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4o. Cornelius Vanderbilt - First American Wealthiest Tycoon

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

Who was Cornelius Vanderbilt ?

Today, it is estimated that Cornelius Vanderbilt would have been worth more than $200 billion, if calculating his wealth with the nation's gross domestic product in 1877. This would make him the second wealthiest person in American history after Standard Oil co-founder John D Rockfeller.

Cornelius Vanderbilt was a famous industrialist who worked in railroads and shipping. He had accumulated the largest fortune in the U.S. at the time of his death, in 1877.


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."He vastly improved and expanded the nation's transportation infrastructure, contributing to a transformation of the very geography of the United States. He embraced new technologies and new forms of business organization, and used them to compete....He helped to create the corporate economy that would define the United States into the 21st century.

Background and Early Years

Cornelius Vanderbilt was born on May 27, 1794, on Staten Island, New York, the son of Cornelius and Phebe Hand Vanderbilt. His father instilled in him a blunt, straightforward demeanor, and his mother, frugality and hard work. At age 11, young Cornelius quit school to work with his father, ferrying cargo and passengers between Staten Island and Manhattan. Legend has it that at age 16, Vanderbilt ran a two-mast sailing vessel, known as a periauger; the enterprise came with the understanding that he would have to share profits with his parents, who had supplied a loan.

Through aggressive marketing, shrewd deals and undercutting the competition—traits that he would practice all his life—he earned more than $1,000 in his first year.

At age 18, Vanderbilt contracted with the U.S. government to supply neighboring outposts during the War of 1812. He learned the art of shipbuilding and navigation in open water. By the end of the war, he had amassed a small fleet of boats and working capital of $10,000 ferrying passengers and freight from Boston to Delaware Bay. He would eventually be given the nickname “Commodore,” which he embraced. 

Troubled Family Life

On December 19, 1813, much to the dismay of his parents, Cornelius Vanderbilt married his first cousin, Sophia Johnson. The couple would eventually have 13 children, with 11 surviving to adulthood. As successful as he would be in business, he was a terrible father and husband. A lifelong misogynist who had wanted more than three sons, Cornelius paid little attention to his daughters and is believed to have cheated on his wife with prostitutes. Vanderbilt reportedly had his son Cornelius Jeremiah twice committed to a lunatic asylum.

He undertook the same course of action for Sophia at one point as well, after Vanderbilt showed amorous interest in the family's young governess.

Building a Shipping Empire

In 1817, seeing the potential in a new technology, Cornelius Vanderbilt partnered with Thomas Gibbons in a steamship business, the Union Line. During his tenure with Gibbons, Vanderbilt learned how to manage a large commercial operation and became a quick study in legal matters. Gibbons was ferrying customers between New York and New Jersey, a clear violation of an 1808 state-sanctioned monopoly given to Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston. Aaron Ogden, who was operating Fulton and Livingston’s business and worked with Gibbons, sued the latter boatman for violating the monopoly. Vanderbilt and Gibbons hired Daniel Webster to defend their position.

In Gibbons v. Ogden, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Gibbons, stating the Constitution’s Commerce Clause gives Congress the exclusive authority to regulate interstate trade. Thus, it was unconstitutional for the New York legislature to give Ogden exclusive shipping rights.

Building a Railroad Empire

During the Civil War, Vanderbilt donated his fleet's largest ship, aptly named the Vanderbilt, to the Union Navy. By 1864, he had retired from shipping, having amassed nearly $30 million in wealth. 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.

Pic : Grand Central Station in New York.

Final Years and Legacy

Towards the end of his life, Vanderbilt had no plans to pass along his fortune to charity. He had lived most of his life in relative modesty considering his stratospheric wealth. He sole extravagance seemed to be buying race horses. However, in 1873, his wife, Frank, introduced him to the Reverend Holland Nimmons McTyeire, who asked Vanderbilt to help him fund a Methodist University in Tennessee. Discussions went on for several years and by the time of his death, Vanderbilt had promised a gift approaching $1 million for what would become Vanderbilt University.


The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt is a 2009 biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt

Summary and The Epic Story :

A gripping, groundbreaking biography of the combative man whose genius and force of will created modern capitalism.

Founder of a dynasty, builder of the original Grand Central, creator of an impossibly vast fortune, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt is an American icon. Humbly born on Staten Island during George Washington’s presidency, he rose from boatman to builder of the nation’s largest fleet of steamships to lord of a railroad empire. Lincoln consulted him on steamship strategy during the Civil War; Jay Gould was first his uneasy ally and then sworn enemy; and Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States, was his spiritual counselor. We see Vanderbilt help to launch the transportation revolution, propel the Gold Rush, reshape Manhattan, and invent the modern corporation—in fact, as T. J. Stiles elegantly argues, Vanderbilt did more than perhaps any other individual to create the economic world we live in today.

The First Tycoonis the exhilarating story of a man and a nation maturing together: the powerful account of a man whose life was as epic and complex as American history itself.


You can see a short film on Vanderbilt @

The Men Who Built America: The Rise of Cornelius Vanderbilt? | History



As one of the richest Americans in history and wealthiest figures overall, Vanderbilt was the patriarch of the wealthy and influential Vanderbilt family. He provided the initial gift to found Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. According to historian H. Roger Grant: "Contemporaries, too, often hated or feared Vanderbilt or at least considered him an unmannered brute. While Vanderbilt could be a rascal, combative and cunning, he was much more a builder than a wrecker [...] being honorable, shrewd, and hard-working."

He is the epitopme of Capitalist and one of the main Architects of the Modern America.

The Man and a Boy from Staten island changed the rules of the Game and built a massive Wealthy Empires in Human History.

MM Rao



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