Cornelius Vanderbilt - Biography, Children and Facts

Cornelius Vanderbilt - Biography, Children and Facts

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Shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) was a self-made multi-millionaire who became one of the wealthiest Americans of the 19th century. As a boy, he worked with his father, who operated a boat that ferried cargo between Staten Island, New York, where they lived, and Manhattan. After working as a steamship captain, Vanderbilt went into business for himself in the late 1820s, and eventually became one of the country’s largest steamship operators. In the process, the Commodore, as he was publicly nicknamed, gained a reputation for being fiercely competitive and ruthless. In the 1860s, he shifted his focus to the railroad industry, where he built another empire and helped make railroad transportation more efficient. When Vanderbilt died, he was worth more than $100 million.

Cornelius Vanderbilt: Early Years

A descendant of Dutch settlers who came to America in the mid-1600s, Cornelius Vanderbilt was born into humble circumstances on May 27, 1794, on Staten Island, New York. His parents were farmers and his father also made money by ferrying produce and merchandise between Staten Island and Manhattan in his two-masted sailing vessel, known as a periauger. As a boy, the younger Vanderbilt worked with his father on the water and attended school briefly. When Vanderbilt was a teen he transported cargo around the New York harbor in his own periauger. Eventually, he acquired a fleet of small boats and learned about ship design.

In 1813, Vanderbilt married his cousin Sophia Johnson, and the couple eventually had 13 children. (A year after his first wife died in 1868, Vanderbilt married another female cousin, Frank Armstrong Crawford, who was more than four decades his junior.)

Cornelius Vanderbilt: Steamships

Cornelius Vanderbilt initially made his money in the steamships business before investing in railroads. In 1817, Vanderbilt went to work as a ferry captain for a wealthy businessman, Thomas Gibbons, who owned a commercial steamboat service that operated between New Jersey and New York. The job provided Vanderbilt the opportunity to learn about the burgeoning steamship industry. In the late 1820s, he went into business on his own, building steamships and operating ferry lines around the New York region. Shrewd and aggressive, he became a dominant force in the industry by engaging in fierce fare wars with his rivals. In some cases, his competitors paid him hefty sums not to compete with them. (Throughout his life, Vanderbilt’s ruthless approach to business would earn him numerous enemies.)

In the 1840s, Vanderbilt constructed a large brick home for his family at 10 Washington Place, in Manhattan’s present-day Greenwich Village neighborhood. Despite his growing wealth, the city’s elite residents were slow to accept Vanderbilt, considering him rough and uncultured.

In the early 1850s, during the California Gold Rush, a time before transcontinental railroads, Vanderbilt launched a steamship service that transported prospectors from New York to San Francisco via a route across Nicaragua. His route was faster than an established route across Panama, and much speedier than the other alternative, around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, which could take months. Vanderbilt’s new line was an instant success, earning more than $1 million (about $26 million in today’s money) a year.

Cornelius Vanderbilt: Railroads

He was infamously involved in the Erie Railroad War of 1868, when he battled Wall Street traders Jim Fisk and Jay Gould for financial control of the Erie Railroad. The Erie was controlled by Daniel Drew, who conspired with Vanderbilt to buy up the majority of shares in the railroad. In response, Gould and Fisk issued additional, watered down shares, which Vanderbilt continued to buy. Newspapers of the era reveled in the fight between the robber barons. The Erie Railroad War came to a bizarre close when Gould and Fisk gained ultimate control of the railroad, pushing Drew to retire while paying back Vanderbilt for his watered down stocks.

Undeterred, Vanderbilt went on to other endeavors, and was the driving force behind the construction of Manhattan’s Grand Central Depot, which opened in 1871. The station eventually was torn down and replaced by present-day Grand Central Terminal, which opened in 1913.

Cornelius Vanderbilt: Final Years

Unlike the Gilded Age titans who followed him, such as steel magnate Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) and Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), Vanderbilt did not own grand homes or give away much of his vast wealth to charitable causes. In fact, the only substantial philanthropic donation he made was in 1873, toward the end of his life, when he gave $1 million to build and endow Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. (In a nod to its founder’s nickname, the school’s athletic teams are called the Commodores.)

The Vanderbilt mansions associated with the Gilded Age, including the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island and the Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, were built by Cornelius Vanderbilt’s descendants. (The 250-room Biltmore estate, constructed in the late 19th century by one of Vanderbilt’s grandsons, is the largest privately owned home in the United States today.)

Vanderbilt died at age 82 on January 4, 1877, at his Manhattan home, and was buried in the Moravian Cemetery in New Dorp, Staten Island. He left the bulk of his fortune, estimated at more than $100 million, to his son William (1821-85).


The Wall Street War to Control the Erie Railroad. ThoughtCo.

Cornelius Vanderbilt facts for kids

Cornelius Vanderbilt (May 27, 1794 – January 4, 1877), also known informally as "Commodore Vanderbilt", was an American business magnate and philanthropist who built his wealth in railroads and shipping. Born poor and having but a mediocre education, he used perseverance, intelligence and luck to work into leadership positions in the inland water trade, and invest in the rapidly growing railroad industry. He is best known for building the New York Central Railroad.

As one of the richest Americans in history and wealthiest figures overall, Vanderbilt was the patriarch of a wealthy, influential family. He provided the initial gift to found Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Cornelius Vanderbilt Biography: "The Commodore"

Even today, more than 140 years since his passing, Cornelius Vanderbilt's name continues to evoke power, prestige, and fame.  He remains the most revered railroad executive of all time although his direct involvement did not begin until age 70! 

