Cornelius Vanderbilt was a creative force. Of course, he doubled a great fortune, —but others have done as much, and thousands have built up great fortunes from the bottom, starting emptyhanded. Mr. Vanderbilt's distinction is not that he was merely a money-maker; it lies in the fact that he really created, by the quality of his own career, a new type in American economic and social life,—the ideal industrial millionaire.
He was a man whom great wealth and great responsibilities did not convert into a one-function machine. Captain of industry, fortune builder, financier, administrator, Mr. Vanderbilt was first of all a man. He never narrowed or atrophied on any side, never drifted away from warm human sympathies, never permitted the weight of wealth and power to drag him down from an inwrought modest dignity to cheap and overbearing egotism. He was rounded-out, balanced, a just man. There have been and are others of large wealth, like him in personal qualities also, but this example of extraordinary fortune and sterling worth of character in combination puts Cornelius Vanderbilt in the foreground as the symbol of a type that is to become a larger and larger feature of American life.
The strength of Mr. Vanderbilt's life was not so much in what he did as in what he was. Not in any series of brilliant achievements, but in the sum total of his influence and example for his group. This is why nearly all of what we identify with the man remains in full, even intensified, force when the individual himself is gone. Society never loses an atom of the sort of contribution made by this stamp of man. It is a permanent fund, augmenting at compound interest. Whatever the vocation, there can be no higher praise of a life.
To say all this implies no extravagant or overstrained estimate of Mr. Vanderbilt. In the ordinary meaning of the word he was not a great man. He took little part in public affairs; was no statesman. He could always be counted upon to take his stand on the sound, wholesome side of great questions, but his views, if noteworthy at all, were never urged upon the public. He did not have to make his way wholly unaided. He inherited great wealth, and his opportunities were unlimited.
What is there, then, in a career that touches the commonplace at so many points to attract such minute and widespread attention? It is the manner in which he rose to great opportunities, and, in spite of the temptation to selfish idleness, accepted to the full all the ordinary responsibilities, duties, vexations and weariness of a working life, dedicating the surplus of his energy to conscientious use of wealth for the welfare of others.
Long before he came to his fortune he put on the harness, served in ordinary clerkships, felt and understood the wage-earner's side of life. This experience both laid the foundation for his masterly handling of great affairs later on, and developed a strong manhood sympathy which he never lost. He accepted philanthrophy as a welcome obligation of wealth, and sought to discharge it intelligently. He made few great donations which would specifically perpetuate his name; most of his gifts were impersonal, and quietly conveyed through intermediaries. For this reason the public has no conception of the wide extent of his generosity, embracing educational institutions, hospitals, churches, Young Men's Christian Association work, children's vacation funds, and hundreds of individual cases within the range of his personal knowledge.
Mr. Vanderbilt was not an originator of daring, untried experiments; he was not fond of radical steps. His temperament was conservative. He was the steadying balance wheel. He labored for solid, substantial growth. Natural, well-ordered, permanent expansion appealed to his sense of the fitness of things, in business policy.
It was in the days of Governor Stuy vesant, about the middle of the seventeenth century, vhen the common ancestor of this long descended family, Jan Aertsen Van der Bilt, came with the Knickerbockers to the western world. Jan was thrice married, the patronymic of his second wife, Diesber Cornelius, being given, three generations later, to him who was destined to play a leading part in the greatest shipping and railroad enterprises of the age. To one of his sons, named Jacob, he sold or presented a tract of land in Staten island, probably acquired from the Indians, and taking to wife one Neeltje (Cornelia) Denyse, the latter founded another branch of the family, becoming the father of eleven children.
About this time a party of Moravian refugees took ship for Staten island, forming there amid the primeval wilderness, the settlement of New Dorp. Of this sect Jacob and his family were among the strongest supporters, building at their own expense a vessel with which to assist the emigration of the brethren from Germany. To his eldest son, also called Jacob, seven children were born, the youngest of whom, named Cornelius, was the father of him whose career forms the groundwork of my sketch.
For nearly two centuries, generation after generation of the Vanderbilts had lived on their sterile island farm, had lived in contentment, though perhaps with less of the real comforts of life than at the present day fall to the average lot of mechanics. During all these years they had tilled the soil and planted it, had garnered their scanty harvests, had pastured their cattle and milked their cows, without in the least concerning themselves about the great world beyond. For them the busy city across the bay had no attractions ; they coveted not its wealth; they cared not for its amusements; they had absolutely no ambition in life except to earn an humble livelihood, to pay their debts, and to attend with regularity their little Moravian meeting-house. But then the family tree was to bear fruit of another description in the person of a man destined for a brilliant career of accumulation, of the rolling up of riches; one who would stamp his impress on the commercial activities of the time, would ndd to the sum of the nation's wealth and his own more than had ever been imagined in his fondest dreams. That man was Cornelius Vanderbilt.
A farm near Stapleton landing was the birthplace of Mr Vanderbilt, and the day the 27th of May 1794. The house where he was born was a one-story fiveroomed edifice, shingled, and with dormer windows, on the eastern slope of Staten island, only a few feet above high water mark, and so near to the beach that the garden lawn was washed by the tides. Here he developed rapidly into a hardy and vigorous boy, tall, strong, and muscular, an expert swimmer, a fearless rider, one who could sail a boat, handle tools, and in fact could do or learn almost anything except his lessons. School and school-books were to him an abomination; and though as vigorous in mind as in body, he could never be induced to study; he would work rather, though of course, like other lads, he preferred above all things out-door sports.
But if Cornelius hated school he loved the water. At an early age we find him sailing the periauger, a two-masted boat of primitive construction, in which his father carried his produce to market. At twelve he was intrusted with the work of a man, often being sent in charge of teams to superintend the unloading of shipwrecked vessels. At sixteen he was intent on going to sea, and to do so must run away from home, for at that date a boy was bound by custom as well as by law to work for his father until the as;e of twenty-one. But from this he was dissuaded by his mother, who promised him a hundred dollars with which to buy a periauger of his own, on condition that he should plough and plant with corn an eightacre lot so full of rocks that it had never before been worked. This he accomplished in the time agreed upon, and with money in hand made haste to secure the coveted prize, a bran new boat which lay moored to the dock at the Port Richmond shore. The incident he remembered until the day of his death. “ Never,” he remarked, “ did I feel so much real satisfaction as on that bright May morning, sixty years ago, when I stepped into my own periauger, hoisted my own sail, and laid my hand on my own tiller.”
At this time the fortifications of Long and Staten islands were being rapidly pushed forward by the government ; for relations with England were strained, and war seemed almost inevitable. Laborers must be carried to and from New York, and with other traffic gave to Cornelius abundant work. But one thing troubled him. The money for his boat had been furnished by his mother, and must be repaid with all possible despatch. Working sixteen hours a day therefore, and saving from his earnings every cent that could be spared, he quickly laid by the required sum, and without a word laid it in his mother's lap. This was probably the proudest day in his life.
By ceaseless toil and strict economy the young man gradually added to his savings and extended his business until, at eighteen, he was captain and part owner of one of the largest periaugers in New York harbor, in addition to his interest in other vessels. Throughout the war of 1812 he held a contract to carry provisions to the several forts, and this he did at night after a hard day's work, loading at the battery when his other duties were performed. So reliable was he, and withal so daring and skillful, that ' Corneile the boatman,' as he was styled, was always the first one called upon for any task involving special difficulty or danger. Thus when during a severe storm the British fleet was repulsed off Sandy Hook, and reinforcements must be had in case of another attack, Cornelius was sent for to carry the messengers to headquarters. Arriving on the ground, a staff officer asked him whether a boat could live in such a sea. “ It can,” he said, “ if properly handled.” “ Then will you take us to the battery?” “ Yes, but I shall have to carry you part of the way under water.” He did so, and when the party landed at the slip there was not a dry thread among them.
It was a gruesome storm; but a promise once made, not even the rage of the elements could prevent him from carrying it out. The qualities which he displayed as a boatman were the same which marked his later career as a railroad millionaire, the power of doing and the will to do whatsoever he undertook. Throughout that career he was guided by selfestablished rules, by a strength of purpose that varied not, by a resolve as immutable as the rising and setting of the sun. Once he had determined on a given course, there was no such thing as looking bark. At all hazards he would carry out his project to its legitimate conclusion, and that with an energy that was satisfied only with success. Nor was he ever doubtful of success; for like all men, intensely determined to accumulate, he was conscious of his own powers, conscious of his ability to make and to hold as much or more than any other man.
