Cor­nelius Van­der­bilt

1794–1877

BBC Earth (Asia) - - History -

WEALTH: At his death, Van­der­bilt’s for­tune was es­ti­mated to be around $100m which, as a share of US GDP at the time, makes him per­haps the sec­ond-wealth­i­est Amer­i­can in his­tory, af­ter only John D Rock­e­feller.

HOW HE MADE HIS MONEY: Shipping, then rail­roads. Van­der­bilt be­gan work as a fer­ry­man in New York City har­bour, soon work­ing his way into a part­ner­ship with the op­er­a­tor of a state-of-the-art steam­boat. By the 1850s he ran a transat­lantic pas­sen­ger line and was com­pet­ing hard, us­ing ev­ery trick in the book to dom­i­nate the lu­cra­tive trans­port route to Cal­i­for­nia. (At that time by far the cheap­est and quick­est way to the gold­fields was to take a ship from New York to Panama or Nicaragua, make an over­land cross­ing from the east coast to the west, then em­bark again for the sea jour­ney up the North Amer­i­can Pa­cific coast.) Af­ter 1860, Van­der­bilt sold his shipping in­ter­ests and in­vested in rail­roads in­stead. He spent the fi­nal 10 years of his life build­ing up the New York Cen­tral, the prin­ci­pal route from New York City to Chicago.

HOW HE SPENT IT: Estab­lish­ing one of his sons as his heir. Not one of the great phi­lan­thropists, he nev­er­the­less en­dowed Van­der­bilt Univer­sity in Ten­nessee.

LEGACY: Van­der­bilt was the first of the so-called ‘rob­ber barons’.

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