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Cornelius Vanderbilt


THE name of CORNELIUS VANDERBILT is inseparably associated with the commercial history of the country, with the rapid growth, and development of our mercantile navy, and, more lately, with our great national railway interests. With a steadiness and rapidity almost romantic he has pushed his way to a position in which he wields an immense influence over the material interests of his native land, and his energy, enterprise, and genius, are recognized the world over. From his ancestors, who were of the good old Holland stock which, over two centuries ago, settled that portion of the New Netherlands now known as New York State, he seems to have inherited the sturdy Knickerbocker habits of industry which have so remarkably characterized his career. His father, whose name was also Cornelius, was a well-to-do farmer on Staten Island, in New York harbor, the island being, at that time, divided into large estates which were generally farmed by their owners, with especial reference to the supply of the city markets. In those days, almost every Islander kept his own boat for the purpose of carrying his farm products to the city; and as the inhabitants increased and more extended facilities for communication became necessary, Mr. Vanderbilt fell into the custom, at times, of conveying to New York those who had no boat of their own. Out of this, and the demand for some public and regular communication, grew up a ferry, which he established in the form of a " perriauger," which departed for the city every morning and returned every after-noon. To this farmer-ferryman was born, on the 27th day of May, 1794, a son, the subject of this sketch—and, even as a babe, full of voice, will, and muscle. As infancy merged into boyhood, these characteristics developed more distinctly into a restless activity of mind and body which seemed to take a strongly practical turn. Old paths of thought and action, and the teachings of books and schools, were (much to the chagrin of his parents) neglected, and he intuitively sought to draw his knowledge from Nature herself, whose wondrous book, so full of infinite knowledge and suggestions, claimed all his thoughts and time, frequently even to the exclusion of his meals. At the age of sixteen he made his first step into the world of activity and independent life in which he was ultimately to hold so regal a sway. Living upon the Island, and being of necessity much upon the water, he early developed a fondness for that kind of life, as affording the widest scope for his ambition. He, naturally enough, wished to have a sail-boat of his own, and soon made known the desire to his father. Thinking him yet too young and inexperienced to have the sole control of a boat, his father sought to discourage him—but, finally, yielding to his importunate pleadings, he gave a qualified promise to furnish him with the necessary purchase-money, provided he would accomplish a certain amount of work upon the farm. The "stent" given, was no slight affair, as the father probably intended by it to foil his son's project; _ and the latter soon found that it would require more time than he could well afford to bestow upon it, with his enterprise delayed. The boy's wit, however, did not fail. him in this emergency—in his father's absence he summoned to his aid all his young companions in the neighborhood, with whom he was a favorite, and by their heartily-rendered assistance the allotted task was soon completed. Reporting the successful accomplishment to his mother, he claimed the reward—but was, met with dissuasives, for her aversion to the proposed business was equal to that of her husband. Remonstrances, however, were useless—and fearful lest his determined will, if thwarted in this matter, might lead him to the still more to be dreaded alternative of running away to sea—the sum of a hundred dollars was placed in his hands. Quickly hastening to the, Port Richmond shore, he at once purchased a boat, which he had previously selected, joyfully took possession of his long coveted prize, and full of brilliant visions of future successes, set sail for home. But, alas, as the little boat, freighted with so many hopes, sped through the waves, it struck on a rock in the kills and the new fledged captain was barely able to run his vessel ashore before she sank. Nothing daunted, however, the boy sought the needed assistance, speedily had the damage repaired, and, in a few hours later, brought his little craft, all safe and sound, alongside the Stapleton dock. He had now, in a measure, cut loose from his father's care; and, as the owner and captain of a boat, had fairly launched upon life's broad sea, as a man of business. Older heads, and older and established reputations were to be competed with—and the boy-captain had the sense to see, and the courage to prove, that he who would make headway in the world's strife, must do so with stout heart and. strong arm—working, not waiting, for coy Fortune's gifts. He. was no idler—straightway he made vigorous attempts to secure business, and met with extraordinary success. He soon found. plenty of remunerative employment in carrying, to and from: New York, the workmen employed upon the fortifications then in process of constriction, by the General Government, upon Staten and Long Islands. Amid all his success, however, his manly spirit of independence was not satisfied until, by scrupulous and daily saving, from his first earnings, he was enabled to repay to his mother the hundred dollars she had given him. The boy had, indeed, taken hold. of life in earnest--grasping its stern realities with a spirit far beyond his years. Among the self-imposed rules with which he sought to regulate his life, and which serve to show a fixedness of purpose as invariable as the circuit of the sun, was a determination to spend less every week than he earned. This careful management soon produced its legitimate results, and ere long he was enabled to purchase another vessel of larger dimensions, and thus considerably to extend his business. And so he went on, , until his eighteenth birthday found him part owner and captain of one of the largest perriaugers in the harbor of New York, and he shortly after became interested in one or two smaller boats engaged in the same business. His life, at this time, was a most active one, spent almost entirely upon the water, carrying freight and passengers, boarding ships, and doing every thing which came to his hand. In addition to all this vigorous day-work, he undertook and continued, through the whole war of 1812, to furnish supplies by night to one of the forts on the Hudson and another at the' Narrows. It is said of him that his energy, skill and daring became so well known, and his word, when he gave it, could be relied upon so implicitly, that Corneile, the boatman, as he was familiarly called, was sought after far and near, when any expedition particularly hazardous ,or important was to be undertaken. Neither wind, rain, ice, nor snow ever prevented his fulfilling one of his promises. At one time during the war (sometime in September, 1813), the 'British fleet had endeavored to penetrate the port during a severe southeasterly storm, just before day, but were repulsed from Sandy Hook. After the cannonading was over, and the garrison at Fort Richmond had returned to quarters, it was highly important that some of the officers should proceed to headquarters to report the occurrence, and obtain the necessary reinforcements against another attack. The storm was a fearful one ; still the work must be done, and all felt that there was but one person capable of undertaking it. Accordingly, Vanderbilt was sought out, and upon being asked if he could take the party up, he replied promptly : "Yes, but I shall have to carry them under water part of the way!" They went with , him, and when they landed at Coffee-House slip there was not a dry thread in the party. The next day the garrison was reinforced.