During the war Cornelius found many opportunities for making money ; or if he did not find them he made them. At eighteen he had become the owner of two sea-going craft, and the captain of a third. To these additions were made from time to time, as means and opportunity offered, now a sloop and now a schooner; so that when balancing his books on New Year's eve of 1817, he found himself, at twentythree, worth $9,000 in cash, in addition to his little fleet of vessels. During all these years he had turned his hand to whatever he could find to do so long as it brought in money, transporting freight and passengers, trading, and even peddling; at one time carrying boat-loads of fish up and down the shore, and at another cargoes of melons which he sold wherever he could find a purchaser. Meanwhile he had introduced many improvements in the science of ship-building, and his models and methods were discussed and imitated by the most experienced masters of the craft.
When the success of Fulton's experiment was assured, Mr Vanderbilt took passage on one of his steamers to Albany, and after observing closely the working of her engines and machinery, came to the conclusion that, in the navigation of the future, the sail would be largely superseded by steam. Acting on this conviction with his usual promptitude, he at once gave up his coasting business, disposed of his vessels, and though making at this time from $2,000 to $3,000 a year, accepted the captaincy of a tiny steamboat at a salary of $1,000 in order to learn the business. The name of the craft was the Mouse of the Mountain, and of her owner, Thomas Gibbons, a man of means and enterprise who for many years waged a bitter war with Fulton & Livingston, to whom had been granted by the state of New York the exclusive right of running steamers on all the waters within its jurisdiction. After a seven years' struggle the dispute was decided by Chief-justice Marshall in favor of Gibbons, on the ground that the privilege was unconstitutional.
After running the Mouse of the Mountain for about a year, in 1818 a larger steamer named the Bellona was built under his supervision, and with others placed on the line between New York and Philadelphia. In the following advertisement, which appeared
C. B.—V. SO
on the 15th of September, 1826, the route is more fully described:
FOR PHILADELPHIA AND BALTIMORE
TO PHILADELPHIA IN ONE DAY !
TWENTY-FIVE MILES OF LAND CARRIAGE, BY NEW BRUNSWICK,
PRINCETON, AND TRENTON.
The splendid new steamer Emerald, Captain C. Vanderbilt, leaves the wharf, north side of Battery, at 12 o'clock noon every day, Sunday excepted. Travellers will lodge at Trenton, and arrive at Philadelphia by steamboat at 10 o'clock next morning !
FARE ONLY THREE DOLLARS.
At this date the Gibbons line was entirely under the control of Mr Vanderbilt, who by careful management, by keeping down expenses, by discharging all unnecessary help, and above all by making his trips on time, had brought it to a paying basis. While thus employed he had found time to make a careful study of the build and machinery of steamboats, observing their defects and considering how best to remedy them. And now his attention was drawn to the rich traffic of the Hudson and Long Island sound, which, as he perceived, could be largely expanded with better facilities for transportation. Resigning his position therefore—although offered on his own terms a half interest in the Gibbons line, then earning $40,000 a year—in 1829 he started in business for himself.
Fulton was long since dead; but the invention which he introduced had been followed by a vast commercial development, by an enormous increase in the volume of traffic, and especially of steamboat traffic ; for it was not until many years later that the railroad came into active competition. Among those who controlled this traffic were many men richer and more experienced than Vanderbilt, such men as Stevens of Hoboken, and Daniel Drew of New York ; but all were compelled to give way before his superior enterprise and sagacity. By constructing larger, faster, and more commodious boats, by availing himself of all the latest appliances for speed and comfort, and bycutting down rates to the lowest figures that would return a profit, he quickly overcame all rivalry, either securing a monopoly of the more desirable trade, or compelling those who held such monopoly to buy him off.
For twenty years he was engaged in building steamers and establishing steamboat lines, reaching out in all directions, on the Hudson, on Long Island sound, southward to Philadelphia, and northward to New Haven, Providence, and Boston. To insure the success of these enterprises, he brought to bear all the resources of his keen and comprehensive intellect, of his financial genius, and his marvellous energy, taxing to the utmost his phenomenal capacity for work. Thus at the age of forty he had at least a score of vessels in commission, all of them of superior pattern, and competing successfully with old established lines. It was about this time that the title of Commodore was bestowed upon him, following the American fashion in this regard, half compliment, half slang, his success in rolling up wealth tending to make permanent that which was started only as a joke. None of his steamers were insured, for, as he remarked, “good vessels and good captains are the best insurance. If corporations can make money by insuring, so can I.”
In 1850 his operations were extended to a much wider field, embracing indeed almost the entire continent. At that date the Isthmus traffic, then of enormous dimensions, was in the hands of the Pacific Mail steamship company, which ran its steamers to and from either shore, charging for its execrable service $600 a trip. “ I can make money at half that rate,” said Vanderbilt, “ taking my passengers by Lake Nicaragua, and saving at least seven hundred miles of distance.” Building a large steamer, named the Prometheus, he sailed in her for the Nicaragua coast, and selected his transit route, from Greytown to San Juan del sur. In the following year he placed three steamers on the Atlantic side, and four on the Pacific. In 1853 three others were added to the fleet, and a branch line established from New Orleans to Greytown, with smaller vessels on Lake Nicaragua and the Rio San Juan. With its cheaper fares and shorter distances, with its more attractive scenery, and above all with its more healthful climate the Nicaragua route quickly came into favor, and for a time the rush of travel was enormous, yielding, it was estimated, a net revenue of more than $1,000,000 a year.
Thus it was that for nearly half a century Mr. Vanderbilt knew no rest from labor. He was approaching three-score years of age and was reputed to be worth at least $10,000,000, although the exact amount of his wealth was unknown, probably even to himself. At least he could afford himself a rest, and this he resolved to take, selling a controlling interest in the Nicaragua route to the Accessory Transit company. In 1853, accompanied by his family, he sailed for Europe on board the steam-yacht North Star, a vessel of two thousand tons burthen, and the largest of the kind that had ever been constructed. Its equipments were on a magnificent scale, with its main saloon lined with satin-wood; its staterooms upholstered in green and gold, in crimson and orange; its berths supplied with the costliest of lace curtains; its furniture of rosewood, covered with figured-plush velvet; and its spacious dining-room, whose walls were covered with a preparation of ligneous marble, polished to mirror-like brightness.
As a specimen of what could be accomplished under republican institutions, it was in truth a revelation to the people of Europe; for here was the largest steamer then afloat, an ocean palace, built entirely on American models, by American workmen, and commanded by a man who from a lowly sphere in life had risen to be one of the wealthiest and most dominating men of the New World. At every port where the vessel called its owner was received with honors befitting the progress of an American nobleman. At Southampton, St Petersburg, Boulogne, Marseilles, Genoa, Naples, Athens, Constantinople, he was fe"ted, feasted, saluted, and visited by many of the notable men of the land, including even the representatives of royalty. Returning home after a four months' trip, the yacht was rounded to in front of Stapleton landing, where still resided his aged mother, and to whose hundred dollars, spared from her scanty savings to buy his first periauger, he owed his success in life. After firing a formal salute, he paid her a somewhat lengthy and what proved to be a farewell visit, for three months later she died, invoking with her dying breath a blessing on her prosperous and well-beloved son.
But glad as Mr Vanderbilt was to return to the scene of his labors and his victories, he found a bitter disappointment awaiting him, and the more bitter since it came from men whom he had befriended and enriched. The directors of the Transit company, all of whom had become wealthy through the profits of the Nicaragua route, refused to pay him his share, as he very strongly asserted. To enforce his claim by process of law would be an international affair, and one involving great expense of time and money. What he resolved to do was this, and as his message was of the briefest, I will give it in his own words: “Gentlemen,” he wrote, “you have undertaken to cheat me. I won't sue you, for law is too slow. I will ruin you.” And he did so; placing on the route a fleet of steamers which soon drove the company into bankruptcy.
