Cornelius Vanderbilt (May 27 1794 – January 4 1877), also known by the sobriquets The Commodore or Commodore Vanderbilt, was an American entrepreneur who built his wealth in shipping and railroads and was the patriarch of the Vanderbilt family.
If I had learned education, I would not have had time to learn anything else.
As a young boy, Cornelius Vanderbilt worked on ferries in and around New York, quitting school at age 11. By age 16 he was operating his own business—after having borrowed money from his mother—ferrying freight and passengers between Staten Island and Manhattan. During the War of 1812, he received a government contract to supply the forts around New York City. He operated sailing schooners, which is where he gained his nickname of "Commodore."
On December 19 1813, Cornelius Vanderbilt married his cousin and neighbor, Sophia Johnson (1795-1868), daughter of his aunt Elizabeth Hand Johnson. He and his wife had 13 children, 1 died in childhood.
In 1818, he turned his attention to steamships. The New York legislature had granted Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston a thirty-year legal monopoly on steamboat traffic. After a time, Fulton went to the legislature with accounting that purported to show that he could not run the line profitably at the price set by the government. He was allowed to double his price.
Working for Thomas Gibbons, Vanderbilt profitably undercut the prices charged by Fulton and Livingston for service between New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Manhattan—an important link in trade between New York and Philadelphia. During this period, his wife, Sophia Vanderbilt, operated a very profitable inn and tavern near the New Jersey mooring, adding significantly to the early family fortune.
Vanderbilt avoided capture by those who sought to arrest him and impound the ship. Livingston and Fulton offered Vanderbilt a lucrative job piloting their steamboat, but Vanderbilt rejected the offer. He said "I don't care half so much about making money as I do about making my point, and coming out ahead." For Vanderbilt, the point was the superiority of free competition over the government-granted monopoly. Livingston and Fulton sued; the case went before the United States Supreme Court and ultimately broke the Fulton-Livingston monopoly on trade.
In 1829, Vanderbilt struck out on his own to provide steam service on the Hudson River between Manhattan and Albany, New York. By the 1840s, he had 100 steamships plying the Hudson and was reputed to have the most employees of any business in the United States.
In the 1850s Vanderbilt competed without direct government subsidy against the subsidized Collins Line and Cunard Line in the trans-Atlantic steamship market. See Entrepreneurs and American Economic Growth one perspective on this contest. When the subsidized lines paid off Vanderbilt with their subsidies, in order to get him to stop competing, an anti-Vanderbilt cartoonist produced a piece in which he was portrayed as a medieval robber baron, taxing the trade route in order to leave it alone. This is the origin of the "robber baron" simile in socialist/capitalist political rhetoric.
Vanderbilt's involvement with early railroad development led him to being involved in one of America's earliest rail accidents. On November 11 1833, he was a passenger on a Camden & Amboy train that derailed in the meadows near Hightstown, New Jersey, when a coach car axle broke because of a hot journal box. He spent a month recovering from injuries that included two cracked ribs and a punctured lung. Uninjured in this accident was former U.S. President John Quincy Adams, riding in the car ahead of the one that derailed. Adams's son was killed in the accident.
In 1844, Vanderbilt was elected as a director of the Long Island Rail Road, which at the time provided a route between Boston and New York City via a steamboat transfer. In 1857, he became a director of the New York and Harlem Railroad.
In October 1871, Vanderbilt struck up a partnership with the New York and New Haven Railroad to join with the railroads he owned to consolidate operations at one terminal at East 42nd Street called Grand Central Depot, which was the original Grand Central Terminal, where his statue reigns today. The glass roof of the depot collapsed during a blizzard on the same day Vanderbilt died in 1877. The station was not replaced until 1903-1913.
Vanderbilt was very accustomed to getting what he wanted, but it seems that he met his match in Jay Gould. Vanderbilt would later say of his loss "never kick a skunk". In fact this was not the last time that Gould would serve to challenge a Vanderbilt. Years after his father's death, William Vanderbilt gained control of the Western Union Telegraph company. Jay Gould then started the American Telegraph Company and nearly forced Western Union out of business. William Vanderbilt then had no choice but to buy out Gould, who made a large profit from the sale.
Ruthless in business, Cornelius Vanderbilt was said by some to have made few friends in his lifetime but many enemies. In his will, he disowned all his sons except for William, who was as ruthless in business as his father and the only one Cornelius believed capable of maintaining the business empire.
At the time of his death, aged 82, Cornelius Vanderbilt's fortune was estimated at more than US$100 million. He willed US$95 million to son William but "only" US$500,000 to each of his eight daughters. His wife received US$500,000 in cash, their modest New York City home, and 2,000 shares of common stock in New York Central Railroad.
Vanderbilt gave little of his vast fortune to charitable works, leaving the $1 million (the equivalent of $19 million today) he had promised for Vanderbilt University and $50,000 to the Church of the Strangers in New York City. He lived modestly, leaving his descendants to build the Vanderbilt houses that characterize America's Gilded Age.
According to "The Wealthy 100" by Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther, Vanderbilt would be worth $143 billion in 2007 dollars, if you take his total wealth as a share of the nation's GDP in 1877 and apply that same proportion in 2007, making him the second-wealthiest person in American history after Rockefeller.
Vanderbilt is also heavily associated with the standardization of rail gauges and the use of steel in rails.
Cornelius Vanderbilt was buried in the family vault in the Moravian Cemetery at New Dorp on Staten Island. Three of his daughters and son, Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt, contested the will on the grounds that their father had insane delusions and was of unsound mind. The unsuccessful court battle lasted more than a year, and Cornelius Jeremiah Vanderbilt committed suicide in 1882.
Children of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Sophia Johnson: