With inequality soaring the highest level in a century, we decided to check out how bad things were in the notorious Gilded Age.The most powerful people during this period would later be called robber barons—a term which means exactly what it sounds like. These capitalist titans held great industrial monopolies and unprecedented wealth.
Meanwhile children worked in factories and whole regions of the country were stuck in poverty after the Civil War.
24 people are listed on the Wikipedia page for robber barons. We dug up fearsome portraits and facts about these mighty men.
Industries: real estate; fur
Born Johann Jakob Astor in Southwest Germany, Astor immigrated to America at the end of the Revolutionary War and established a fur company in New York City. The firm would go on to become one of the leading exporters to Europe with clients as far as China.
The big-time money came in when he shifted his investments to New York real estate. He bought up as many acres as he could in Manhattan and the outer boroughs. In 2006 dollars, his adjusted net worth of $110.1 billion makes him the fourth-richest person in American history.
Cooke is known as the man who financed the Civil War. His bank, Cooke & Co, sold millions of dollars in Union government bonds from its headquarters in Philadelphia. He lost everything in the collapse of the Northern Pacific Railroad and helped trigger the panic of 1873.
Born in Scotland, Carnegie's life was a true rags-to-riches tale. His first job involved changing spools of thread in a Pennsylvania cotton mill for $1.20 a week. His initial wealth came from managing railroads; he ended up plowing investments into ironworks that supplied Union soldiers.
He retired from business in 1901 at the age of 66 after selling Carnegie Steel to J.P. Morgan for $487 million. The deal made Carnegie the richest man in the world.
One of the country's first rail magnates, Crocker also came from humble backgrounds, having grown up on a farm in Indiana. He was one of the first investors in the transcontinental railroad and a major shareholder of Wells Fargo bank.
Another belligerent in the Erie War against Cornelius Vanderbilt, Fisk worked as a stock broker in New York. He allegedly maintained an open alliance with Boss Tweed's organisation and became one of the most aggressive traders on Wall Street. He attempted to buy goodwill at the end of his life by providing aid to the victims of The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, an effort memorialised in the song, 'Jim Fisk, or, He Never Went Back On The Poor.'
Drew made a fortune as a broker during the railroad bubble, and was one of the principal belligerents in the so-called Erie War over control of one of the most lucrative rail lines in the country. He ended up losing everything during the Panic of 1873.
Within five years of acquiring a licence to use one of the first automated cigarette-making machines, J.B. Duke's American Tobacco Company controlled 40% of the American cigarette market. Trust busters broke up the company in 1911. Durham, N.C.'s Trinity University was renamed in his father's honour after Duke bequeathed the school millions.
Industries: oil; railroads
Flagler was not only the brains behind the Standard Oil Company, he also (through his family) gave the company its initial investment. He took his oil profits and single-handedly transformed the state of Florida by developing its vacation industry. He is known as the father of South Beach; Flagler Street is the main boulevard in Miami.
Andrew Carnegie's U.S. Steel Corp. relied on H. C. Frick & Company for refined coal materials. A hunting and fishing club he founded was said to be responsible for the infamous 1889 Johnstown Flood that killed 2,200 after the group made inadequate repairs to a dam on Lake Conemaugh.
Industries: barbed wire; oil
Gates created a monopoly in the metal wire industry at the turn of the 20th century through the American Steel and Wire Company, which he then sold to J.P. Morgan's new U.S. Steel conglomerate. He also founded the company that would become Texaco.
Gould was an infamous gold and railroad speculator. Another participant in the Erie War over a railroad linking Chicago to New York, Gould was a hard nosed strikebreaker who allegedly once said, 'I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.' He later became involved in the kidnapping plot of a British man pretending to be a Canadian dignitary who had swindled him of $1 million.
Edward Harriman did not achieve magnate status until late in life. At the time of his death, he controlled five railroads, a steamship company and the Wells Fargo Express Company.