For some years longer Mr Vanderbilt prosecuted his hold on the steamer traffic with California, whereby it is said that he accumulated a further sum of $10,000,000. Meanwhile he had engaged in what was in this direction the crowning enterprise of his career. At the time of his return from Europe war had been declared between England and Russia, and one of the first measures of the British government was to charter the Cunard steamers for the transportation of troops. This gave to the Collins line the entire service between New York and Liverpool, for which a subsidy had been granted of $33,000 a trip. But the service was inadequate, and to supply the deficiency Mr Vanderbilt proposed to form a partnership with Collins, and to place at his disposal two additional vessels. The proposition was rejected, for no apparent reason except the timidity of the latter, whereupon Vanderbilt offered to carry the mails for $16,000 a trip, the subsidy allowed the Cunard line.
But the Collins influence was strong in congress, and Cornelius Vanderbilt was informed that if he wished to run his steamers across the Atlantic he must run them at his own expense. This he resolved to do, and building what were then the three fastest steamers in the world, among them the famous Vavderbilt, established a new line between New York and Havre. Then came the long-remembered ocean race between the Arabia and Persia of the Collins line, and the Vanderbilt and Ariel of its competitor, resulting, with rare exceptions, in the defeat of the former. During all this time Mr Vanderbilt was preparing for his coup de main, which at one fell stroke should annihilate the foe. “ Gentlemen,” said Napoleon, on the eve of Austerlitz, “we shall end this campaign with a thunder-clap.” And like a thunder-clap fell on the man of subsidy the news that his rival had offered to carry the mails for nothing. A few months later the long-established Collins line disappeared forever from the face of ocean.
But after a fair trial, and a thorough study of the business and its prospects, Mr Vanderbilt came to the conclusion that “ it would not pay to push it” in the face of European competition. The Crimean war was ended and the Cunard line was re-established, with others threatened or already in existence. Moreover, civil war was imminent, and to a man of his foresight and sagacity, its effect on the shipping interest could not be doubtful. Thus, before the outbreak of the rebellion, he had disposed of many of his vessels, and at the close of the war all of them, investing the bulk of his means, then estimated at from $30,000,000 to $40,000,000, in railroads.
But his favorite vessel, the Vanderbilt, the finest merchant steamer then afloat in American or other waters, he devoted to the service of his country. The destruction wrought by the Menrimac in Hampton roads had caused the direst perplexity at Washington, and to meet the emergency Mr Vanderbilt was summoned to the White house. “ Will you undertake,” asked Abraham Lincoln, “ to stop that rebel ram and keep her away ; if so what will be your terms?” Vanderbilt well knew that he could do better than to drive a hard bargain with the government at this juncture. So he said, “I am not the man to make money out of my country's misfortunes. But I have a ship which I think will give a good account of that devil. If you will man her I will take command myself. My only condition is that I shall not be interfered with by the navy department.” Two days afterward he was steaming into the mouth of James river, somewhat to the astonishment of the admiral in command, who wondered what ship was this whose shadow crept like a dark looming cloud over the water.
After showing his credentials he was asked what he intended to do in case the M'errimac should make her appearance. “Run her down,” he said, “strike her amidships and sink her.” “ And how can I help you V ” Only by keeping out of the way." But the Merrimac did not appear, and returning home he offered the use of his vessel to the government until the conclusion of the war. The offer was most graciously accepted, and equipped as a cruiser the Vanderbilt made a twelve months' cruise in search of the Alabama, returning so badly strained that her engines were taken out and the craft disposed of to a New York shipping firm. Under the name of the Tftree Brothers the vessel made several trips around the Horn, and many a cargo of wheat has she borne from the port of San Francisco.
And how did a grateful nation requite these services, this proud and patriotic loan of the fastest and most powerful merchant steamer afloat, valued at more than a million dollars in currency ? They appropriated his vessel, whether by design or misunderstanding does not appear, but certain it is that the Vanderbilt was commissioned as belonging to the United States navy. And in return the national legislature presented her owner with a vote of thanks and a twenty-five dollar medal, “ which shall fitly embody an attestation of the nation's gratitude.”
At the close of the war Mr Vanderbilt had already passed the age which the psalmist allotted as the span of human life. By his friends he was urged to retire from business and pass in quiet the brief remainder of his days; but, as a fact, he was at this moment entering upon the most brilliant epoch of his career. For years he had controlled the commercial marine of the Atlantic coast, and now he was to control its railroads. And here it should be remarked that he was not, in the common acceptation of the term, a railroad speculator. He was not even a member of the stock exchange, and if at times he appeared to speculate, it was to outwit and counteract the manipulations of others. He claimed to buy what he bought as an investment, and not on fictitious values; yet he bought and sold all the same. Says one who has made a thorough study of his life and character: “ He bought opportunities and sold achievements. He bought roads that were thriftless and in disorder, and he sold them when they had become models of order and thrift; or oftener he did not sell them at all, because he could make them pay more than anybody else.” In the few words of advice which he once gave to a friend, words that have since passed into a proverb, is a world of experience and common sense. “ Never buy anything that you don't want, and never sell anything that you have not got.”
As early as 1844 Mr Vanderbilt became interested in railroads, his first purchases being in the New York and New Haven road. Foreseeing the growth of the metropolis and the great prospective value of a line which led from the north and west directly into its heart, a few years later he began to invest freely in the Harlem railroad, of which in 1857 he was appointed a director, and in 1863 its president. And well it was for the shareholders that he consented to give to it the benefit of his executive ability. At the former date the condition of affairs was simply deplorable. Through incompetent and dishonest management its credit was seriously impaired, its equipment was unserviceable, and its roadbed as shaky as its stock, which was then slow of sale at $3 a share. Under the new order of things it gradually rose to $7 or $8 in 1860, and to $10 or $12 early in 1863 When it became known that Mr Vanderbilt had advanced a large sum of money on the security of the road, its stock rose almost at a bound to $30, and in April of the same year to $50, under a rumor that some new franchise was to be granted, though exactly what no one could tell. A few days later an ordinance was passed by the city council of New York, permitting the construction of a street railroad from its terminus to the Battery. The next morning Harlem sold at $75, and a week or two later at $100. But the end was not yet.
In June certain of the aldermen took council together, and as they thought, saw a good opportunity to fill their purses by selling the stock for future delivery, or, in Wall street phrase, by shorting it, and then after repealing the ordinance buying it at much lower figures. Of course each one confided the secret to his confidential friends, and these again to other friends, until hundreds of men were throwing Harlem on the market. Their scheme was quickly detected by the president; but still he sent in his orders to buy, taking, in fact, nearly all the shares that were offered, until the so-called bears had sold more stock than existed. Then the ordinance was rescinded, and at the same moment an injunction was issued by the court forbidding the company to continue laying its rails. And now it was supposed that Harlem would drop below $50 a share; but no such collapse occurred. On the contrary a day of reckoning was at hand for those who had sold what they did not possess.
After falling to $70 the stock rebounded to nearly its former figures, and there after some fluctuations it remained. The bears made haste to cover or fill their contracts; but they could not fill; for no one but the president had any shares for sale. Up went the stock, $5, $10, and $20 in a day, until at the end of a week it reached $170. Loud were the wailings of the aldermen, and sore their consternation at what they denounced as “ the sharp practice of the commodore.” But the commodore was inexorable, and the more so because their machinations had been directed against himself. When the final settlement was made, Mr Vanderbilt had relieved the members of the council of $1,000,000, and their associates of several additional millions. The aldermen were at length convinced that there were surer roads to wealth than shorting the Vanderbilt stocks.
To relate the story of Mr Vanderbilt's railroad operators would require many times the space allotted to this biography. Moreover, that story has been a hundred times repeated; how he secured the control of the Hudson River road, of the New York Central, of the Lake Shore and Michigan ; how in the famous deal in Erie he drove to the wall such veteran operators as James Fisk, Jay Gould, and Daniel Drew. But in all these transactions his main object was to acquire control of the road, and by improving his property to make of it a paying investment. His methods of railroad management have thus been briefly summarized. First, buy your railroad; second, stop the stealing that was going on under the former management; third, improve it in every practicable way within a reasonable expenditure; fourth, consolidate it with any other road with which it can be run economically; fifth, make it pay dividends.
Perhaps the crowning enterprise of his railroad career was the one whereby the northern railroads were brought into the very heart of the metropolis. From the New York legislature he obtained a charter permitting the construction of an immense depot on Forty-second street and Fourth avenue, with the use of the avenue as far as Harlem, for a series of viaduct or underground tracks for the Harlem, the Central and Hudson River, and the New Haven and Boston lines. On the construction of these tunnels, bridges, and viaducts $6,500,000 was expended; a hundred and fifty trains passed through or over them daily, the entire work being considered a marvel of engineering skill.
If by his railroad ventures Mr Vanderbilt more than doubled his immense fortune, it was because he had the perception and skill to detect and make such changes as were needed in railroad management, and possessed the means wherewith to make them. Observing that a number of lines were struggling for existence under the most adverse circumstances, and under various managements, he consolidated them, and thus made to pay as a whole roads which could not be worked singly at a profit. This, with his rare financial ability, and with a capital of from $30,000,000 to $40,000,000 at his command, he could easily accomplish without taking risks and without any gambling in mere certificates of value. When asked the secret of his success, he replied on one occasion ; “ I pay for what I buy and only sell what I have got.” And on another : “ I never tell anybody what I am going to do until I have done it.”
No less remarkable than his success was the ease with which he superintended his vast and manifold affairs. Though an early riser, it was not until ten or eleven o'clock that he reached his office at West Fourth street, where, with the aid of a single clerk, he transacted in an hour or two the entire business of the day. The routine of office work he could not tolerate, always leaving it to men whom he could trust, and of whom he required only the net results, keeping his personal accounts in a book which he carried in his pocket, or more often keeping them in his head, but always managing them without apparent effort. Letter-writing he also disliked, though in dictating a letter he had few equals. If among his despatches there were any that contained more than a dozen lines, he would toss them impatiently to his clerk, saying ; “Here, see what this man is driving at and tell me the gist of it.” Money he never kept on hand to any considerable amount, investing it within a day or two after it was received, and making his arrangements beforehand so as to get from it all that it would earn. Like other millionaires of his day he did not despise small economies, and the same man who expended half a million in a yachting excursion would group into one a score of stock certificates in order to save a stamp tax of twenty-five cents. His business over, he left it strictly in the office, never allowing it to interfere with his recreation, which consisted mainly of an afternoon drive behind the fastest team in New York, and in the evening a game of whist at one of the three clubs of which he was a member.
Mr Vanderbilt was not all disposed to underrate himself, or place a limit on his powers of accumulation. Looking back on his career, he boasted one day: “I have made on an average a million dollars every year of my life, and each million has been worth at least three millions to the people of the United States.” There was some truth in the boast. On retiring from the shipping business, instead of placing his $30,000,000 or $40,000,000 at interest, and remaining content with the income, he looked around him for some investment that would benefit his country, and this he found in the railroads of his native state. He found them crippled by the war, by speculation and bad management, and piecing together the shattered and isolated fragments, he equipped them anew, furnished them when needed with new road-beds and new rolling-stock, reduced their rates, increased their traffic, and by various improvements brought his system to a foremost place in the locomotive traffic of the world. His main line was nearly a thousand miles in length, representing with its branches a capital of $150,000,000, of which he owned in person more than one-half.
Now over four-score years of age, Mr Vanderbilt was still a noble specimen of physical and intellectual manhood. Tall in stature, but erect as a grenadier, and in carriage stately and dignified, his eye was still bright and clear, his step elastic, and in his fine and expressive features were but few traces of the touch of time. With his eleven children and his thirtythree grandchildren gathered around him, he looked like one of the patriarchs of old, and a power indeed he was for good or ill, for he had accomplished more
in his way than any living man, and still went on accomplishing, refusing to stay his hand until death confronted him.
In May 1876 he was seized with the last and onlyserious illness of his life, or rather with a complication of ailments, to which his iron constitution long refused to yield. All through this centennial summer, autumn, and far into the winter he did battle with the foe. More than once his life was despaired of, the pulse growing feeble, the extremities cold, and the heart almost ceasing to beat. Still he rallied, even when the physicians had declared that his hours were numbered, and when all the family had bid him, as they thought, a last farewell. But at length came the end. After recovering from a severe relapse, on the afternoon of the 3d of January he was wheeled into the sitting-room, which for months he had not been allowed to visit, and at the time appeared in excellent spirits. Returning to his chamber he rested quietly until two in the morning, when a change for the worse occurred. A few hours later he passed away, peacefully and almost painlessly, surrounded by his descendants to the third generation, on all of whom he invoked the blessing of him before whose tribunal he was about to appear.
Of the enormous fortune bequeathed by Cornelius Vanderbilt, amounting to more than $100,000,000, nearly $90,000,000 were left to his eldest son, and one-half of the remainder to his heirs, but with ample provision for his wife, his remaining children, and certain of his relatives. It was remarked that in his will nothing was set aside for charities; but in his lifetime there had been an endowment of $1,000,000 for the Vanderbilt university at Nashville. Promiscuous alms-giving came not naturally to him; he took no great pleasure in doling out to paupers; if he must give, let it be done all at once. Hap-hazard charity encourages the idle to live at the expense of those who
Chronicles of the builders of the commonwealth
are industrious and economical, and that the only way to help such men is by teaching them to help themselves.
Mr Vanderbilt was twice married, first, at the age of nineteen, to Miss Sophia Johnson, a woman of strong and noble qualities, and like himself of simple tastes and habits, one whose happiest days were spent in the Staten island home which her husband built, and in the company of the thirteen children whom she bore to him. A year or two after her decease, which occurred in August 1868, he took for his second wife Miss Frank A. Crawford, a southern woman of a religious turn of mind, who was influenced and praised by her religious admirers. Says Doctor Deems, who was for many years his spirtual adviser, “the religious germ implanted in his youth was to be developed under the kindly cultivation of a younger nature, strange to his antecedent career. It was the mission of his second wife to develop the intrinsic goodness of his soul, and to inspire the benevolent deeds that crowned his later years.”
And now from the career of Cornelius Vanderbilt, let us turn to that of his eldest son, who proved himself in all respects a most worthy successor to him whose fortune he inherited, and whose enterprises he carried to a still more perfect fruition.
William Henry Vanderbilt was born at New Brunswick, in the state of New Jersey, on the 8th of May 1821. For several years he attended the district school, and later the Columbia grammar school, New York, where at seventeen he completed his education. At eighteen he began life as a clerk in the banking house of Drew, Robinson, and company, of which the senior member was Daniel Drew. As yet he had given no proof of the accumulative qualities that distinguished him in after life, and by his father was regarded as a youth of no very special promise. But for that very reason he set to work with the greater
energy, toiling from morning to night, rapidly mastering the details of the business, and thus recommending himself to the favor of his employers. That he did so is sufficiently proved by the rapid increase in his salary from $150 the first year to $1,000 in the third, and by the prospect of a partnership which, if not actually promised, was certainly in contemplation. Meanwhile he had married the daughter of the Reverend Samuel Kissam, clergyman of a reformed Dutch church in the suburbs of Albany. The choice proved in all respects a most fortunate one, and for five and forty years he found in her who shared his lot a blessing greater than all his riches. As yet, however, he was anything but rich; for his salary was something less than $20 a week, and on this they lived for a time at a boarding-house on East Broadway.
But it was not as a banker that William was destined to make his mark in life. His health, at best somewhat delicate, had been seriously impaired by long confinement to the desk, so that his father was warned by the family physician that, unless he were removed from the bank, he would probably sink into an early grave. Thereupon the elder Vanderbilt presented to his son a farm of seventy acres of level land on the southeast shore of Staten island, without stump or stone, but with a soil of thin, sandy loam, requiring the most thorough tillage and fertilization. Here for more than twenty years the young couple lived, in a plain two-story house, resembling somewhat the Stapleton homestead which for three generations had been the home of the Vanderbilts.
