone and nerves are exposed, and intense pain results, often lasting for several days.
Early the next morning, Corbin sends for his physician, Dr. Mattoon. Unable to locate Dr. Mattoon, Dr. Morrison arrives in his place and administers 1/3 gram of morphine by needle at 8:30 a.m.
Morphine is a commonly used pain medication in 1889.
Dr. Morrison goes downstairs and eats breakfast in the Corbin home. After an hour, there is no change in the severity of the pain, so the doctor injects Edward Corbin with an additional ¼ gram of morphine.
Not long after, Corbin indicates he felt tremendous relief and says he can sleep if the curtains are closed.
Dr. Morrison returns to Edward Corbin’s bedroom several minutes later to check on his patient and finds the 34-year-old in a stupor. There is no pulse in his wrist. Listening by stethoscope, the doctor hears only the faintest of a heartbeat.
To understand the amount of morphine injected into Edward Corbin, let’s consider modern dosing standards. Today, a patient typically receives no more than 1-2 milligrams every 10 minutes to a maximum of 10 milligrams. There are 1000 milligrams in one gram. So, Edward Corbin received the equivalent of about 60 times the modern recommended dosage. Like today, the overuse of opioids was rampant, particularly among wealthy patients who could afford expensive medications and demanded rapid results.
Dr. Mattoon, Corbin’s regular physician, arrives at the Corbin home at 10:30 a.m. For the next several hours, the two doctors, assisted by three nurses, attempt to revive their patient. They are unsuccessful, and at 5:30 p.m. on December 29, 1889, Edward Corbin is pronounced dead. He was in perfect health before the injections.
Upon hearing that his partner in trouble, Elias Webb rushes by train from Denver to Salida, but his friend is dead before he arrives.
At Edward Corbin’s funeral, Webb gives the eulogy and says, “It was my privilege to be associated in the most intimate relations with Edward Walter Corbin for a term of 10 years, that intimacy reaching almost the friendship and love of brothers, and no act of his during that time marked him as ought but the generous, upright man that he was.”
The Salida Mail newspaper writes, “No man had more friends and less enemies than Mr. Corbin and his death is a loss which cannot be replaced.”
Even after a severe loss, life goes on, so it continues in Denver for Elias Webb.
In addition to working with the real estate company he co-founded, Webb serves as president of three different mining companies in Cripple Creek. And in 1892, he helps start the Fidelity Building and Loan in Denver and serves as vice president.
But the aspirations of Elias Webb are massive. He re-enters politics, running for the position of sheriff of Arapahoe County, considered the most important jurisdiction in Colorado. He wins the contest for sheriff in 1895.
But tragedy is stalking Elias Webb just as it had his friend, Edward Corbin.
By 1897, Elias Webb and his wife, Mary, have been married 23 years. Besides Edward Corbin, Mary is Webb’s closest friend and confidante. Together, they’ve tackled the frontier, raised a family, and built a fortune. But life is only perfect in fairy tales.
Mary became ill in 1895, and her health steadily declines despite the best possible medical care. In October of 1897, Mary dies. She had been a quiet woman who never embraced the life of a wealthy socialite. Mary was active in the Presbyterian church but avoided the limelight and rarely received mention in the society pages.
Elias Webb is devastated by the loss of his wife, who was only 46. Friends state that Mary’s death is a blow the man cannot absorb and his zest for life evaporates.
Not that it matters to Elias Webb, but Mary’s death occurs in the middle of his re-election campaign for sheriff, which he wins.
In less than eight years, the two people who mattered most, Edward Corbin and Mary Webb, have died in the prime of life.
There are many pains a human can absorb, but some hurts can be consuming. Mary’s loss seems to be one too many, and Elias Webb appears to lose the will to live. After all, what’s the point of being rich, powerful, and famous without those who accompanied you on the journey?
In only five months, Webb drops from his typical robust 220 pounds to 117 pounds. He can’t keep food down and thinks he had cancer. With that self-diagnosis, Webb travels to San Diego, hoping access to better medical care and a change of environment will serve as a cure. It does not. He sends for the nation’s top cancer specialist, a doctor from Chicago, but even that intervention isn’t enough, and on April 24, 1898, Elias Webb dies at the age of 54.
One can argue that an unknown illness took Elias Webb’s life. But the fact he fell apart so quickly, less than a half year after the death of his only other close friend and love, indicates a broken heart is a more likely culprit.
I leave you with few final notes on the story of Elias Webb and Edward Corbin.
Edward Corbin’s wife, also named Mary, was 31 when he died. She raised their daughter as a single parent in Denver and never took another husband. Mary died in 1920 at the age of 74. The Fidelity Building and Loan, which Elias Webb helped co-found, went bankrupt in 1904, the result of shady dealings and the economic panic of the prior year. Shareholders and depositors lost hundreds of millions of dollars, and the man running the company, last-named Johnson, spent three years in jail for financial misconduct. Webb and Corbin’s banking friend, William Robertson, was also sent to prison following the failure of his bank a decade earlier.
As for Elias Webb, one newspaper article wrote that he died penniless, having spent his fortune searching for a cure to his mysterious illness. There is no documentation or evidence of this claim. Old newspapers often published rumor as fact, and unchecked, false statements often become historical truths. If Webb was bankrupt at his death, it went unnoticed by newspapers, stockholders, and his family.
That wraps up this episode of History Does Rhyme. Thank you for listening. Next week, I’ll be back with another story from the fascinating past of Colorado. If you liked this podcast, please share it with others. To stay in touch, connect with History Does Rhyme on Facebook. If you enjoyed this episode, you’d probably like the ‘Salida Sam’ historical book series. Each book covers two years in Salida history, and there are now four volumes on local bookshelves. You can
also purchase the books online by visiting HistoryDoesRhyme.com and clicking Shop on the menu. Until next week, remember the words attributed to famed writer Mark Twain, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
History Does Rhyme is a copyright production of Salida Walking Tours, LLC. No part of this podcast can be copied, shared, or transmitted without the expressed written consent of the owner. History Does Rhyme is written and produced by me, Steve Chapman, Caleb Burgraff is co-producer and technical advisor, Alex Johnstone performed the original music, and the entire episode was recorded and mixed at the studios of Heart of the Rockies Radio in Salida, Colorado.
History Does Rhyme is a weekly podcast exploring the fascinating past of Colorado.
Together, we'll do a deep dive into the stories you only thought you knew, uncovering the amazing true tales of the men, women, and battles that shaped the Centennial State.
I'm your host, Steve Chapman, historian/founder for Salida Walking Tours and Buena Vista Walking Tours. I also write the best-selling 'Salida Sam' historical book series and write/produce the award-winning A Salida Moment in History radio program and A Buena Vista History Flashback.
So, yeah, I'm a history nerd--with a passion for engaging storytelling. Join me every week and learn why famed writer Mark Twain is attributed with this quote: "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme."