Cornelius Vanderbilt, who is also widely remembered by his nickname as the Commodore because of his early successes in the marine/ship trade,
is the first of the great railroad tycoons. Vanderbilt is perhaps the
best definition of the term entrepreneur, as he built a massive fortune
on sheer determination, will, and belief (doing so with little education). However, due to his ruthless business nature, to an extent early railroad executives
like Vanderbilt built the public perception that railroad barons were
heartless profiteers caring for little more than expanding their own portfolios (and it was true that Vanderbilt loved to make money). Interestingly, while the Commodore is forever remembered by the railroad empire he created this career
did not begin for him until very late in life, as for years he had
worked in the steamboat business. Today, much of the New York Central
System which he created remains an important transportation artery.
An NYC Class L-2b 4-8-2 Mountain, #2937, is at speed with a freight near Cleveland, Ohio on May 27, 1940.
Cornelius Vanderbilt was born in 1794 to a rather poor family who lived
at Port Richmond on New York's Staten Island. Perhaps most interesting,
in comparison to his amazing success as a businessman later on life was
the fact that he only had formal schooling through the age of 11. At
that point he quit school and began helping his father who worked in the
boating trade where Vanderbilt first learned about the business he would make a career for more than 50 years. At the age of 16 Vanderbilt began his own ferry service between Staten Island and New York City, with the help of a $100 loan
from his mother. Understanding that offering cheap, affordable prices
in the service industry could gain a lot of customers Vanderbilt's
little ferry operation earned quite a tidy sum, as he quickly repaid his
mother the loan along with an additional $1,000! Two years later
during the War of 1812 Vanderbilt was able to secure a government
contract to move supplies to military forts based in New York.
This enabled Vanderbilt to truly enter the maritime industry as
he now had enough funds to build a few of his own ships, in particular
schooners. It was at this time that he earned the title of Commodore
due to the fact that he operated the largest schooner on the Hudson
River. Around the age of 24 he left the ferry business and began
working for Thomas Gibbons in the steamboat trade. Through virtually everything Vanderbilt attempted he
was quite successful and the steamboat business was no different. In
1829 he went out on his own operating a service between New York City
As usual he looked to cut rates as low as possible,
often putting his competitors out of business or winning in court when
they claimed he held an unfair competitive advantage (such as in the
Supreme Court case of Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston in 1824, Gibbons vs. Ogden). He was worth a half-million dollars by 1834 and during the rush
for gold in California in 1849 Vanderbilt made even more money in the
steamboat business by offering a trip that traveled through Nicaragua,
saved hundreds of miles, and cost far less. He later briefly tapped
into the transatlantic steamship market but this venture was rather
unsuccessful and gave up the idea around the start of the Civil War.
One of the NYC's famed 4-6-4 Hudsons, #5451, with streamlining designed by Henry Dreyfuss for the legendary 20th Century Limited is on display at the Chicago Railroad Fair of 1949 during June of that year (note the plaque on the side of the locomotive).
Around this same time Vanderbilt's legacy in the railroad
industry began in 1863, near the age of 70, when he took control of the
New York & Harlem Railroad in 1863, much to the chagrin of Daniel
Drew. By the time Vanderbilt took over the railroad it operated between New York City
and Chatham Four Corners (what is now Chatham). Overall the NY&H
was a rather rundown operation although it did provide service directly
to downtown Manhattan, a point not lost on the Commodore. A year
later he took control of the Hudson River Railroad in 1864, which
operated parallel to the NY&H between Albany and New York City.
Vanderbilt, of course, had already established himself as a
no-nonsense businessman who could be ruthless in getting what he wanted.
He oversaw significant growth of the NY&H and laid its future
foundations as a world-class carrier. He immediately changed the
railroad's name to the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad when
he merged the original New York Central Railroad with the Hudson River
Railroad. Later including the New York & Harlem as well, the
NYC&HR held a commanding presence in New York City and after gaining
control of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern it reached Chicago on
a northern route that was virtually flat (late known as the Water
Level Route), in comparison to PRR's main line through the Alleghenies.
The NYC&HR would go on to become the legendary New York Central
The NYC&HR was again renamed as the New York Central Railroad
when it merged with the LS&MS in 1914. Throughout the early 20th
century the New York Central System continued to expand reaching Boston;
Pittsburgh, PA; Wheeling, WV; the coalfields of southern West Virginia
via the Toledo & Ohio Central; Columbus, OH; Cincinnati, Cleveland,
and St. Louis via the Big Four Route (the Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago
& St. Louis Railroad), Columbus, OH; Detroit (and virtually the
rest of Michigan via the Michigan Central); and even Montreal, Quebec
and Ontario, Canada. Through the years the railroad gained control of
notable railroads to reach these markets including the Pittsburgh &
Lake Erie, Indiana Harbor Belt, and the aforementioned Big Four.
In 1867 he sparked the "Erie War" with Jim (James) Fisk, Jay
Gould, and Daniel Drew when he attempted to gain control of the Erie
Railroad to include with his NYC&HR system. This would be the only
time Gould ever bested Vanderbilt. During this time the Erie Railroad
was one of the most successful systems in the country and what
essentially started as an argument between the two turned into a battle
of wills as Vanderbilt attempted to corner Erie's stock. In response, Gould and his associates attempted to artificially inflate the Erie's stock value (also known as "watered stock"),
which is fraud and against the law. However, Gould only defeated
Vanderbilt by bribing the New York state legislature, which allowed the stock to be legalized. To read more about the life of "Commodore" Vanderbilt please click here.
New York Central GP7s #5645 and #5642 roll along subsidiary Indiana Harbor Belt through La Grange, Illinois with a short freight train during early June of 1962.
Over the years Cornelius Vanderbilt had entered disputes with
many in the business world such as Drew, Fisk, and others. However,
nearly all of these associates he became friends with later on in life,
except Gould who often tried to smear Vanderbilt in the public after the
Erie incident. The Commodore passed away
January of 1877 at the age of 82 amassing a fortune of nearly $100
million, which would be worth more than $143 billion in today's dollars
making him one of the richest Americans in history. In his will
Vanderbilt left $95 million of his fortune directly to his son William
with his eight daughters receiving between $250,000 and $500,000 each.
Unlike James Hill and a number of the other famed railroad tycoons
Vanderbilt was not much of a philanthropist, endowing only $1 million of
his fortune to the greater good, which went to the Central University
in Nashville, Tennessee that became Vanderbilt University.