Vanderbilt also showed, in these earlier days, what he has frequently exemplified in his later life, that he was very tenacious of his rights, and determined that no one should infringe them. On one occasion, during the same war, while on his way to the city with a load of soldiers from the forts at the Narrows, he was hailed by a boat coming out from the shore, near the Quarantine. Seeing an officer on board, young Vanderbilt allowed it to approach him; but as it came nearer, he saw that it belonged to one of his leading competitors, and that the owner himself was with the officer. Still he awaited their approach, preparing to defend himself in ease of any unauthorized interference. 

No sooner, however, were they alongside of his boat, than the officer jumped on board, and ordered the soldiers ashore with him in the other boat, for inspection, etc. Young Vanderbilt, seeing that the whole affair was a trick to transfer his passengers to his competitor, at once told the officer that the men should not move, that his order should not be obeyed. The military man, almost bursting with rage, hastily drew his sword, as if about to avenge his insulted dignity, when young Vanderbilt quickly brought him, sword and all, to the deck. It did not take him many minutes more took rid himself of the officer and his companion, and quickly getting under way again, his soldiers were soon landed, without further molestation, at the Whitehall dock."

These anecdotes serve to illustrate the character of the man. By this time young Vanderbilt's labors had placed him in a position where he could reasonably entertain the prospect of maintaining. a family and home of his own, and, on the 19th of December, 1813, he married Miss Sophie Johnson, of Port Richmond, Staten Island, and the next year took up his residence at New York. About the same time he became the master and owner of the new perriauger "Dorad," which was at that time the largest and finest craft of that kind in the harbor of New York; and, in the summer of 1815, he built, in connection with his brother-in-law, De Forest, a schooner named the " Charlotte," which was remarkably large for her day, and which, under command of De Forest, was profitably employed as a lighter, in carrying freights between numerous home ports. Thus, up. to the year 1817, with varied experience but unvarying success, Mr. Vanderbilt continued in this business, improving the construction of vessels and adding to his reputation among nautical .men, and with such profit that, in the four years preceding his twenty-third birthday, he had laid up the snug little sum of $9000—hard won earnings. Yet his ambition was by no means satisfied. His comprehensive mind, ever on the alert to catch any thing new or valuable pertaining to his chosen profession, saw at an early date the inestimable advantages which would ultimately accrue to the interests of commerce from the use of steam, which had but recently formed a new application to the purposes of navigation Happening to become acquainted with Thomas Gibbons,
of New Jersey, a large capitalist, then extensively interested in the transportation of passengers between New York and Philadelphia, he received from him an offer of the captaincy of a little steamboat, at a salary of one thousand dollars per year. This, to a man who had always been his own master, and who was then engaged in sufficiently lucrative business, presented but few inducements. But Vanderbilt's prophetic ken anticipated the triumphs of steam, and he had resolved to participate in, if not direct them. He therefore accepted the proffer, and assumed the command, in the fall of 1817, of a little steamer, so small, that its owner soon re-christened it as "The Mouse of the Mountain." In a few months he was promoted to the "Bellona," a much larger boat, just ready for her trial trip, and employed on the Philadelphia line, carrying passengers between New York and New Brunswick, to which place (after a temporary