It was not a munificent gift for a millionaire to bestow on his eldest son by way of a start in life, but it was better than nothing, and William settled at once on his little estate, determined to make the best of it. And here a word may be said as to the want of natural affection on the part of the elder Vanderbilt, a fault seriously questioned by some, though a hundred times cast at him as a reproach. Brought up as he had been in the school of adversity, toiling without cease, and saving every dollar that he could spare, his early struggles had tended to harden still further his strong and self-reliant nature. “ Let others do as I have done,” he said ; and as for his own sons he considered that better than anything he could give them was the opportunity for work, for earning their own livelihood as soon as they were able, no matter how severe and distasteful the task. “If a boy is good for anything,” he remarked, "you can put him down anywhere and he will make his living and lay up something; if he can't he is not worth saving, and you cannot save him. Such was his maxim, and this he applied to his own children no less than to others, believing that labor, hard, honest labor was the surest panacea for the evils with which youth is beset.
From the first William was resolved to make a success of farming, and in that resolve was the surest presage of success. “ Few men of his age,” remarks the New York Times, “ would have had the courage to leave a banker's desk to grapple seriously with the responsibilities and difficulties of such an undertaking, and still fewer would have overcome the obstacles and succeeded; but his motto was, never to attempt what he could not do, and never to fail when work would win. The morning sun greeted him in the field, and the setting sun left him there. He was among the first to begin work and the last to leave it; he directed the whole, but permitted nobody to do more labor than himself. The result was that the wastes and barrens of the little farm were soon transformed into a blooming garden, and Mr Vanderbilt's seventy acres soon began to return him a goodly income.”
Further to improve his estate and to enlarge its area, capital was needed, and of this he had none at his disposal. An application to his father for a loan of$5,000 was refused; whereupon he mortgaged his
C. B.—V. 31
farm to a neighbor for $6,000, enlarging his house and purchasing nearly three hundred acres of adjoining land. But news of this transaction came to the ears of the commodore, who presently called on his son, and during an afternoon drive lectured him sharply on his improvidence. The latter replied that he had only done what he was compelled to do in order to make the best of his farm ; that the mortgage would surely be paid off when due ; that he had always tried to please his father, and would never again ask him for money. The next day he received from him a cheque for $6,000, and thenceforward there was a marked change for the better in the attitude of his sire, who began to consider that perhaps there might be some good in this son, though not thus far rich.
During the war William made money rapidly, disposing of most of his produce to the commissariat department at Camp Scott, then the headquarters of General Sickle's brigade. When finally he abandoned farming and removed to New York, his income was at least $12,000 a year; his farm was considered the best, or at least the best conducted in all the island, and the old farmhouse had been replaced by a country villa, with its tower, piazzas, bay-windows, and all the adjuncts of the Italian style of architecture. Here were passed the happiest years of his life, and here were born his eight children, two of whom, Cornelius and William K. Vanderbilt, were destined to play an important part in the railroad world.
But several years before the war William Henry Vanderbilt began his railroad career. Mainly through his efforts the Staten island line was built, skirting the shore eastward from Vanderbilt's landing ; but through gross mismanagement it had become so embarrassed with debt that it was necessary to place its affairs in the hands of a receiver. Less for the reason that the elder Vanderbilt was one of the largest stockholders, than for the confidence inspired by the ability of his son, the appointment was offered to the latter, and at once accepted, though as yet he had no experience in the control of railroads. Here was the inception of a career which has made his name a household word wherever the whistle of a locomotive is heard. Here in this little island road, without means or credit, and almost without organization, was the graduating school of one of the greatest railroad managers of the age.
The receiver brought to bear on his task all the resources of his energy, working as he had never worked before, and that with a method and business aptitude that astonished the directors ; none more so than his own father, who was now convinced that he had entirely underestimated the qualities of his son. By the most rigid economy, by developing new resources of patronage, and by establishing a separate ferry-boats connecting the road with New York, he gradually began to pay off the claims. Within two years the company was free from debt and on a sound financial basis. Then in recognition of his services Mr Vanderbilt was elected president, and so skillfully did he conduct its affairs that from being absolutely worthless the stock rose within five years to $175 a share.
But the recognition which he prized more than any other was that of his father, and of this a special token was now to be given. After a trip to Europe, to see his brother, George, a captain in the Union ranks, who died from the effects of exposure and hardship in 1864, he was appointed vice-president of the Harlem railroad, and in the following year of the Hudson River company. In both he became the chief executive officer, carrying to a speedy and successful issue the far-reaching plans which the master mind had conceived. Becoming thoroughly familiar with the details of his business, he gave to each department the most careful supervision, repairing the track, building new stations and new rolling-stock, increasing the service and the speed, discharging incompetent or superfluous officials, and all this with the closest attention to economies whose items might be small, but whose aggregate was large. Thus the two lines, afterward consolidated as the Harlem and Hudson River railroad, enjoyed such a season of prosperity as had never been witnessed before. “I always told William,” remarked Vanderbilt the elder, “ that if these two roads could be weeded out and made ship-shape, they would both pay dividends.” That they did so was due no less to William's careful management than to the financial combinations of his father.
And now Mr Vanderbilt was in the fullest sense of the word a railroad man, and with a career before him, the greatness of which none could as yet foresee. In truth he was not slow to seize on that career and prove himself master of his opportunities. If he did not possess all of his father's originality and boldness of enterprise, he was greatly his superior in method and organization. In routine work there was no comparison between them, and in close attention to details the younger Vanderbilt was probably without an equal. Not that his duties were confined to mere routine, for now the commodore found a most valuable colleague in the son whom he had so long depreciated. From being a mere agent he became his father's confidential adviser, and without his approval nothing of importance was undertaken. Thus when a controlling interest was acquired in the New York Central, William suggested that for convenience and facility of traffic, a continuous line should be established between New York and Buffalo, and that under a single management. Hence the consolidation in 1869 of the Central and Hudson River companies, forming at that time the most powerful railroad corporation in the United States. To manage this road, running as it did through the richest state in the union, and affecting more or less innumerable interests, required the very highest order of ability, and for this purpose none could be found so well qualified as William Vanderbilt, who, in the articles of incorporation, was named as its vicepresident and chief executive officer. Nominally under his father's supervision, but mainly on his own judgment, and certainly under his own direction, he so administered its affairs that within a few years the value of its stock was trebled, and the New York Central and Hudson River became one of the most valuable railroad properties in the world.
When called by his father's death to the management of the Vanderbilt system he had made himself perfectly familiar with the practical working of all its manifold departments. There was not a nook or corner of that system which he had not penetrated, and to which he had not given his personal supervision. Every contract he had revised; every voucher he had checked, and every item connected with construction, equipment, and traffic had come under his inspection. He had attended to the purchase of rails and ties; he had carefully examined the road-beds and the rolling-stock; he had kept his eye on the employes, on the ticket-office, on the printing office; he had stopped all waste in the repair-shops, and with the result that a vast improvement was wrought in the effectiveness of the roads. Though averse to office work, he labored unceasingly at his desk, answering his own correspondence, keeping, as far as possible, his own accounts, and, though surrounded by men whose fidelity had been attested by years of service, attending to a hundred details which others would have entrusted to subordinates. All this he accomplished by a perfect system of organization, and b}r using to the best advantage each working hour in the day. “How is it,” men asked, “ that Mr Vanderbilt finds time to do so much?” He did not find time; he made it.
Except that Mr Vanderbilt was now president of the several companies instead of being their vice-president, his conduct of affairs was not materially changed. He at once set to work, first to secure and then to increase the $90,000,000 of property which his father had bequeathed to him. If possible he worked harder than ever before, under the pressure of increased responsibility, leaving nothing to chance and as little as possible to the management of others, insisting always on a strict accounting for every dollar that was disbursed, and regarding his millions as a trust, if possible to be enlarged, but certainly to be guarded from risk. With this in view, one of his first measures was to make such arrangements with competing lines as would put an end to the railroad war caused by the cutting of rates. And here his policy differed essentially from that of his father. Instead of compromising with his rivals, the elder Vanderbilt would have crushed them, so extending his system as to make all others subordinate, to reduce them to the rank of local roads. But not so with Vanderbilt the younger, who was never happy in the midst of strife and especially of railroad strife. He would hold his own ; he would push his system to the best of his power by all lawful and honorable means ; but above all things he wanted peace.
The magnitude of the task which Mr Vanderbilt had now assumed can only be appreciated by those who are familiar with railroad operations. On the New York Central alone there were in 1881 at least 15,000 employes, with 23,000 freight cars, 600 passenger cars, more than that number of engines, and on parts of the road with sixty trains passing each other daily. In addition to the lines already mentioned he had been appointed president of the Michigan Central, the Lake Shore, and the Michigan Southern, and was largely interested in telegraph and telephone lines, in electric light companies and other prominent enterprises.
