Cornelius Vanderbilt

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Cornelius Vanderbilt
BirthplaceStaten Island, New York, U.S.

Vanderbilt, Cornelius,

1794–1877, American railroad magnate, b. Staten Island, N.Y. As a boy he ferried freight and passengers from Staten Island to Manhattan, and he soon gained control of most of the ferry lines and other short lines in the vicinity of New York City. He further expanded his shipping lines and came to be known as Commodore Vanderbilt. In 1851, when the gold rush to California was at its height, Vanderbilt opened a shipping line from the East Coast to California, including land transit across Nicaragua along the route of the proposed Nicaragua Canal. In Central America he came to be a violent opponent of the military adventurer William WalkerWalker, William,
1824–60, American filibuster in Nicaragua, b. Nashville, Tenn. Walker, a qualified doctor, a lawyer, and a journalist by the time he was 24, sought a more adventurous career.
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After the outbreak of the Civil War, he entered the railroad field, and by 1867 he had gained control of the New York Central RR. Although his efforts to gain control of the Erie RR proved unsuccessful, Vanderbilt vastly expanded his railroad empire and by 1873 connected Chicago with New York City by rail. He amassed a great fortune and gave $1 million to found Vanderbilt Univ.Vanderbilt University,
at Nashville, Tenn.; coeducational; chartered 1872 as Central Univ. of Methodist Episcopal Church, founded and renamed 1873, opened 1875 through a gift from Cornelius Vanderbilt. Until 1914 it operated under the auspices of the Methodist Church.
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A son, William Henry Vanderbilt, 1821–85, b. New Brunswick, N.J., succeeded Cornelius Vanderbilt as president of the New York Central RR and augmented the family fortune. He gave liberally to Vanderbilt Univ., to the College of Physicians and Surgeons (now part of Columbia Univ.), and to various other institutions.

Cornelius Vanderbilt, 1843–99, b. Staten Island, N.Y., was a son of William H. Vanderbilt. He took over the family holdings and helped to establish the Vanderbilt Clinic (affiliated with Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center) and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. With his wife, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt, 1845–1934, he built the famous "Breakers" estate in Newport, R.I. Their daughter, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1875–1942, became a sculptor, art patron, and founder (1930) of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. Her niece and ward, Gloria Vanderbilt, 1924–2019, became a well-known designer of jeans and other clothes in the 1970s. She was also an actress, author, and painter.

Another son of William H. Vanderbilt was William Kissam Vanderbilt, 1849–1920, b. Staten Island, N.Y., who also helped establish the Vanderbilt Clinic. He was a yachtsman, and his wife was a well-known society leader. The fourth son of William H. Vanderbilt was George Washington Vanderbilt, 1862–1914, b. Staten Island, N.Y. He engaged in numerous philanthropies, giving to agricultural research and donating land for the establishment of Teachers College, Columbia Univ. He also built the estate "Biltmore," near Asheville, N.C.

One of the sons of Cornelius Vanderbilt the younger was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, 1877–1915, b. New York City. A noted horse breeder, he went down on the Lusitania. One of the sons of William K. Vanderbilt, Harold Sterling Vanderbilt, 1884–1970, born Suffolk co., Long Island, N.Y., gained note as a sportsman. He won the America's Cup yachting races three times. The modern game of contract bridge was largely invented by him. A grandson of the younger Cornelius Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., 1898–1974, became a well-known writer, newspaper publisher, and movie producer.


See biographies of Commodore Vanderbilt by W. J. Lane (1942) and T. J. Stiles (2009); W. Andrews, The Vanderbilt Legend (1941); E. P. Hoyt, The Vanderbilts and Their Fortunes (1962); C. Vanderbilt, Jr., Man of the World; My Life on Five Continents (1959).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

Vanderbilt, Cornelius

(1843–99) businessman, philanthropist; born near New Dorp, N.Y. The eldest son of William H. Vanderbilt, he was a favorite of the "Commodore" and became an assistant treasurer of the New York & Harlem Railroad in 1867, serving as its president from 1886–99. Patriarch of the Vanderbilts from 1885, he directed the family investments with the aid of his brother William Vanderbilt, and he served on the boards of many corporations. Among his benefactions was the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons (Columbia University), the New York General Theological Seminary, and Yale University.

Vanderbilt, Cornelius (“Commodore”)

(1794–1877) steamship and railroad developer, financier; born in Port Richmond, N.Y. He began as a ferryman between Staten Island and New York City (1810), then worked for Thomas Gibbons (1818–29) and assisted him in his fight against the steamboat monopoly before establishing his own steamboat business. By 1846 he was one of the richest men in America. In 1849 he started a steamship line to California that involved traveling overland through Nicaragua; when his employees tried to cheat him out of his business with the aid of American filibuster William Walker, Vanderbilt helped eject Walker from Nicaragua (1857) and regained control of his line; he then sold it to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. Shifting his interest to railroads, by 1862 he was buying stock in the New York & Harlem Railroad; soon he was extending its service and became president; he then acquired the Hudson River Railroad and the New York Central and by 1872 had consolidated them as the New York Central. In the next few years he acquired even more lines and extended his railroad empire into Michigan and Canada. Although his success definitely rested in part on his insistence on providing the best service and on using the best equipment, he could be a ruthless competitor. His most famous business battles were fought against Daniel Drew, first over steamships, then railroads. In 1868, Drew, along with Jay Gould and James Fisk, defeated Vanderbilt's attempt to add the Erie Railroad to his well-run rail system by their fraudulent stock manipulations known as the "Erie Wars." Never one for giving to charity, he made an exception near the end of his life with gifts totaling $1 million to Central University in Nashville, Tenn.; it renamed itself Vanderbilt University (1873). When he died with an estate of some $100 million, he was the wealthiest man in America.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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economy would be today if John Jacob Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie or any of the magnates who helped turn America into an industrialized society had been gunned down by a revolutionary firing squad.
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