few months' stay at Elizabethport), convenience dictated the removal of his family residence. At that time, passengers en route for Philadelphia, stopped at New Brunswick over night, taking early stage next morning to Trenton, and thence boat to Philadelphia. The stage-house at which travellers stopped over night, was the property of Gibbons, whose management of it proved unfortunate, and who was, therefore, induced to offer it, rent free, to his new captain, shortly after his removal to New Brunswick, if he would, in addition to his other duties, take charge of it—its proper keeping being, of course, an indispensable condition to the prosperity of the whole route. Vanderbilt accepted the proposition, and, during the remainder of his business connection with Mr. Gibbons, conducted it so success-fully that it became a source of considerable profit. In 1827, he hired of Mr. Gibbons the New York and Elizabethport Ferry, which, under two successive leases of seven years each, he managed so well that it proved very profitable, although previously it had been unremunerative. Twelve years had elapsed since he had entered Mr. Gibbons's employ; and, during that time, his faithfulness, care, and persevering industry had so advanced the prosperity of the line that it was now netting, annually, the sum of nearly $40,000. Under his supervision, each new boat added to the line had been made better and fleeter than its predecessor, and his keen and fertile intellect was quick to make every new circumstance subservient to the interests of his employer and the improvement of steam navigation.

To understand some of the difficulties with which Vanderbilt was surrounded, at the time he first became captain of the Bellona, we must recall the early history of steam navigation. It will be remembered that, in 1798, an act was passed by the Legislature of New York, repealing a previous act, and transferring to Mr. Livingston, the exclusive privilege of navigating the waters of the State by steam. This act was from time to time continued, and Fulton was finally included in its provisions. In 1807, after the trial trip of the Clermont, the Legislature, by another act, extended this privilege, and in the following year, subjected any vessel, propelled by steam, to forfeiture, which should enter the waters of the State without the license of those grantees. These acts were in force when Vanderbilt entered the employ of Mr. Gibbons, and the Philadelphia line violated the privilege thus granted, in case the boats stopped at the city of New York; and hence, for a long time, whenever Vanderbilt ran a steamer in on the New York side of the river, as he was instructed by the owner to do, he was arrested, if he could be found. As an expedient to avoid arrest, he taught a lady how to steer the boat, and when it neared the New York dock, he would turn it over to her change, and disappear himself; so that the officers were frequently compelled to return their writs against him non eat At this time, it will also be remembered, the New York Court of Errors had pronounced these acts constitutional; the New Jersey Legislature had passed retaliatory acts, and a suit against Gibbons was in progress in the United States Court. To make this line prosperous, under such difficulties, and against such opposition, was, of course, no ordinary task ; still it was at once accomplished, as we have stated. At length, and in 1824, the Gibbons's case was decided, Chief Justice Marshall delivering the opinion of the Court, to the effect, that, under the Constitution of the United States, no State could grant an exclusive right of navigation, by steam or otherwise, on any of the principal rivers of the country ; and, as a consequence, navigation of the Hudson, and elsewhere, became free to all. With this obstacle removed, Vanderbilt went to work with renewed vigor, steadily pushing forward his employer's enterprise, .until it produced the remarkable revenue noted above.