In 1885 the Vanderbilt system, including the roads which it controlled, extended from New York southwestward to St Louis, northward and westward to Buffalo and Chicago, and from Chicago into many of the most recently settled regions east of the Rocky mountains. In the state of New York its lines ran on both sides of the Hudson, from the metropolis to Albany, and thence through the Mohawk valley to Buffalo. From Buffalo the system was continued to Chicago, skirting both shores of Lake Erie, the so-called Nickel Plate road, a competing and parallel line, being purchased and consolidated with the Lake Shore company. Between 1877 and 1880 the Chicago and Northwestern, with its four thousand miles of track, passing through some of the richest grain and grazing lands in the western states, and connecting at Council bluffs with the Union Pacific, passed under the control of Mr Vanderbilt. Finally he was at this date the ruling power in the Western Union telegraph company, resigning his directorate, as did his friends, in the autumn of 1880, when, through a consolidation of interests, Jay Gould was placed at the head of its affairs.
Meanwhile, to change in a measure the character of his investments, and to protect at least a portion of his vast estate from all possibility of loss, he had made one of the largest transfers of railroad stock ever recorded in the world. In November 1879 he disposed of 250,000 out of his 400,000 shares of New York Central to a syndicate representing mainly the Wabash system, but including also a number of foreign capitalists. At $120 a share, the price agreed upon, he realized exactly $30,000,000, and this sum he placed in government bonds, soon afterward increasing the amount to a total of $53,000,000. As he remarked to a friend who advised him on the matter, a revolution had occurred in the railroad world since the death of his father; he was nearly sixty years of age and could >not much longer remain at the head of affairs ; it would be far more difficult for his sons to conduct the great railroad system than it had been for himself. Moreover, he would now be less subject to the public distrust which, however undeserved, is inseparable from one who wields enormous power.
In 1881, though in the midst of another great railroad war, the story of which need not here be related, he transferred to his sons the more arduous portion of his duties, intrusting to Cornelius the financial administration, and to William Kissam the practical management. Some two years later, on the 4th of May 1883, he resigned the presidency of the several companies with which he had been so long associated. “Gentlemen,” he said in the simple and dignified address which accompanied this voluntary surrender, " the companies of which I have had the honor to be president for many years past are now about to elect new officers for the ensuing year. The meetings of all of them have been called at this office at this time to thank you as the directors and officers, and also the shareholders of the several companies, for the confidence they have always reposed in me as their president. It is my belief that these corporations are all in a sound condition, and that all the prominent positions in them are filled by gentlemen who understand their duties, and who will discharge them tę the satisfaction of stockholders. This fact has had great influence with me in determining the course of action which I have, after due deliberation, decided upon.
“In my judgment the time has arrived when I owe it as a duty to myself, to the corporations, and to those around me, upon whom the chief management will devolve, to retire from the presidency. In declining the honor of reelection from you, I do not mean to sever my relations, or abate the interest I have heretofore taken in these corporations. It is my purpose and aim that these several corporations shall remain upon such a basis for their harmonious working with each other, and for the efficient management of each, as will secure for the system both permanency and prosperity. Under the re-organization each of them will elect a chairman of the board, who, in connection with the executive and finance committees, will have immediate and constant supervision of all the affairs of the companies, and bring to the support of the officers the active assistance of the directors. The plan of organization now adopted and inaugurated will remove the business of the companies from the contingencies of accident to any individual, and insure continuance of the policy which has heretofore met the approval of the stockholders.”
Complimentary resolutions were passed by the several boards, and on the following day Mr Vanderbilt sailed for Europe, accompanied by his son George, and his uncle Jacob. For several years his health had been failing under the terrible load of his responsibilities, the tremendous pressure of his work, from which his only relief had been an occasional trip across the Atlantic, returning by the same steamer, to renew his Antsean labors. He had not in equal degree the faculty which his father possessed of leaving behind him the cares of business, of transacting business rapidly and without apparent effort, of placing upon others the greater portion of his burden. Hard and incessant toil, first as a necessity and then as a habit, had been his lot from boyhood, developing still more completely the practical nature which was already his by inheritance.
And yet, during his earlier travels, he developed and cultivated tastes for which few gave him credit. Of this we have evidence in the mansion and art gallery which he erected on Fifth avenue, not only the most costly but also the most elegant structure in that suburb of palaces. The picture gallery, stocked with a choice collection, valued at more than $1,000000, was to the west of the main hall, 32 by 48 feet, and with a sky-light 35 feet above, of tinted and opalescent glass. The floor was inlaid with Santo Domingo mahogany, and the pilasters were of the same material, the former bordered with a mosaic of marble. Above the wainscoting were curtains of dark red tapestry, and in the western wall was a mantelpiece of African marble. Here were given art receptions, invitations to which were in eager request by connoisseurs and by the elite of New York society.
Says one of his most intimate friends: “I have known a great many picture buyers in my time, but I have never known one more modest in this particular than Mr Vanderbilt. I think his ambition was to use his love of pictures for the public good. He certainly made the collection with the intention that it should never be separated, and that it should be for the public use. He was most liberal in opening his house to the public, and some days as many as 3,000 visitors were admitted. He continued this until his privacy was endangered and it became a nuisance to his family.”
The practical common sense which Mr Vanderbilt brought to bear on his business transactions he displayed in all his relations in life. Although he was acknowledged as one of the most successful men in the world, and was certainly the richest man in the world, he was entirely free from the vulgar ostentation which too often accompanies the possession of wealth. “Once, in Paris,” says the friend whose words I have quoted, "a French nobleman of the Bonaparte family had written to Mr Vanderbilt that he wished to sell his collection of Sevres china, Louis XVI furniture, a Marie Antoinette table, and numerous articles of virtii. After considerable pressure had been brought to bear we went to his house and saw them. When we came outside, Mr Vanderbiltsaid: 'You are supposed to know all about these things and their intrinsic value, and you know of the associations connected with them; but I do not, and I am too old to learn. If I should buy them and take them to New York and tell my friends that such a thing belonged to Louis XVI or to Marie Antoinette, or to Madame Pompadour, and should relate all the other things which make them valuable, I should be taking them from a field where they are appreciated to a place where they would not be. Perhaps I myself should know less about them than anyone else. It would be mere stupidity for me to buy such things and to show them to people to whom I should have to confess my ignorance of the qualities that made them valuable.
“ He was never ashamed to acknowledge, with the utmost frankness and simplicity, his former straitened circumstances in life. I remember one incident illustrating that. I went with him to Boucheron, the famous dealer of the Palais Royal, Paris, to see a picture by Troyon, representing a yoke of oxen turning to leave the field after leaving the plow. Connoisseurs spoke very highly of it, but took exception to the action of the cattle, and said it was forced and unnatural. Mr Vanderbilt remarked, ' Well, I don't pretend to know anything about the quality of the picture, but I do as to the action of the cattle. I have seen them act like that a thousand times.' ”
With all his millions it is probable that Mr Vanderbilt was never so happy and well content as when on his Staten island farm. For the first few years of his residence in the metropolis, a Sabbath visit to his former home was his favorite and indeed his only recreation, and in time even this was discontinued, under the pressure of care and work. Gradually his health began to fail; his appetite was gone; his sleep was broken. He consulted his physicians frequently, and his anxiety was increased by a slight attack of paralysis, from which, however, he soon recovered. “If I can only out-live my sixty-fifth birthday,” he exclaimed, “ that seems a critical age for our family.” And so it proved for himself.
The end came suddenly. On the 8th of December 1885, he was discussing with Mr Robert Garrett, the president of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, a project for a new line into New York by way of Staten island. The two were seated in Mr Vanderbilt's study, the millionaire in his favorite easy chair, on his left a table covered with papers, and in front his visitor. As the latter was unfolding his plans, Mr Vanderbilt leaned forward in a listening attitude, at intervals making a few suggestions. Suddenly the muscles of his mouth began to twitch convulsively, and his frame was distorted, as though with a spasm of pain. A moment later, without a struggle or a sound, he fell headlong to the floor. A stroke of apoplexy had done its work instantly and almost painlessly, as he had always wished should be his end.