For most of his life, this self-taught Staten Islander, with almost no formal education, made millions in the marine/ferry trade. 

Table Of Contents

Vanderbilt was born decades prior to the steam engine's widespread use.  However, following its development, he was quick to harness its advantages in amassing a fortune which eventually earned him the title of Commodore.  

He was a celebrity and legend in his own time, becoming one of the richest individuals in America thanks to his relentless competitiveness.  

Vanderbilt fervently believed in laissez-faire economics, using it to great advantage in crushing his rivals.  After a lifetime on the sea, he shifted all focus to railroads in 1863. 

While Vanderbilt could be rightfully argued as a profiteer with little interest in the public good he was nevertheless fair in business dealings. By the time of his death in 1877 he had laid the foundation for what would become the modern New York Central System. 

An A-B set of New York Central F3's have a westbound manifest as the train passes the eastbound "New England States" (Chicago - Cleveland - Boston) near U.S. Steel's South Works at 87th Street (Chicago) during January, 1951.

Background And Early Life

The early life and childhood of Cornelius Vanderbilt is not particularly noteworthy.  While it will be discussed here in brief this article will predominantly focus on the Commodore's railroad career. 

If interested in a complete biography of Vanderbilt please consider a copy of T.J. Stiles' "The First Tycoon: The Epic Life Of Cornelius Vanderbilt." 

It is the quintessential book on his life.  Cornelius Vanderbilt was born on May 27, 1794, the fourth child of Phebe Hand and਌ornelius Van Der Bilt (original spelling). 

His parents were Dutch although their family's history can be traced back to immigrants who settled the colony of "New Netherlands" in 1650. 

By trade, father Cornelius was a farmer and, living so close to New York (then a city of only 33,000), would sell his produce in the city.  Ferrying his goods to market required water transport.  In Van Der Bilt's case he piloted a two-masted vessel known as a periauger. 

This little boat was a Dutch invention specifically meant to carry people and/or goods across the bay.  Cornelius never became rich in this trade although it did supplement farming. 

Because of their limited means, he and his wife were quite frugal and always saved what disposable income they had.  Phebe even lent her silver, earning a profit through the accrued interest.   

Industry And Facts

This background set the stage for young Cornelius's future endeavors.  As a child he put in long hours on his father's farm and from this impressionable age learned the value of hard work.  His father was often overbearing in pursuit of the family farm. 

For this reason the lad never had a great interest in formal schooling and quit at the age of 11 to focus exclusively on farming.  Vanderbilt's lack of education would prove costly as he climbed the corporate ladder.  He never learned to write proper English and instead spelled words phonetically. 

This handicap plagued Vanderbilt throughout his life it was not only embarrassing but also caused his shunning by the social elite for many years.  Over the years he partially tackled the issue but always hated putting pen to paper. 

By the age of 12, he had grasped the ferry business quite well coupled with his mother's teachings of savings, borrowing, and collateral he was primed to enter the business world. 

This came at the age of 16 when he put a periauger to work, which was technically the property of his parents.  After saving enough money he acquired his very own boat by 1813 and his career on the water officially began (that same year, on December 19, he married first cousin, Sophia Johnson).

A New York Central publicity photo featuring the railroad's flagship service, the "20th Century Limited," at Cold Spring, New York in June, 1947.

During the War of 1812, Vanderbilt secured a government contract for the movement of military supplies to forts and other projects under construction around New York Harbor. 

While the story's validity cannot be confirmed it is said he was awarded this undertaking due to his growing reputation as a competent and able ferryman who offered fair prices. 

Vanderbilt's attention to cost, frugality, customers, and his tenacious competitiveness earned him increasingly more money.  His aggression continually drove rivals out of business.  In some cases they bought him off simply to eliminate the headache.

His usual tactic involved slashing prices so low the opposition would capitulate.  He usually lost money himself in the short term but nearly always achieved victory in the long term. 

Vanderbilt continually accrued hard capital through either direct cash savings, real estate, or interest earned on loans.  As his financial security grew it aided future conquests. 

On November 24, 1817, at the age of 23, he took command of the steamboat Mouse, a vessel owned by the wealthy Thomas Gibbons, then one of the nation's most successful merchants. 

New York Central E7A #4002 pulls into Chicago's Englewood Union Station on April 21, 1965. Roger Puta photo.

Steam, of course, was the future in transportation as one no longer needed the winds or currents to power vessels.  During his time overseeing Gibbons' fleet he honed his skills as both a seaman and businessman. 

On May 16, 1826 Vanderbilt's long-time mentor passed away and the estate passed on to his son.  Vanderbilt never cared much for William Gibbons who he saw as weak, a trait the Commodore loathed. 

In early 1828 the rising seafarer launched his very own steamboat, the Citizen a 106-foot, 145-ton sidewheeler.  As his means grew, Vanderbilt became a force within the maritime industry. 

He acquired evermore steamships and was equally adept at designing his own boats with a constant eye towards cost and speed.  A personal clerk who he hired in 1837, Lambert Wardell, once remarked, "He never had a debt and never bought anything on credit.  He was economical almost to extremes." 

Vanderbilt was believed to be worth a half-million dollars by 1834 and six years later set foot in his new mansion on Staten Island. (Interestingly, he would live in this home for only 13 years.  In 1846 he moved into a new home at 10 Washington Place in Manhattan.  This would remain his residence until his death.)

