Entrepreneur, Shipping Magnate, Railroad Baron, Investor
A descendant of Dutch settlers who came to America in the mid-1600s, Cornelius Vanderbilt "the Commodore," 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 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. lt’s new line was an instant success, earning more than $1 million (about $26 million in today’s money) a year.
At age 70, Vanderbilt turned his attention more closely to railroads, acquiring the New York & Harlem and Hudson Line (which ran along the Erie Canal), and then going after the New York Central Railroad. In a ruthless act during a bitter winter when the Erie Canal was frozen over, he refused to accept Central’s passengers or freight, cutting them off from connections to western cities. Forced to capitulate, the Central Railroad sold Vanderbilt controlling interest, and he eventually consolidated his hold on rail traffic from New York City to Chicago. This new conglomerate revolutionized rail operations by standardizing procedures and timetables, increasing efficiency and decreasing travel and shipment times.
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).
Other railroads once owned by Vanderbilt include: