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’.