In 1829, Vanderbilt determined to commence business again on his own account, but met with the most strenuous objections, and the most liberal inducements—even to the offer of the ownership of the entire Philadelphia route, on almost his own terms—from Gibbons, who confessed his inability to run the line without him. But these offers were firmly yet kindly put aside; and Gibbons, finding the life of his enterprise had gone, shortly after sold out the entire business. Once again Vanderbilt was his own master, and possessed such an intimate knowledge of the details and 'practical management of steam navigation, as placed him in a most favorable position for further usefulness and success. The next twenty years of his life we must sketch rapidly. Applying to his work, the same wisdom and energy which he had ever shown, he built, during this period, a very large number of steamboats, and established
steamboat lines on the Hudson, the Sound and elsewhere. His plan was to build better and faster boats, than those of his competitors, and to run them at the lowest paying rates. He was thus enabled, by furnishing passengers with the best and cheapest accommodations; to distance the corporations and companies, whose monopoly of the carrying trade had hither-to made travelling too expensive to be enjoyed by the many. It cannot be claimed, that in every act, he sought the public's welfare, yet the great result of his "opposition" lines has been decidedly beneficial to the community, for commercial growth and rivalry are inseparable, and competition is, proverbially, the life of healthy trade. Meantime, the gold of California had been discovered, and was drawing an immense rush of trade thitherward. The Pacific Mail Steamship Company began to run its steamers in 1848, and in 1849 the Panama railroad was surveyed and commenced. The same year, we find Mr. Vanderbilt, under a charter obtained from the Nicarauguan government, for a ship-canal and transit company, seeking another transit route, in connection with which he could establish a competing line between New York and the "golden land." This charter was subsequently enlarged by the grant of an exclusive right to transport passengers and freight between the two oceans, by means of a railroad, steamboats, or otherwise, and separating the transit grant from the canal grant. In 1850, Mr. Vanderbilt built the Prometheus, and, in her, visited Nicaragua for the purpose of personally exploring the country, and satisfying himself as to the practicability of the route. The harbor of San Juan del Sur, was fixed upon as the Pacific port—a little
. steamboat built, under his personal inspection, to run up the San Juan river—and finally, in the face of many obstacles, a semi-monthly line to California, via Nicaragua, was opened in July 1851, and speedily became the favorite, as well as the cheapest route to San Francisco. In January, 1853, Vanderbilt sold his many and large steamers, on both sides, to the Transit Company, 'toting as their agent for several months—and then his connection with it ceased, until he became its president in January 1856. During the invasion of Nicaragua by "Filibuster Walker," that general, to whom Vanderbilt had refused transportation for his men and munitions, issued a decree (February, 1856,) annulling all grants to the company, as well as its act of incorporation ; and, when the long series of plots and counter-plots to which this gave rise were settled, a sand-bar was found to have formed at the mouth of the San Juan, making it practically useless. Mr. Vanderbilt had become a man of great wealth, and, in 1858, he conceived the novel, and, in some respects, grand design of making the tour of Europe, with his family, in a fine, large steamship of his own.

For a single individual, without rank, prestige, or national authority, to build, equip, and man a noble specimen of naval architecture, and to maintain it before all the courts of Europe, with dignity and style, was an extremely suggestive illustration to the Old World, of what the energies of man may accomplish in this new land, where they are uncramped by oppressive social institutions, or absurd social traditions. Cornelius Vanderbilt is a natural, legitimate product of America. With us, all citizens have full permission to run the race in which he has gained such large prises, while in other countries, they are trammelled by a thousand restrictions.

Accordingly, a new vessel, called " The • North Star," was built, as all his vessels are, under his own supervision, in a very complete manner, perfect in all its departments, and splendidly fitted up with all that could tend to gratify or please, and was the first steamer fitted with a beam engine, that ever attempted to cross the Atlantic.