Earning The Title Of "Commodore"

Until the late 1840's, Vanderbilt had largely concentrated solely on freight and passenger traffic (both ferry and maritime) between New York-Boston, and Long Island Sound in particular. 

That changed with the California Gold Rush of 1849.  He also became involved with railroads at this time and as his prestige grew so, too, did his celebrity. 

The New York Herald reported on March 6, 1851, "Commodore Vanderbilt's character for energy and go-aheadativeness is well known in this community.

He is a man whose resolution is indomitable, and before whose determination obstacles, no matter how great, disappear as the morning dew before a July sun.

The result of the Gold Rush brought thousands of settlers into California, especially into the then-small community of San Francisco. 

As an increasing number of Europeans flocked westward, predominantly via steamboat around Cape Horn, California achieved statehood on September 9, 1850 with travel needs so strong, many companies stepped forward to fill the demand as millions of dollars was poured into waterborne transportation. 

On April 19, 1849, 226 steamships alone would depart New York for California, carrying some 20,000 travelers.  In addition to people, the federal government was interested in shipping mail to and from the west coast.  The most practical way was the ocean and South America's Cape Horn. 

Recognizing this immense monetary opportunity, Vanderbilt and a few associates believed a canal across Nicaragua was not only practical but could also shave days off the journey. 

It was an arduous albeit predominately natural passage, one which would utilize the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

The only man-made section was a 12-mile component along the western fringe.  The project was incorporated as the American Atlantic & Pacific Ship Canal Company and following considerable delays, dealings, and political bickering (particularly involving England) Vanderbilt's steamship Prometheus made its way to Greytown, Nicaragua on a trail run from New York. 

After arriving at its destination, the goods and passengers were offloaded onto smaller vessels to complete the inland journey.  Vanderbilt, himself, was on this trip and became convinced of its merits once he had returned to New York. 

On July 14, 1851 the Prometheus again departed New York Harbor, this time on theਊmerican Atlantic & Pacific Ship Canal Company's inaugural run.  It proved a short-lived venture as the corporation's charter was transferred to another Vanderbilt-controlled entity on August 14th that year, the Accessory Transit Company.  

An A-B-A set of New York Central covered wagons led by F7A #1707 is stopped at St. Thomas, Ontario on subsidiary Canadian Southern (CASO) with a westbound freight as the train waits for the electrified London and Port Stanley Railway during September of 1957. Much of this double-tracked route, a very important corridor under the Central, has since been abandoned. David Sweetland photo.

Unfortunately, his interest in the Nicaraguan venture was always a tumultuous affair, largely due to a meddling associate, one Joseph L. White. 

The operation nevertheless proved quite successful and by the 1850's his nickname as the਌ommodore, typically reserved for the highest ranking title of a naval officer, was well-established.

He later tapped the transatlantic steamship market (late 1854), a venture which also proved successful.  For his many achievements at home and abroad, Vanderbilt's coveted U.S. mail contract always alluded him.  Over the next decade he continued to focus on his various maritime dealings. 

With a great sense of patriotism he even played a key role during the Civil War.  More than once Vanderbilt was offered top positions within President Abraham Lincoln's staff.  However, always fiercely against the politic arena he declined each time. 

His primary contribution to the war effort involved lending his maritime expertise and gifting the United States his most prized steamship, the five-decked Vanderbilt

This enormous boat was placed into service on May 5, 1857 where it competed in the transatlantic arena.  It was not only large but also fast, able to reduce the New York-Liverpool run from eighteen days to nine.  At first, the Navy rejected his offer.  However, when the Confederacy unveiled the ironclad CSS Virginia on March 8, 1862 everything changed.

- The CSS Virginia was always referred to as the Merrimack਋y Union forces as the warship was rebuilt from the salvaged USS Merrimack. -With nearly impenetrable armor the vessel was capable of single-handedly crushing the Union fleet which consisted of traditional wooden-hauled designs.

During that day it sank the USS Cumberlandਊnd USS Congress while severely damaging the USS Minnesota.  On March 9th, it was met by the United States' own new ironclad, the USS Monitor.  The two battled to a stalemate within the James River at Hampton Roads, Virginia. 

As an added protection against the Rebels' new creation, President Lincoln and the War Department acquired the Vanderbilt.  While it would never engage the CSS Virginia਍irectly the titanic sidewheeler nevertheless kept her from wreaking further havoc.  

On May 10, 1862 Union forces captured Norfolk, denying the Virginia port facilities.  With nowhere to refit and reequip itself, Confederate forces scuttled the ship on May 11th to avoid its capture. 

The Vanderbilt would later earn acclaim chasing another infamous Confederate warship, the CSS Alabama.  This sloop-of-war earned recognition as one of the war's most successful raiders.  Once again, the Vanderbilt never engaged the Alabamaਊlthough she did prevent the vessel from creating further trouble along the U.S. coast.

 Theਊlabama was eventually sunk by the USS Kearsargeਊt the Battle of Cherbourg outside the port of Cherbourg, France on June 19, 1864.  For the service to his country, Vanderbilt was awarded a special gold medal following a resolution passed by Congress on January 28, 1864.

A New Era, The Railroads

While the Commodore's direct involvement with railroads did not begin until age 70, he had nevertheless maintained a long history in the industry.  It began on November 8, 1833 when he traveled to nearby South Amboy, New Jersey to inspect the recently completed Camden & Amboy Railroad. 

