Editor’s Note: This is the first of a six-part Historically Speaking series about the men who created the backbone of American industry, which built our nation. First up, the man who built the railroads: Cornelius Vanderbilt.
The ‘Commodore’ at the Helm
By Tom Morrow
He spawned one of America’s first influential and powerful industrial families throughout the 19th and into the 21th centuries. Cornelius Vanderbilt, known as “The Commodore,” was America’s first multi-millionaire shipping and railroad magnate as well as a philanthropist who built his enormous wealth in railroads and shipping.
Among the Commodore’s many accomplishments, he is known for owning or controlling a number of railroads including the New York Central Railroad, the builder of New York City’s Grand Central Station, and for providing the initial gift to found Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Born poor on May 27, 1794, Vanderbilt had only a mediocre education. He used perseverance, intelligence, and luck to work his way into leadership positions in the inland water trade and invest in the rapidly growing railroad industry.
According to historian H. Roger Grant: “Contemporaries often hated or feared Vanderbilt or at least considered him an unmannered brute. While Vanderbilt could be a rascal, combative and cunning, he was much more a builder than a wrecker … being honorable, shrewd, and hard-working.”
Vanderbilt brought his eldest son Billy in as vice-president of the Harlem Railroad. Billy had had a nervous breakdown early in life, and his father had sent him to a farm on Staten Island. But he proved himself a good businessman, and eventually became the head of the Staten Island Railway. Though the Commodore had once scorned Billy, he was impressed by his son’s success. Eventually he promoted him to operational manager of all his railroad lines. In 1864, the Commodore sold his last ships, in order to concentrate on the railroads.
Cornelius Vanderbilt died at the age of 82, on Jan. 4, 1877, at his residence, No. 10 Washington Place, after having been confined to his rooms for about eight months. The immediate cause of his death was exhaustion, brought on by long suffering from a complication of chronic disorders. Vanderbilt had a fortune estimated at $100 million. In his will, he left 95 percent of his $100 million estate to his son William (Billy) and to William’s four sons ($5 million to Cornelius, and $2 million apiece to William, Frederick, and George). The Commodore said that he believed William was the only heir capable of maintaining the business empire.
Commodore Vanderbilt willed amounts ranging from $250,000 to $500,000 to each of his daughters. His wife received $500,000, their New York City home, and 2,000 shares of common stock in the New York Central Railroad. To his younger surviving son, Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt, whom he regarded as a wastrel, he left the income from a $200,000 trust fund. The Commodore had lived in relative modesty considering his nearly unlimited means, splurging only on race horses. His descendants were the ones who built the Vanderbilt houses that characterize America’s Gilded Age. (Although his daughters and Cornelius received bequests much smaller than those of their brothers, these made them very wealthy by the standards of 1877 and were not subject to inheritance tax.)
According to The Wealthy 100 by Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther, Vanderbilt would be worth $143 billion in 2007 United States dollars. This would make him the second-wealthiest person in United States history, after Standard Oil co-founder John Davison Rockefeller (next week’s Part II). Another calculation, from 1998, puts him in third place, after steel magnet Andrew Carnegie, (Part III).
Cornelius Vanderbilt was buried in the family vault in the Moravian Cemetery at New Dorp on Staten Island. He was later reburied in a tomb in the same cemetery constructed by his son Billy. Three of his daughters and son, Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt, contested the will on the grounds that their father was of unsound mind and under the influence of his son Billy and of spiritualists whom he consulted on a regular basis.
The Commodore’s name continues to this day. A living descendant is his great-great-granddaughter Gloria Vanderbilt, a renowned fashion designer. Her youngest son is Anderson Cooper, a television news anchor. Through Billy’s daughter Emily Thorn Vanderbilt, another great-great grandson is TV actor Timothy Olyphant, (“Deadwood” and “Justified.”
Next Week: John D. Rockefeller
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