On Friday, the 11th of May, 1855, the commodore and his party set sail. In almost every country visited they were received by all the authorities with great. cordiality, as well as great attention. At Southampton, the North Star formed the topic of conversation in all circles, and the party was honored with a splendid banquet, at which about two hundred persons sat down. When in Russia, the Grand Duke Constantine and the chief admiral of the Russian navy visited the ship. The former solicited and obtained permission to take drafts of it, which duty was ably performed by a corps of Russian engineers. In Constantinople, in Gibraltar, and Malta, the authorities were also very cordial and polite. But in Leghorn (under the government of Austria) the vessel was-subjected to constant surveillance, guard boats patrolling about her day and night--the authorities not being able to believe that the expedition was one of pleasure, but imagining that the steamer was loaded with munitions and arms for insurrectionary purposes. Thus, after a very charming and delightful excursion of four months, they returned home, reaching New York, September 23d, 1853; having sailed a distance of fifteen thousand miles. This certainly was an expedition worthy and characteristic of the man who undertook it, and met with that decided success which his efforts ever seem to insure.

Mr. Vanderbilt's observations, while abroad, satisfied him of the necessity of largely increasing the facilities of communication between Europe and America; and, soon after his return, he made an offer to the Postmaster-General to run a semi-monthly line to England, alternating with 'the Collins line, carrying the mails on the voyage out and home for fifteen thousand dollars. The Cunard line was at that titre withdrawn from the mail service on account of the Crimean war, and his plan, therefore, was to provide for weekly departures, filling up those thus left vacant. This proposition, however, was not accepted; but unwilling to abandon the idea, on the 21st of April, 1858, he established an independent line between New York and Havre. For this purpose he built several new steam-ships, and among them the Arita, end finally the Vanderbilt, and the line was kept up with great spirit and success. Subsequent to the building of the Vanderbilt, there was an exciting contest of speed between the boats of the different lines. The Arabia and Persia, of the Ounard, the Baltic and Atlantic, of the Collins, and the Vanderbilt of the independent line, were the competitors. Great interest was taken in the contest, as all will remember, but the Vanderbilt came out victorious, making the shortest time over 'made by any European or American steamer.

The subsequent history of this vessel, and the use which has since been made of it, are well known. In the spring of 1862, when the administration needed, immediately, large additions to its navy, to aid in carrying on its military operations (an occasion which many were eager to turn to their own advantage, at their country's expense), Commodore Vanderbilt made free gift of this splendid ship, which had cost $800,000, to the Government. For this magnificent act of patriotism he received, in January, 1864, a resolution of thanks passed by Congress, and approved by the President, and a gold medal, a duplicate copy of which was also made and deposited for preservation in the library of Congress.

Commodore Vanderbilt (he was long since given the title of commodore by acclamation, and as the creator and manager of so large a fleet, he surely merited it) has, during his long career of activity, built and owned exclusively himself, upward of one hundred steamboats and ships—none of which have been lost by accident. He had extensive machine-shops, where the
machinery was made according to his own ideas, and his vessels were almost invariably constructed by days' work, under his constant supervision and from plans entirely his own. It was his practice, also, to employ the. most deserving and trustworthy commanders, and never to insure a vessel or cargo of any kind, believing that "good vessels and good commanders are the best kind of insurance ; " and also, that "if corporations could make money in the insurance business he could."