At the time the new technology was little more than a novelty although that would soon change.  In a decision that nearly killed him, Vanderbilt rode the new contraption that day. 

The train derailed en route and despite the traumatic event he held no serious grudge against the iron horse.  In fact, Vanderbilt remained keenly interested in the newfangled device. 

On November 10, 1837 the New York, Providence & Boston Railroad (NYP&B) opened its first 50 miles southwestward from Providence, Rhode Island.  Better known as the "Stonington Railroad" (a future component of the modern New York, New Haven & Hartford) Vanderbilt also rode this line and became convinced of its potential. 

He stated it was the fastest way to Boston (from New York) and later, during the summer of 1845, purchased considerable shares in the NYP&B.  The following year he also acquired substantial stakes in the Hartford & New Haven Railroad (the precursor to the modern New Haven). 

By 1847, he had ascended to the presidency of the Stonington.  While the system was well-managed under his direction, the Commodore's interest in railroads remained subdued as he pursued the Nicaragua canal project.  This led to his resignation from the Stonington on May 14, 1849.

It was in 1854 that he first became involved with the railroad he would later control, the New York & Harlem Railroad (NY&H).  It was the city's first such system, incorporated on April 25, 1831. 

Only after Vanderbilt's involvement (On May 18, 1863 he won a directorship and the following day was elected president.), who recognized the railroad's potential, did it thrive. 

Prior to this the NY&H had been a poorly managed, unprofitable operation.  In 1864 he took control of the nearby Hudson River Railroad, which maintained a roughly parallel route between Albany and New York City. 

An A-B-A set of New York Central E7's hustle the eastbound "20th Century Limited" along the Hudson River north of New York City in July of 1947. Storm King Mountain can be seen in the background to the left. Ed Nowak photo.

Interestingly, as Mr. Stiles notes, Vanderbilt's business tactics changed as his railroad involvement deepened. Perhaps, in part, due to his advancing age he often chose diplomacy over open hostility. 

Another reason was a result of railroading's very nature unlike steamships, where one could simply chart a course between two points, railroads operated on fixed infrastructure.  Since no singular company then owned a through route between major cities, companies were forced to work together.

The Children Of Cornelius And Sophia Vanderbilt

Phebe Jane Vanderbilt (1814–1878)

Ethelinda Vanderbilt (1817–1889)

Eliza Vanderbilt (1819–1890)

William Henry "Billy" Vanderbilt (1821–1885)

Emily Almira Vanderbilt (1823–1896)

Sophia Johnson Vanderbilt (1825–1912)

Maria Louisa Vanderbilt (1827–1896)

Frances Lavinia Vanderbilt (1828–1868)

Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt (1830–1882)

George Washington Vanderbilt I (1832–1836)

Mary Alicia Vanderbilt (1834–1902)

Catherine Juliette Vanderbilt (1836–1881)

George Washington Vanderbilt II (1839–1864)

Corporate America of the 19th century was a cutthroat affair with speculators and Wall Street magnates constantly undercutting one another in an attempt to line their own pockets.  This was especially true with railroads, the largest businesses in the country. 

Unfortunately, with little government oversight, executives like Jay Gould, Daniel Drew, and Collis Huntington often put profits ahead of public service. 

Even Vanderbilt could be rightfully accused of this although his empire was not the result of direct conquests.  Time and again he added systems as a defensive measures. 

After becoming involved in the Harlem, he acquired the competing Hudson River Railroad (via stock control) to protect the NY&H.  A plot by Leonard Jerome in 1864 to takeover the original New York Central Railroad (NYC) would have essentially made the NY&H redundant. 

Jerome also controlled the Hudson River and his addition of the NYC would have provided him a direct route from New York City to Buffalo via Albany. 

Following Vanderbilt's Hudson River conquest he stated: "I said this is wrong, these roads should not clash.  Then step-by-step I went into the Hudson River.

Typical of Vanderbilt he was concise and to the point although the actual process of acquiring the system was a chess game, one in which he had become a master.  As his railroad portfolios grew, Vanderbilt left the ocean for good in 1864. 

New York Central's eastbound "Missourian" (St. Louis - New York) skirts the Mohawk River between Utica and Albany, New York during July of 1952.

Interestingly, his railroading career was predominantly from a leadership level.  Vanderbilt was rarely involved in the day-to-day, operational management of his properties instead, he delegated these responsibilities to subordinates.  He did, however, regularly take inspection trips. 

According to Mr. Stiles' book, "Vanderbilt. set general policies, as well as the overall tone of management. The Commodore created an atmosphere of efficiency, frugality, and diligence, as well as swift retribution for dishonesty or sloth."  The Commodore's greatest single acquisition was the original New York Central Railroad. 

For years, the NYC was controlled by Erastus Corning, a man who, after some time, became an ally of Vanderbilt's.  In April, 1864 Corning retired and was replaced by vice president Dean Richmond, another competent railroader who Vanderbilt respected. 

During his tenure they enjoyed friendly, mutual traffic interchanges.  Alas, he passed away unexpectedly in late 1866 and was subsequently replaced by Henry Keep on December 12, 1866. 

Keep had no interest in working with the Commodoreਊnd became extremely hostile to Vanderbilt's railroads. 

So much so the NYC refused to handle westbound shipments of the Harlem and Hudson River.  After many failed attempts at appeasement, Vanderbilt retaliated by refusing to send eastbound NYC shipments beyond the Albany gateway after January 18, 1867.

New York Central E8A's have a passenger consist at Chicago's Englewood Union Station on April 21, 1965. Roger Puta photo.

As the largest American city, New York was a vital market and Vanderbilt controlled the only direct entry.  His move scared Keep so badly the man yielded and immediately settled for terms on January 19th.  In the aftermath, Keep and his associates sold large blocks of their NYC shares, which Vanderbilt acquired. 

Less than a year later he was named New York Central's president (December 11, 1867).  Now under control of all lines between New York and Buffalo, the Commodoreਏormed the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad in 1869 the HRRR and NYC were merged into the new operation while the Harlem was leased. 

As Brian Solomon and Mike Schafer note in their book, "New York Central Railroad," another important addition was the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway.  

This very large Midwestern had a history tracing as far back as the 1830s and grew through a combination of takeovers and mergers. ਊt its peak the LS&MS connected Buffalo with Chicago via Toledo, Cleveland, and Elkhart.  

It also reached Detroit, southern parts of Michigan, and Oil City, Pennsylvania.  Vanderbilt assumed the presidency of this road on July 2, 1873 after learning the previous management had nearly bankrupted the railroad.    Thanks to his leadership, within a year the company had paid off its debts.

Vanderbilt's last major acquisition occurred on January 1, 1876 when he added the Canada Southern Railway through stock control.  Better known by its initials, "CASO," it offered a shorter route through southern Ontario between Buffalo and Detroit.  It remained an integral part of the New York Central throughout the 20th century.   

After the Commodore's򠷪th the New York Central continued to expand reaching Boston Pittsburgh (through the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie) Wheeling (West Virginia) the coalfields of southern West Virginia (via the Toledo & Ohio Central) Columbus Cincinnati Cleveland St. Louis over the Big Four Route (Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago & St. Louis Railway) Detroit (via the Michigan Central) and even Montreal, Quebec.

In addition, the Indiana Harbor Belt provided the NYC terminal and switching services throughout Chicago.  In 1868 Vanderbilt sparked the "Erie War" with Jim (James) Fisk, Jay Gould, and Daniel Drew when he attempted to gain control of the Erie Railroad.

An A-B-A set of New York Central "C-Liners" (CFA/B-16-4's) help showcase the railroad's "Pacemaker" high-speed freight service, circa 1952. Ed Nowak photo.

During this time the Erie was one of the largest American railroads.  The fight was a battle of wills between Gould and Vanderbilt. 

As the Commodore gained increasingly more shares, Gould and his associates issued evermore stock to inflate the Erie's stock value (also known as "watered stock") and prevent Vanderbilt from acquiring majority control. 

Gould would eventually win the tilt by bribing the New York state legislature, which authorized the stock as legal.  Over the years Cornelius Vanderbilt had disputes with many in the business world such as Drew, Fisk, and others.

His quarrels were almost never personal and he became friends with most later on in life Gould and Jim Fisk, though, proved an exception. 

Net Worth And Estate

The Commodore passed away on January 4, 1877 at the age of 82 having amassed a fortune of nearly $100 million, which would be worth more than $233 billion in today's dollars making him one of the richest Americans in history.

In his will Vanderbilt left $95 million directly to his son, William,  with his eight daughters receiving between $250,000 and $500,000 each.

Unlike James Hill, and a number of the other famed railroad tycoons,  Vanderbilt was not noteworthy for philanthropy.  He did, however, endow $1 million for the establishment of Central University in Nashville, Tennessee.  This higher institution of learning became today's prestigious Vanderbilt University.  

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  1. Commodore Vanderbilt's Life. January 5, 1877 . .  
  2. ↑ 2.02.1"Cornelius Vanderbilt. A Long And Useful Life Ended. The Renowned Commodore Dies After Eight Months' Illness His Remarkable Career As A Man Of The World His Wealth Estimated At $100,000,000 Particulars Of His Illness And Death". The New York Times. January 5, 1877 . .  
  3. Commodore Vanderbilt's Life. January 5, 1877 . .  
  4. ↑ Klepper, Michael; Gunther, Michael (1996). The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates—A Ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present. Secaucus, New Jersey: Carol Publishing Group. p. xi. ISBN𧓒-0-8065-1800-8 . OCLC� .  

CORNELIUS VANDERBILT 1794-1877 - Independence High School

What do I care about the law? Hain't I got the power?” That was the way Cornelius. Vanderbilt defied the government and the public to make his millions. Born in .

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Cornelius Vanderbilt - Biography, Children and Facts - HISTORY

Upon his death in 1877, at age 82, Cornelius Vanderbilt, also known as Commodore Vanderbilt, was the wealthiest man in the United States and probably the greatest of the nineteenth century railroad barons. Earlier in his business career he probably was the greatest shipping tycoon in the United States. His estate was worth 100 million dollars, a sum unheard of in those days. He left the bulk of his estate to his son William Henry Vanderbilt, because he was the only child who had been actively involved in the business that produced the Vanderbilt fortune. William Henry also had been instrumental in building and expanding the railroad business since he joined his father in the management of the organization upon becoming an adult.

