Cornelius Vanderbilt was an American business tycoon and philanthropist known for amassing his fortune in railroads and shipping. One of the richest persons in the history of United States, Vanderbilt is most recognized for building the New York Central Railroad. Born into a poor family in Staten Island, New York, Cornelius left studies at the age of 11 and became involved in his father’s ferry business. Afterwards, he bought a sailboat and started his own ferry business, which soon became profitable as a result of his business acumen. Later, upon recognizing the superiority of steam over sailing vessels, he became a captain on a steam ferry between New York and New Brunswick. Subsequently, he started his own transatlantic steam-shipping business, covering most of the Hudson River traffic. Later, he turned his attention more and more towards the business of development of railroads, which was beginning to grow in the Unites States. He served as a director, and then the president, of the New York & Harlem railroad company, bringing a great deal of perfection in the services. Later, upon becoming the president of the New York Central railroad, he merged it with the Hudson River railroad, giving rise to one of the first giant corporations in American history. Also a leading philanthropist, he endowed a large sum for the construction of Vanderbilt University and donated generously to the churches. Deemed as one of America's leading capitalists, Vanderbilt is aptly credited for shaping the present-day United States.
Childhood & Early Life
Cornelius Vanderbilt was born on May 27, 1794, in Port Richmond, Staten Island, New York, to Cornelius van Derbilt, a seaman, and his wife, Phebe Hand. He had many siblings but most of them died at a young age.
At the age of 11, Vanderbilt left school and started working, as a boy, on his father's ferry in New York Harbor. When he was 16, Vanderbilt decided to start his own ferry service and purchased a sailboat.
He commenced his own company ferrying passengers and freight in New York Harbor between Staten Island and Manhattan. Subsequently, his business grew and during the War of 1812, he managed to acquire a government contract to provide supplies to forts along the Hudson River.
Between 1814 and 1818, he expanded the business with additional boats for freight and passenger services in Long Island Sound, and in the coastal trade from New England to Charleston in South Carolina.
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Upon spotting the emergence of steam vessels in the sea transportation business, in 1817, Vanderbilt sold his sailing vessels and started working, as a steamboat captain, in partnership with Thomas Gibbons, operating a ferry service from New Jersey to New York.
The business flourished and emerged as one of the most dominant ferry services on the busy Philadelphia-New York City route. In the 1820s, Vanderbilt started his own company, building steamships and operating ferry lines around the New York region. Subsequently, he expanded its services to the Long Island Sound, Providence and Connecticut areas.
Eventually, his business controlled most of the Hudson River traffic and by the mid-1840s, Vanderbilt was operating with a fleet of over 100 steamboats. During this time, he also operated several other businesses such as buying large amounts of real estate in Manhattan and Staten Island.
Subsequently, he became a part of ventures in Central America and began supervising a transatlantic steamship between New York and France. In 1859, he established the Atlantic & Pacific Steamship Company.
In the 1860s, Vanderbilt seized another business opportunity and shifted his focus from shipping to the railroad industry, which was entering a period of great expansion in the United States. Subsequently, he purchased and interconnected several existing railway lines operating in the country, establishing an interregional railroad system.
After getting hold of the Long Island Railroad, he acquired a controlling interest in the Hudson River railway in 1864 and the following year, became its president. Later, he engineered the consolidation of the New York & Harlem and the Hudson Line.
In 1867, Vanderbilt acquired the Central Railroad and merged it with the other railroads he held. Over the next decade, he extended his railroad empire, acquiring the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway, the Michigan Southern Railroad, the Canada Southern Railway, and the Michigan Central Railroad.
In 1870, he consolidated two of his key lines into the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, one of the first giant corporations in the history of America. His acquisition of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern railway provided the first thorough rail service between New York and Chicago. Subsequently, he acquired numerous railroads, giving rise to the largest American railway transportation system of the time.
In 1870, Vanderbilt gave $1 million as seed capital for what would become Vanderbilt University, named in his honor. It was the largest charitable gift in American history till that date. He also donated large sums of money to the churches.
Awards & Achievements
In 1999, Vanderbilt became an inductee of the North America Railway Hall of Fame, for his significant contributions to the railroad industry.
Personal Life & Legacy
In December 1813, Vanderbilt married Sophia Johnson, his first cousin. They had 13 children and the couple remained together until the death of Sophia in 1868.
In 1869, he tied the knot with Frances Armstrong Crawford, a distant cousin from Alabama who was 45 years younger than him. They remained married until Vanderbilt’s death in 1877.
Cornelius Vanderbilt died on January 4, 1877, at his home in New York, U.S., after a long illness, leaving the majority of his estate to his eldest son, William. He was interred in the family vault in the Moravian Cemetery at New Dorp on Staten Island.