It is now nearly ten years since Commodore. Vanderbilt began to withdraw gradually from his marine enterprises, and to concentrate his energies and his vast capital and influence upon railways, and his movements have been attended with their usual success. He began with the Harlem Railroad, which, had been the football of the speculators and unfortunate in all its management. Its stock had ranged from forty to seventy dollars the share. He obtained a controlling interest in it, equipped it. anew, and made it one of the best as it had previously been one of the poorest roads leaving New York. The stock went up to one hundred and seventy-five and even higher. Next he obtained control of the Hudson River Road, and re-formed its management, and then stretched out his hand and grasped the New York Central. His management was so successful that he met with little or no opposition, when he deter-mined to consolidate the New York Central and Hudson River in one gigantic corporation, and lease the Harlem, which he had now extended to Vermont, to the new corporation. The stock of this mammoth corporation was largely watered, but under his efficient management it has paid liberal dividends. He has bought up all the branches and collateral roads which could be bought or leased, to serve as feeders for his great line. At one time he had almost secured control of the Erie Railway also (it might have been better for the stockholders if he had succeeded); but the cage of unclean birds which in the spring of 1872 were ousted, from it, by their sharp practices kept him out, though not without heavy expense to themselves. He next turned his attention to perfecting his connection with the Pacific Railways, and now controls not only the Lake Shore; Southern Michigan, Chicago and Rock Island, and Chicago and Northwestern, but numerous other connecting roads, and runs his palace. cars without change from New York city to the Golden Gate. His only formidable competitor now for the monarchy of the railroad system of the United States is Col. Thomas A. Scott, the Pennsylvania Railroad Icing. Scot' has youth in his favor, but the old commodore is tough, and carries his seventy-eight years as jauntily as if they were not half that number. He controls to-day, through himself and members of his family, railway property of the value of nearly, and perhaps quite, three hundred millions of dollars. His personal wealth is vast. He is unquestionably one of the three richest men in America, the other two being William B. Astor and Alexander T. Stewart, and it is doubtful whether either could tell the amount of their property within ten millions. Commodore Vanderbilt makes no pretensions of philanthropy. He is not even for his means a large or liberal giver, yet, as we have seen, be sometimes gives in a princely way. He became very much interested four or five years ago in the efforts of Rev. Dr. Deems to establish a " church for strangers" in New York, and finding that the University Place Church. was for sale, a fine; and substantial edifice, he bought it, and presented it to Dr Deems. He has, we are glad to say been ever since a frequent attendant on the Doctor's ministrations.

Yet amidst his close and, continued application to the business of life, the kindly feelings of childhood hare remained unchanged. The eagerness with which he has anticipated every desire of an aged mother, is only an evidence of the heart within him. He was as devoted to her in manhood, as she to him in early youth. The pretty home-like cottage constructed for her under his eye, and in accordance with the taste of both, surrounded by luxuriant vines and evergreens, was a continual joy to her during her life. 

There, near her old home, and overlooking the water, the scene of his early exploits, she happily lived, tenderly cared for, and, only a few years since, as happily and peacefully died. How consistent with all his conduct toward her was the thoughtfulness which prompted him, upon returning from his triumphal tour of Europe, to stop the steamer in passing up the bay, and give that mother his first greetings, and receive her welcome home. Few, as they read, at that time, the newspaper accounts of his arrival, could have failed to notice, among the more exciting items, the statement of this simple fact, and to feel that it was an honor to the son as well as to the mother.

The same kindliness of feeling he has always exhibited in every other position in life. Deceit and underhand dealing he has ever quickly detected and thoroughly hated, but frankness and honesty of speech and act have been sure to find a ready and kind response. During all his contests with men, he had exemplified the truth of this, ever being ready to act with the greatest generosity, when thus approached. A certain captain, interested in a line of boats to Hartford, took steps which Vanderbilt considered dishonorable, to injure his line of boats to the same place, and therefore Vanderbilt determined to run him off, and did it. About that time Captain Brooks, who is an intimate friend of the commodore, met the defeated party and asked him how he got on. " Why, I have put my hand in Vanderbilt's mouth, and of course I must give up," he replied. "But," said Brooks, "go and see him, and if you are frank to him, he will be generous to you." "Go!" said he, "he would not see me." Yet afterwards he concluded to go, and sure enough, he came back not only with the difficulty healed, but with obligations conferred, which he will very long remember.

Six feet in height, with a large strong frame, a bright clear expressive eye, thin white hair, and ruddy complexion, Mr. Vanderbilt combines in his temperament a perfect blending of the best vital motive and mental characteristics. His will, self-reliance and ambition to achieve success are immense, while integrity, self-respect and kindness of heart are not less strongly marked. Socially, he is one of the most affectionate of men. He is quick to read the characters and motives of others; forms his own judgments with intuitive quickness and correctness; executes his plans with rapidity and a consciousness of self power. With such mental and vital characteristics, with or without education, the "Commodore" would, almost inevitably, have been at the head of' any calling or profession which he might have adopted. Nature created him for a leader.

Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872  

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