William Henry Vanderbilt Biography

The son of Cornelius Vanderbilt, William Henry Vanderbilt was a railroad magnate who doubled his family's fortune.


Born on May 8, 1821, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, William Henry Vanderbilt was the main heir to his father, Corneilius Vanderbilt’s vast estate. A railroad magnate himself, William Vanderbilt doubled the family fortune by expanding their railroad network.

Early Years

William Henry Vanderbilt was born on May 8, 1821, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He was one of 13 children and the oldest son born to Sophia Johnson and Cornelius Vanderbilt—arguably the nation’s most imposing industrialist.

For a long time, William was often a source of disappointment to his father, who felt that his son was too frail and lacked ambition. In his teens, William was sent off by his father to work for a rival business owner, Daniel Drew. The work proved to be overwhelming for the young man, and he soon suffered from a nervous breakdown. Frustrated, his father exiled William to a farm on Staten Island. Almost immediately, 19-year-old William was able to improve profits at the farm, and his father took notice.

Professional Success

The 1840s saw Cornelius Vanderbilt exert more control over the Long Island Rail Road. William was called on to reorganize the ailing organization, and just as he had done at the family farm, he turned the business into a thriving operation. Having now ingratiated himself to his father, William became a key figure in the family’s railroad empire. By 1864, he was vice president of key railways in New York, and would later help expand his family’s influence in the industry. In 1877, Cornelius Vanderbilt passed away, and the Vanderbilt organization was turned over to William.

William carried on his father’s work by expanding railroad operations and overseeing the formation of the New York Central System. His acquisitions included railroads serving Chicago, Cincinnati and Indianapolis, among countless other cities. William retired in 1883 due to ill health. He died two years later, just eight years after his father’s death. In his relatively brief time at the helm of the Vanderbilt organization, he had doubled the family fortune from $100 million to $200 million.

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