Cornelius was born in Port Richmond, Staten Island, New York on May 27, 1794. His parents were poor and his father earned his living by providing low level transportation services. As was usual for the common people in those days, Cornelius went to work at age 11, and was employed by his father. We know little of his parents but his ancestors came from the town of De Bilt, in the province of Utrecht in the Netherlands. His great great great grandfather was Jan Aertsen who came to New Netherland as an indentured worker in 1650, at the time of the early Dutch settlements including New Amsterdam. Cornelius married his first cousin, Sophia Johnson [1795-1868] on December 19, 1813 when he was only 19 and she was only 18 years old. They had their first child, Phebe Jane Vanderbilt [1814-1878] the following year in 1814. Eleven more surviving children followed until the last one, George Washington Vanderbilt [1839-1864], was born twenty five years later.

Between the years 1805 and 1810 Cornelius worked for his father and for the ferry services serving Staten Island. In 1810 when he was sixteen years old he convinced his parents to lend him $100 so he could buy a sailboat to start his own ferry and freight business. They provided him with the money but with the understanding that he would share the profits from the business with his parents. He used the money to start a passenger and freight service between Staten Island and New York City. There was a lot of competition in the ferry service business, but Vanderbilt competed on the basis of lower fares, asking as little as 18 cents per trip. He was quite successful and apparently was able to repay the $100 loan to his parents within one year. According to local lore, he was even able to earn a $1,000 for his parents during the first year of operations as part of their share in the profits.

The war of 1812 provided new opportunities for growth. The forts around New York City expanded and Vanderbilt obtained a government contract to supply them. Between 1814 and 1818 he expanded with additional schooners for freight and passenger services in Long Island Sound and in the coastal trade from New England to Charleston, South Carolina.

In 1818 he sold all his sailing vessels and became a steamboat captain and partner with Thomas Gibbons who operated a ferry service between New Brunswick, New Jersey and New York City. The Vanderbilt-Gibbons partnership charged only a quarter of the competitive fares. It soon became the dominant ferry service on the busy Philadelphia-New York City route. During the 1818-1829 time period the partnership made a fortune.

In 1829 Vanderbilt decided to go on his own and began passenger and freight service on the New York City-Peekskill Hudson River route. Again he competed on the basis of price and quickly eliminated the competition. He then expanded his service to Albany, New York. He also opened passenger and freight service to the Long Island Sound, Providence and Connecticut areas. By the 1840s Vanderbilt had a fleet of 100 steamships and he had become the biggest employer in the United States. At that point he not only competed on the basis of price but also on the basis of comfort, size, speed, luxury and elegance in the steamship passenger transportation industry.

During the California gold rush in 1849, Vanderbilt began steamship service to San Francisco by way of Nicaraqua. His competitors used the Panama route which was longer. Vanderbilt was able to cut two days off the length of the trip to San Francisco, and it was 600 miles shorter. This part of his transportation business netted him over one million dollars per year. As a result he became the principal transportation service provider on the East Coast to San Francisco route.

In the 1850s he did two possibly foolish things. In 1853 he decided to take his first vacation ever. He had a steam yacht built and made a triumphant tour of Europe. While on his trip he had left the management of the business to contract managers. They tried to fraudulently take over the business while he was away in Europe. Although they were not successful, his temporary absence from his business proved to be costly, but he quickly recovered. Another not so successful business attempt was trying to compete against the British Cunard Steamship Line, a line subsidized by the British government, on the North Atlantic passenger service route. This also proved to be a failure. So the old fox discovered that not all his ventures were automatically successful.

In the 1860s he became aware that the big growth in the future for the transportation industry was not by way of water but by way of rail. So he became interested in railroad transportation, which was then still in its infancy. But instead of building new railroads, he took the easier route of buying existing railroads. He acquired the Long Island Railroad followed by the New York and Harlem Railroad and the Hudson River Railroad. In 1867 he also acquired the Central Railroad and merged it with the other railroads he already owned. As he had done with his shipping ventures, he focused on improving service and on upgrading capital equipment while maintaining low fares. He eventually merged all his initial acquisitions into what became known as the New York Central Railroad. It is estimated that he made $ 25 million in the first five years from his railroad ventures.

The eventual main heir to his empire, his son William Henry Vanderbilt, influenced his father to expand rail service into the direction of Chicago. To do so they acquired the Lakeshore and Michigan Railway, the Michigan Southern, the Canadian Southern and the Michigan Central Railroad, creating for that time the largest American system of railway transportation.

In 1868 Cornelius lost his wife Sophia. This was a great loss to him. She had provided him with ten still living children and apparently was a good business woman herself, supporting and advising him in many of his business decisions. One of the things that is not widely known is the fact that Cornelius was a meticulous planner and analyst. Before he entered into any deal or venture he would meticulously analyze it and have it evaluated by others before making a decision. Many people attribute his success to luck. In reality Cornelius was a super smart and astute business man and hands-on manager of his many businesses. Although he may have made some mistakes along the way, he was always able to either cut his losses or extract himself from the occasional debacle. And undoubtedly, he often involved his wife Sophia in many if not most of his business decisions.

A year after the death of his wife Sophia, Vanderbilt now 73 years old, married a distant cousin named Frances Armstrong Crawford, and known as Frank. She was 34 years his junior. The marriage was probably a good one because it gave him a new outlook on life. It is doubtful if his children approved of it. After all, his new wife was younger than seven of his twelve children. It appears that the marriage to a younger woman gave him an imagined extension to his life.

