Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Railroad and Steamship Empire

C. Vanderbilt, Hudson River steamer owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt

C. Vanderbilt, Hudson River steamer owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt

On May 27, 1794, American business magnate and philanthropis Cornelius Vanderbilt was born. Vanderbilt’s wealth was build on railroads and shipping. He was also the patriarch of the Vanderbilt family and one of the richest Americans in history.

Cornelius Vanderbilt was born in New York and started working on his father’s ferry in New York Harbor as a boy. It is reported that he already left school at 11 and started his own ferry service at 16, transporting passengers between Staten Island and Manhattan. It is believed that at that point, other captains were so impressed by his enthusiasm, that they started to call him The Commodore. The ferry entrepreneur Thomas Gibbons asked Vanderbilt to captain his steamboat in 1817 between New Jersey and New York and Vanderbilt became Gibbons’s business manager. In this position, he fought against the monopoly granted by the New York State Legislature to Robert Livingston and steamboat designer Robert Fulton. After their death, the licence was given to Aaron Ogden to run a ferry between New York and New Jersey. Gibbons proceded to undercut prices to ‘fight’ him. He also brought a landmark legal case to the United States Supreme Court to overturn the monopoly. Thomas Gibbons was a major influence to Cornelius Vanderbilt as he learned how to handle a complex business like this. He studied law to be able to represent Gibbons in important meetings.

Corneslius Vanderbilt put more and more energy into his own business on the side, especially after the death of Gibbons. Step by step he was able to acquire more and more lines until he encountered another competitor named Daniel Drew. However, it is assumed that Vanderbilt secretly became Drew’s business partner for several decades in order to avoid competing each other. As Cornelius Vanderbilt was slowly starting to dominate the steamboat business, he decided to take over the management of the connecting railroads as well. In 1847, he took over the presidency of Stonington, the first railroads he would head. Only two years later, the Gold Rush began in California and Vanderbilt switched from regional steamboat lines to ocean-going steamships. In the 1850s, Cornelius Vanderbilt went throguh several issues with competitors and allied turning away from him, resulting in the loss of several lines. However, Vanderbilt was able to start a line by way of Panama, eventually constructing a monopoly on the California steamship business.

In the 1860s, Vanderbilt went to Canada where he got married a second time and donated a great amount of money to Ontario’s university. Also, Cornelius Vanderbilt donated to churched around New York and Ontario. He passed away on January 4, 1877. In the 1990s, he was inducted into the North America Railway Hall of Fame, recognizing him for his significant contributions to the railroad industry.

At yovisto you can learn more about early steam locomotives in a video about the reenacted Rainhill Trials by the Manchester Museum of Science and Technology.

References and Further Reading:

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