Cornelius Vanderbilt biography
Cornelius Vanderbilt was born on May 27, 1794, in the Port Richmond area of Staten Island, New York. He began a passenger ferry business in New York harbor with one boat, then started his own steamship company, eventually controlling Hudson River traffic. He also provided the first rail service between New York and Chicago. When he died in 1877, Vanderbilt had amassed the largest fortune accumulated in the U.S. at that time. Vanderbilt is deemed one of America's leading businessmen, and is credited for helping to shape the present-day United States.
Cornelius Vanderbilt was born on May 27, 1794, in Port Richmond, Staten Island, New York. Although destined to be one of America’s first tycoons, Vanderbilt grew up poor, watching his illiterate father, Cornelius Vanderbilt Sr., toil away as a seaman. Following the death of one of his eight siblings, Vanderbilt, at age 11, dropped out of school to work for his father. His early days in a boat sparked an interest in the sea, which he pursued by studying all aspects of the shipping business.
When he was 16, Vanderbilt earned $100 landscaping his father’s land and used the money to purchase a sailboat. He began a passenger ferry business in New York Harbor with one boat, then started his own company ferrying people and dry goods between Staten Island and Manhattan. Known as a skilled sailor who would routinely undercut his competition, Vanderbilt’s business grew. During the War of 1812, he was awarded a military contract to provide supplies to forts along the Hudson River.
Success at Sea
The rise of steamboat travel was a threat to Vanderbilt, whose sailboats couldn’t possibly provide the same level of reliability and cheap fares that customers were now demanding. Not willing to watch his business decline, he sold his sailing vessels in 1817 and got a job operating a steamboat for Thomas Gibbons, ferrying passengers from New Jersey to Manhattan. In his mid-30s at this time, Vanderbilt went into the steamboat business for himself. Once again, customers flocked to his service, with its cutthroat rates and new vessels. Vanderbilt’s ability to steal away customers was so great that competitors paid him to leave the Hudson river. In his wake followed a growing reputation as a robber baron.
By the mid 1840s, Vanderbilt was operating a fleet of more than 100 steamboats. He was also worth several million dollars. He parlayed his success into ventures in Central America and, in 1855, began overseeing a transatlantic steamship business.
Success on the Rails
In the 1860s, rail travel began to grow in the United States and, once again, Vanderbilt seized the opportunity by purchasing railroads in New York. Following the same business model he's used with his previous ventures, he made his mark by improving service and offering customers low fares. After only five years in the railroad business, Vanderbilt reportedly made $25 million.
Vanderbilt eventually extended his railroad empire westward, acquiring the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway; the Michigan Southern Railroad; the Canada Southern Railway; and the Michigan Central Railroad. Urged on by his son (and eventual heir to the empire) William Henry Vanderbilt, Cornelius made his way toward Chicago.
Tragedy struck in 1868, when Vanderbilt's wife, Sophia, died. A year later, Vanderbilt married a distant cousin, Frances Armstrong Crawford. The marriage wasn’t without controversy: She was 34 years his junior.
Final Years and Legacy
William Vanderbilt looked over the business during the last years of Cornelius’s life. In 1877, at the age of 83, the tycoon died, leaving the majority of his estate to William, modest sums to each of his other nine surviving children, and an indelible mark on American industry.