Allthough Vanderbilt had not engaged in philanthropy at all until that point in his life, through his new wife's influence, he perpetuated his name through a gift of one million dollars to Nashville's Central University. One million dollars may not sound like a lot of money, but in the 1870's it was. Using a conversion ratio of 260, based on the gross domestic product per capita then and now, the one million dollars was essentially equal to $260 million in today's terms. The Nashville Central University would become, and to this day still is, the prestigious Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

During the last years of his life, his son William H. Vanderbilt became the senior manager of the business, and continued the path his father had set. Cornelius passed away in 1877 at the age of 83. He had left the bulk of his estate to his son William H. Vanderbilt and only gave modest amounts of half a million dollars to each of his other nine surviving children. Needless to say his will was contested but the suit was thrown out. He also donated $50,000 to the Church of the Strangers in New York City. Following his death the offspring did not suffer. Even half a million dollars, equal to 130 million dollars today, was also a substantial amount in 1877. The value of the Vanderbilt estate in today's terms would have been about $26 billion.

Cornelius and Sophia Vanderbilt had 12 children, but only 11 survived to adulthood.

  1. Phebe Jane Vanderbilt Cross [1814-1878]
  2. Ethelinda Vanderbilt Allen [1817-1889]
  3. Eliza Vanderbilt Osgood [1819-1890]
  4. William Henry Vanderbilt [1821-1885]
  5. Emily A. Vanderbilt Thorn [1823-1896]
  6. Maria L. Vanderbilt Clark Niven [1827-1896]
  7. Francis L. Vanderbilt [1828-1868]
  8. Cornelius J. Vanderbilt [1830-1882]
  9. Maria A. Vanderbilt La Beau Berger [1834-1902]
  10. Catherine J. Vanderbilt Barker La Fitte [1836-1881]
  11. George W. Vanderbilt [1839-1864]




There will be three family tree branches shown below to indicate the relationship between the eleven Vanderbilts whose bio profiles are included in the New Netherland Institute collection of Prominent Dutch Americans. All of those included have a common ancestor: Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The eleven Vanderbilts and their respective family tree branches will be listed below. This will allow you to determine where each one of the ten Vanderbilts fits in the overall Vanderbilt family tree. The first Vanderbilt to appear is the founder of the Vanderbilt family clan.


His son William Henry Vanderbilt was the sole individual in the family who continued the operation and control of the transportation empire represented by the New York Central Railroad and to a large extent the Vanderbilt family. His name is listed below.


William Henry Vanderbilt had two sons consisting of Cornelius Vanderbilt II [1843-1899] and William Kissam Vanderbilt [1849-1920]. Each one of the two sons is the head of their own respective Vanderbilt family branch. Below follow the three branches of the two sons.



Below follows Cornelius Vanderbilt III, the next member in this branch. He was the son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II.


The next person is Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney [1875-1942]. She was a daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II [1843-1899]. She was involved in the founding of the Whitney Museum of American Arts, named after her husband’s family name.


Below follows Cornelius Vanderbilt IV, the next member in this branch. He was the son of Cornelius Vanderbilt III.




Below follows the next member of the William Kissam Vanderbilt branch. His name is Harold Sterling Vanderbilt.


Below follows the third family tree branch of Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt. His branch shows how the two youngest members, Gloria Vanderbilt and her son Anderson Cooper fit into the overall Vanderbilt family tree.


This branch is headed up by Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt.


Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt and Gloria Morgan were the parents of Gloria Vanderbilt [1924].


Gloria Vanderbilt is the mother of Anderson Cooper. His father was Wyatt Cooper.


Anderson Cooper was the grandson of Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt and the great great great grandson of the Commodore, Cornelius Vanderbilt [1794-1877].

Final Note: Collectively there are bio profiles for 11 members of the Vanderbilt family. Nine members are Vanderbilts, and the other two are Anderson Cooper, the surviving son of Gloria Vanderbilt and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

The eleven members of the Vanderbilt family listed above are only a small portion of all the descendants of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt [1794-1877]. But they are the most prominent and are included to show how they are related to each other. In the 1990’s there was a family reunion of the Vanderbilt descendants and close to 200 people showed up. And they were only representative of a still larger group of descendants.





Cornelius Vanderbilt

Cornelius was born in 1794 on Staten Island among the harbours that would make his first fortune. Aged 11, he started work with his father, a poor illiterate seaman, but by 16, he’s bought his first small ferry boat with a $100 loan. Even at this early age few could best him, in business, or on the street.

“He was a tough guy. Getting into scraps with other men, beating the hell out of them and knocking them unconscious.”
TJ Stiles, Vanderbilt Biographer

At 19, he marries his first cousin who will bear him 13 children. A cutthroat entrepreneur, he moves from sailboat to steamships, always undercutting, and then overcoming the competition.

His single island-hopping ferry expands to an ocean going fleet and he becomes synonymous with shipping earning the nickname ‘Commodore’. Defeating many monopolies along the way, he creates the largest shipping empire in the world. But before the Civil War, he sells nearly everything to invest in the new railways believing they’ll unite America.

By war’s end, he’s the richest man in America with a net worth of over $65 million equivalent to nearly $75 billion today. But the war costs him his favourite son and heir apparent and he dives into a drink fuelled depression. He relies on his less able son, William and makes him operations director of the Hudson Railroad.

By 1866, he’s 72, and 30 years past the average age expectancy. His railroad rivals think he’s weak and ready to fall. But he owns the only rail bridge into New York City, and it is both the gateway to country’s largest and busiest port and, in his hands, a weapon.

He orders his son to close Albany Bridge effectively blockading the millions of dollars of cargo of other rival railroads. Before their stocks become worthless, the rival rail road presidents try to sell their shares. When Wall Street realises, there’s a massive sell off. And when the price falls, Vanderbilt buys up. In just days, he creates the largest single railroad company in America.