In a mausoleum built some years before, near the old Moravian cemetery on Staten island, the remains of William Henry Vanderbilt were laid at rest. The funeral was of the simplest, in keeping with the tastes and habits of the deceased. On the third day after his decease the members of the family assembled around the plain cedar coffin, draped in broadcloth and lined with satin, where lay his remains. When all had taken their farewell look, the lid of the casket was closed, and slowly the cortege moved through the crowded streets to St Bartholomew's church, where without eulogy or comment the burial service was read. Then the procession went on its way to the spot where the ferry-boat was in waiting, the same one which ten years before had conveyed his father's corpse to the same destination. Once more the steamer, crowded with mourners, put forth into the stream, and from the scenes of his labors the remains of the millionaire were carried to the island home where he had passed so many happy years, and where was now to be his final resting place.
While apoplexy was the immediate cause of his death, the real cause was anxiety and overwork, resulting finally in arterial changes which brought about the rupture of a blood-vessel on the brain. In one year he did the work of half a dozen years, and almost from the day he took charge of his father's affairs his health began to decline. By nature he had been gifted with a strong constitution, a sturdy frame, and a vigorous physique; but as he himself remarked, “the care of $200,000,000 is too much for any brain or back to bear.” Certain it is that his end was not hastened by any form of dissipation or excess. On the contrary he was a man of extremely simple and abstemious habits. He used no tobacco in any form, nor any strong drink, except on rare occasions. He ate but little meat, and his diet was of the plainest, his favorite dishes being of shell-fish and cereal food in some coarse shape, the latter taken with milk. His only recreations were his afternoon drive, an occasional visit to the opera, and an evening rubber of whist, at which he was a constant and skillful player. His domestic life was worthy of all praise, and in his relations as a husband and a father no man was more thoughtful and indulgent. No matter how severe the pressure of his business, he always found time to minister to the happiness and welfare of wife and children, and that must indeed be an urgent matter which would call him from his home after nightfall. The most cordial of hosts, he entertained his friends in princely fashion, and yet without the slightest trace of affectation or display. Though not a brilliant speaker, he was fluent and vigorous in conversation, abounding in humor, and with the keenest appreciation of a joke. Among all the millionaires of the metropolis there was no more popular man, and there were none so well fitted to carry to a successful issue the great work which his father had begun.
Many were the tributes paid to his memory, not only by his associates, but by those who a few years before had been his rivals and antagonists. By the directors of eleven railroad companies a memorial was drawn up, the day after his death, from which the following are extracts:
" His sudden death, in the very midst of the activities whose influence reached over the entire continent, has startled the entire country, and in the hush of strife and passions the press and public give tender sympathy to the bereaved family, and pay just and deserved tribute to his memory. But to us who were his associates and friends, endeared to him by the strongest ties and by years of intimacy, the event is an appalling calamity, full of sorrow and the profoundest sense of personal loss, while officially we feel that his sagacity, his strong common sense, his thorough knowledge of the business, his willingness to lend of his vast resources in times of peril, and his counsel and assistance, were of invaluable service in conducting and sustaining these great enterprises.
" He came into the possession of the largest estate ever devised to a single individual, and has administered his great trust with modesty, without arrogance, and with generosity. He never used his riches as a means of oppression, or to destroy or injure the enterprises or business of others; but they constantly flowed into the enlargement of old, and the construction and development of new works, public in their character, which opened new avenues of local and national wealth, and gave opportunity and employment, directly or indirectly, to millions of people. In keeping together and strengthening, during a period of unparelleled commercial depression and disintegration, the combination of railways known as the Vauderbilt system, which he inherited from his father, greatly extended, and transmitted to trained and worthy successors, he performed a work of the highest beneficence to the investors and producers of the whole country.
" With all the temptations that surround unlimited wealth, his home life was simple, and no happier domestic circle could anywhere be found. The loved companion with whom he began his active life in the first dawn of his manhood was his help, comfort, and happiness through all his career, and his children have one and all honored their father and their mother, and taken the places which they worthily fill in their several spheres of activity and usefulness.
“ In performing this last and saddest of duties, we who were his associates, advisers, and friends, remember not the millionaire but the man. His frankness, his unaffected simplicity, his deference to tho opinions of others, his considerations for the feelings of all, his tenderness in suffering and affliction, and his whole-hearted manliness, were to us precious privileges in his life, and are loving recollections in his death.”
Said Russell Sage, one of the ablest of business men and himself a millionaire: “Mr Vanderbilt was a very remarkable man, of far more original force and financial ability than anyone imagined when he succeeded to his father's millions. If he had not the genius of the commodore, who was to finance what Shakespeare was to poetry and Michael Angelo to art, he was certainly a most able successor. He doubled the colossal fortune that was left him. and that proves an executive skill that only one man in a million possesses. I have had more or less to do with him, and the three qualities I observed as most striking in his character were his readiness, his reliability, and his courage. That is to say, he always met an emergency with a plan; he always kept his word to the very letter, and he possessed such a fund of decision and persistence that, having undertaken to do a thing, and having made up his mind how it was to be done, he went right ahead and carried it through on the lines he had laid down. I think that his rare success in manipulating his great fortune was due to these qualities.”
To the same effect spoke Jay Gould, for many years his rival; and thus Isaac P. Chambers, controller of the New York Central; “I acted as the private secretary of Mr Yanderbilt in connection with the auditor's duties from 1865 to 1883. During all these eighteen years I was never farther away than in the next room to his, and I never saw a man of more amiable disposition. He was not understood by the public. He thought of their interests in every respect, and in considering any new movement or change in policy, would say: 'We must look out for the public first, for you know that we are their servants.' ”
Of the enormous fortune bequeathed by Mr Vanderbilfc, estimated at nearly $200,000,000, $70,000,000 was invested in government bonds, $27,000,000 in railroad and other bonds, and the remainder in railroad shares and miscellaneous securities. Against $200,000 of expenses, his income amounted to $10,350,000 a year, to more than $28,000 a day, or $1,200 for every hour in the twenty-four.
The bulk of his fortune was left to his eight children, each of whom was assigned an equal share in securities valued at $80,000,000. Their names were Cornelius, William K., Frederick W., George W., Margaret Louisa, Emily Thorn, Eliza O., and Florence Adele. For his wife and other relatives ample provision was made, and at least $1,000,000 was set apart for various trusts, annuities, and charities, among which were bequests to religious and scientific associations, with one of $200,000 to the Vanderbilt university at Nashville. To this institution he had already presented, during his lifetime, $100,000 for the founding of a theological school. Others of his public benefactions were also on a princely scale, as the one of $100,000 in 1880, for removing the Egyptian obelisk to Central park, and of $500,000, a }ear before his death, to the New York college of physicians and surgeons.
No less munificent were his private charities, although their extent was never known except to himself and the recipients. Too well remembered to require special notice is his offer to cancel the mortgage held on the property of General Grant, and when this offer—twice refused—was accepted only on condition that he receive in payment the trophies gathered in the general's tour around the world, he at once presented them to the nation. Not least among his generous deeds were the gifts which he made some three years after his father's death of $1,000,000 to his brother Cornelius, and of $500,000 each to his sisters, carrying the bonds in his carriage to their several residences, and distributing with his own hands this munificent largess.
To his sons Cornelius and William Kissam was left the remainder of the estate, amounting to nearly $100,000,000 after all bequests had been fulfilled. Both were, therefore, well prepared to continue the administration of the Vanderbilt system, and to keep it under their control. From being first assistants they had become associates in all his railroad enterprises, Cornelius as first vice-president at the head of the finance department, and his younger brother as second vice-president and chief of transportation. While their duties were arduous, they had been trained to work, and both were able, energetic, and conservative, with the conservatism which, in the railroad world, is the natural result of experience. Though differing somewhat in habits and characteristics, they formed together a strong combination, each one being, as it were, the supplement of the other.
C. I'.—V. 32
Born at his father's Staten island farm, on the 27th of November 1843, Cornelius, after receiving a thorough academic training, began life as a clerk in the Shoe and Leather bank of New York city. Here, though the favorite grandson of the richest man in the United States, he was treated in all respects as were the other employes, with similar duties and under the same control. Meanwhile, his conduct was being closely watched by the commodore, who had determined that, before being placed in a more responsible position, he should first give proof of his diligence and self-reliance. Preferment came rapidly, for he was a capable youth, faithful in the discharge of his duties, and never missing an hour at his desk. Said the president of the bank in later years : “ I do not now see much of Mr Vanderbilt, as our paths lie apart, but when he was here he was, I think, the most single-minded and conscientious worker I ever saw. He was not merely honest—most bank clerks are that—but he was exceedingly precise, and worried if a cent were missing in the accounts. He was thoroughly fair-minded too, and always did exactly as he agreed, showing in every way not only a careful bringing up, but a kindly nature.”
At the age of twenty he was transferred to the banking and brokerage firm of Kissam brothers, in order to obtain a better insight into the business for which his grandfather intended him. A year later he entered the treasurer's office of the New York Central, and here he remained until, on his father's succession to the presidency, he was appointed, as I have said, vice-president, and placed in charge of the finance department. And here it may be mentioned that, on the death of his grandfather, the recognition accorded to Cornelius in his will showed that he was deemed competent to assume in due time the administration of the vast affairs with which the family name was connected. Trained under the personal influence of the commodore, he had acquired in a
measure the qualities that had led to his success ; add to this his father's guidance and counsel, and the result was a man of excellent business habits and business education, one keeping himself under perfect control, and well fitted to take control of others. On assuming the financial management of the New York Central, he bore easily and lightly the burden laid upon him. He showed indeed a special aptitude for the position, not only by the clearness and accuracy of his statements, but by his intimate knowledge of the company's condition, which enabled him to respond at any moment to the questions put to him concerning its affairs. Thus he rapidly became known to the business world, and won the confidence of all the banking and mercantile firms whose interests were identified with those of the Vanderbilts.
After their father's death Cornelius and his brother inaugurated what was then a novel system of railroad management, whereby the supreme authority was vested in a board of control, to which even the president was subject. Under this arrangement he was appointed chairman of the New York Central and Michigan Central boards, with James H. Rutter as president of the former, succeeded, after his death, by Chauncey M. Depew. The Vanderbilt roads with their affiliated lines were then extended westward almost to Salt Lake city, covering indeed the entire northwest, and including, besides those already mentioned, the West Shore, the Cleveland Columbus Cincinnati and Indianapolis, the Indianapolis and St Louis, and the Chicago St Paul Minneapolis and Omaha. In every part of this vast system was felt the influence of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and without his advice and consent nothing of importance was undertaken. His skillful and conservative management, without fear or favor, and simply in the interests of the stockholders and the public, gave to that system a prestige which it had never before enjoyed. Like his father, he was quick to reward faithfulness and zeal among his employes, and none were more respected by the vast armies of men who called him chief. But in matters of discipline he was rigid and unyielding, insisting on promptitude and alertness in a vocation where human lives depended on a strict discharge of duty. In the railroad wars and railroad strikes which of late have been of such frequent occurrence, he has adopted a firm but conciliatory attitude, and perhaps his firmness and decision were never more clearlv displayed than during the strike which occurred on the New York Central during the summer of 1890. Well it was that at this juncture a competent man was at the helm, one qualified by his ability and experience to confront the threatened danger, and to put an end to the confusion in which for a time the company's traffic was involved.
As a proof of the interest which he felt in the welfare of those who served him, may be mentioned his donation to the employes of the New York Central of a club-house on Madison avenue, a handsome and commodious structure, with library, reading-rooms, class-rooms, gymnasia, bath-rooms, and bowling alleys, with a spacious hall for public meetings, and with sleeping rooms for those whose duties detained them late into the night. In a letter dated June 30, 1886, expressing the directors' appreciation of this appropriate gift, the president remarks: “ While you could not be fairly called upon any more than other individual stockholders personally to incur this expense, in doing so you perpetuate in a way most honorable to yourself and beneficial to the company a name already identified with the management of this corporation and its affiliated lines during two generations. Individually I am deeply sensible that this work will lighten the burdens of the administration of the company's affairs, and promote that good feeling and mutual and interdependent interest between the executive and all departments of our business, which, increasing with years, will furnish: more acceptable service to the public, and add to the value of the property.”
To the calls of philanthropy and benevolence, to hospitals, charities, and churches, to scientific and educational institutions, Mr Vanderbilt has devoted no small portion of his scanty leisure and his ample means. In 1890 he was connected with at least a score of such associations, and if he refused to connect himself with others it was because, in accepting such offices, he deemed it his duty to give to them his personal attention, and this his time did not permit. How often he has tided over their ever-recurring financial difficulties will never perhaps be known ; but by all who were allied with him in such good works his assistance and advice were ever welcomed and appreciated.
Like most of the Vanderbilts, Cornelius married young, the lady of his choice being Miss Alice Gwynne, the daughter of one of the most prominent lawyers of Cincinnati. The union has proved in all respects a happy one, and not least among the blessings were the aid and sympathy which Mrs Vanderbilt so readily accorded to her husband's labors in behalf of his fellow-man. They have a family of six children, the eldest, William H., being a member of the class of '93 at Yale University. Within recent years Mr Vanderbilt has withdrawn in a measure from the more onerous duties of his position, avoiding as far as possible all friction and nervous waste, and deputing to others the care of such matters as needed only to be supervised. At his Fifth avenue mansion, tastefullv furnished, and containing one of the choicest of libraries and art collections, or at his country seat at Newport, where are all the appliances for comfort and healthful recreation, his leisure time is passed in the company of his wife and children, his books and pictures, and at times of a few chosen friends. Now in his fortyseventh year, his appearance resembles closely, except
for the difference of age, the well-known portraits of the commodore, with the same bright eve and the same massive, intelligent, and clear-cut features. As others said of his father, men regard not the millionaire but the man, and neither his wealth nor power have detracted in the least from the esteem which he has so long and deservedly enjoyed.
Thus, in as brief space as was consistent with the purpose of my work, I have described the career of the Vanderbilts, from the time when the commodore borrowed from his mother one hundred dollars, wherewith to purchase his periauger, to the day when his grandson, wielding his scores of millions, controlled the greatest railroad system on the face of the earth. By some these men have been decried as the despoilers rather than the benefactors of their race; but the number of their detractors is few, and now that the dust of battle is cleared away, and malice and prejudice are no longer at work, it is admitted that they have been the most enterprising railroad managers of the age, possessing rare administrative talent, and such a combination of abilities as the world has seldom witnessed.
Purely from an economic standpoint, it is indeed impossible to overestimate their influence for good on the condition of their fellow-man. To hundreds of merchants and manufacturers they have contributed directly of their wealth; to thousands they have contributed indirectly by opening up new avenues of trade; to scores of thousands they have given employment, and to millions they have afforded the means of cheap and rapid transportation, the benefits of a thoroughly equipped and organized s\stem, extending from the shores of the Atlantic to the base of the Rocky mountains, and from the great lakes to the juncture of the two vast rivers whose united stream rolls southward to the gulf. Here we have one of the most striking examples which history affords of the boon conferred on mankind by the
acquisition and distribution of wealth. In "these untitled princes are some of the dominant factors of the world, and some of its dominant benefactors, men who, while accumulating millions for themselves, have addjed tens of millions to the wealth of others, have circulated their capital among a multitude of toilers, and have renewed the sluggish arteries of commerce and finance.
When the owner of property which, if turned into goid, would represent at least $200,000,000, or 500 tons of solid metal, William H. Vanderbilt handled but little of his money. He never even saw it, and but the smallest fraction of it was at any time in his actual possession. Of the $10,000,000 or more of his yearly income he used only the fiftieth part, and of every hundred dollars that he possessed ninetynine were at the disposal of others.
By their predecessors millions had been taken out of the roads which they controlled; but by the Vanderbilts millions were put into them. It was not theirs to destroy but to build up, to renovate and raise from their ashes the fragments of worthless properties, to consolidate parallel and competing lines, to re-equip them, to prepare them for the service of the public, and in so doing to cast upon the waters the bread which should return to them after many days. Such men are in the truest sense the builders of our commonwealth, setting in action a power for good, such as was never wielded by earthly monarch, and contributing more than monarch ever contributed to the welfare and happiness of mankind.