Chicago is America’s fastest growing city and the Erie Line, the rail road connecting it to New York, the most profitable: And Vanderbilt doesn’t own it. So in 1867, Vanderbilt tries to buy up its shares demanding majority control by the end of the week, a move now known as a hostile takeover.

But middle managers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk see a chance to cash in on the Commodore. They print over 100,000 new shares in a basement, diluting Vanderbilt’s ownership. This now illegal manoeuvre costs the equivalent of a billion dollars in today’s money.

But by 1871, his supremacy’s undisputed. Marking his conquest, he opens the Grand Central Depot, the biggest train station in the country. It covers 22 acres. He also gives the largest charitable donation in American history with a $1m gift to a university that still bears his name.

And Vanderbilt realises the rail network has been overbuilt and future profits will come from transporting new cargo, not from building new lines. He believes the demand for the kerosene that lights the lamps of the newly industrialising America will be explosive.

Vanderbilt homes in on Eastern Ohio, the Middle East of its day, and begins negotiations with a struggling oil man, John D Rockefeller. Vanderbilt wants the exclusive contract to transport his kerosene so his freight’s always full.
Initially, the deal suits Vanderbilt. But Rockefeller’s rise is meteoric enough to make Vanderbilt ally himself with railroad rivals. He hopes to control the Ohio oilman who seeks lower and lower rates for transportation.

Then, in 1877, in the depths of the economic depression, and holding the largest fortune in the US, Vanderbilt dies, aged 82. He leaves his $100m empire to his son William. And he leaves a template for the other robber barons to follow.

The Vanderbilt Family

Today, Biltmore House is known as America’s Largest Home® and a National Historic Landmark. But before it became one of North Carolina’s most popular tourist destinations, it was simply “home” to the Vanderbilt family.

George Vanderbilt visited Asheville, NC, in 1888 and was captivated by the area’s natural beauty. He slowly began purchasing land and ended up with 125,000 acres for his country estate. Determined to make this a self-sustaining home, Vanderbilt enlisted architect Richard Morris Hunt to design and build a 250-room château. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was also hired to create formal gardens and transform the former farmland into a beautiful pastoral landscape.

A Legendary Romance

Edith Dresser’s formal engagement photo, 1898

That all changed on April 28, 1898, when Vanderbilt proposed to Edith Stuyvesant Dresser. A family friend, Edith was 10 years younger than Vanderbilt and admired for her beauty and personality. She was hailed as cosmopolitan and cultured yet humble and down to earth. The pair shared a passion for learning and travel that they enjoyed throughout their marriage.

On June 1, 1898, the pair was joined as husband and wife in a private 15-minute civil ceremony in a town hall in Paris, France. The next day, they followed French tradition with a religious ceremony at the American Church of the Holy Trinity in Paris. Close friends and family were invited to this ceremony, which was surprisingly simple and modest considering the media fanfare that surrounded the event.

A quiet Italian honeymoon followed, and then George brought his bride to Biltmore House. Estate employees welcomed Edith to her new home by lining up along the Approach Road. A giant horseshoe made out of goldenrod flowers with the phrase “Welcome Home” spelled out in more flowers greeted the couple as they arrived at Biltmore House.

Biltmore House Becomes a Family Home

The happy couple added to their family on August 22, 1900, with the birth of their daughter Cornelia. It was a joyous occasion celebrated among the family and recorded by local newspapers. The Spartanburg Journal wrote, “A new star has appeared at famous Biltmore, and the charming mistress of this most gorgeous home is smiling upon her first born, a tiny girl called Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt, and the world shares in her new found happiness.”

Cornelia spent her childhood on the estate, and often played with the local children whose families lived and worked on the estate. When Cornelia was 13, tragedy struck when George Vanderbilt unexpectedly died following an emergency appendectomy in Washington, D.C., in March 1914. Mrs. Vanderbilt returned to the estate after her husband’s death, but eventually consolidated the family businesses and properties.

The Arrival of a New Generation

Cornelia Vanderbilt’s formal wedding portrait, 1924

A decade later, wedding bells rang as Cornelia married the Honorable John Francis Amherst Cecil at All Souls Church in Biltmore Village on April 27, 1924. It was a joyous occasion as guests from around the world descended upon the quiet little town of Asheville. Mr. Cecil was a British diplomat and a descendant of Lord Burghley, who was High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I.

A second generation arrived at Biltmore House a year later. George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil was born in Biltmore House in 1925. Three years later in 1928, William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil was born in Biltmore House. George and William were educated abroad in Switzerland and England, but always returned home to Biltmore for holidays and summer vacations.

The brothers were instrumental in caring for the estate as adults. William especially was involved in overseeing the care of Biltmore House, the estate and The Biltmore Company. Today, Biltmore remains a family business, with the fourth and fifth generations of George Vanderbilt’s descendants involved in day-to-day operations. Along with more than 2,400 employees, they continue Biltmore’s mission to preserve this national treasure.

Who is Cornelius Vanderbilt dating?

According to our records, Cornelius Vanderbilt is possibily single & has not been previously engaged. As of June 2021, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s is not dating anyone.

Relationships Record

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Facts & Trivia

Cornelius Ranked on the list of most popular Entrepreneur. Also ranked in the elit list of famous celebrity born in United States. He dropped out of school at age 11 to work for his father’s ferry business.

Watch the video: The Vanderbilts. How Americas Richest Family Went Broke