After dabbling in the California Gold Rush, hardware and iron, 'Uncle Mark' Hopkins founded the Central Pacific Railroad In 1861 as part of The Big Four-- a group of magnates that included robber barons Leland Standford and Charles Crocker-- and became the treasurer of the company. The Central Pacific Railroad built the western portion of the First Transcontinental Railroad that connected the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for the first time.
Industries: aluminium, finance, oil
Mellon's prodigious financial ability led to him building large enterprises in aluminium and coke (fuel). In the 1920s his wealth grew to $300-400 million-- he was the third highest income tax payer behind John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford-- and he served as the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury from 1921 to 1932.
In 1892 Morgan arranged the creation of General Electric through the merger of Edison General Election and Thomson-Houston Electric Company. In 1901 he formed the United States Steel Corporation by buying Carnegie Steel from Andrew Carnegie for $487 million and consolidating it with several other steel and iron companies.
U.S. Steel became the first billion-dollar company in the world with $1.4 billion in authorised capital.
Industries: coal, iron
A self-made magnate, Osgood founded the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in 1887. Colorado had only been a state for six years and the business grew quickly. Osgood created the town of Redstone, Colorado, in which he housed his workers and experimented with welfare capitalism.
After many of the railroads in the South were destroyed in the Civil War, Plant founded the Plant System of railroads and steamboats and began building tracks on the Atlantic seaboard. By 1900 the transportation system included 14 railway companies with 2,1000 miles of track, several steamship lines and numerous hotels. Plant provided cheap access to the North for Florida orange growers and oversaw the growth of the town of Tampa.
Rockefeller founded Standard Oil Company in 1870 and dominated the oil industry until the end of the century. He became the world's richest man and the first American worth a billion dollars. He retired in 1897 and spent the last 40 years of his life setting up the defining structure of modern philanthropy.
Schwab became the president of Carnegie Steel in 1897 (at the age of 35) and the first president of the U.S. Steel Corporation when it was created. He left in 1903 to run Bethlehem Steel, the second largest steel maker in the U.S., and helped turn it into the largest independent steel producer in the world as well as the main supplier of munitions for the Allies in World War I.
Schwab is not related to Charles R. Schwab of the brokerage firm Charles Schwab Corporation.
Seligman emigrated from Germany at the age of 18 and founded the J. & W. Seligman & Co. banking company with his brothers in 1846. The company invested heavily in railroad finance-- having a hand in the formation of Rockefeller's Standard Oil in 1870-- and set up public utilities in New York in 1876 with the Vanderdbilt family.
Spreckels established trade between the mainland United States and Hawaiian islands by refining sugar through his company J.D. Spreckels and Brothers. The firm became agents for leading sugar plantations in Hawaii and create many of the commercial interests connecting Hawaii and the mainland U.S.
In 1908 he moved to San Diego, bought the San Diego street railway system (and changed it from horse power to electric), and built multiple buildings downtown. At one point Spreckels paid 10 per cent of all property taxes in San Diego County.
The president of The Big Four (or 'the Associates' as they called themselves), Standford became Governor of California in 1851 and a Senator in 1885 until his death in 1893. He owned and ran several companies, including the Occidental and Oriental Steamship Company that went to Japan and China.
Stanford and his wife opened Stanford University in 1891 with $20 million ($400 million nowadays). The first student admitted to the school was Herbert Hoover.
'Commodore' Vanderbilt, one of the richest Americans in history, built his massive wealth in shipping and railroads.
He dominated the steamship business in Long Island Sound and invested in railroads when the first ones were being built connecting Boston to Long Island in the 1840s. Over the next couple of decades, Vanderbilt built an empire by assuming control of numerous railroads around New York City. From 1869 to 1871 he directed the construction of the Grand Central Depot on 42nd street in Manhattan.
Commodore provided the initial $1 million endowment to found Vanderbilt University (founded in 1873), despite having never been to the South.
Industry: mass transit
In 1881 Yerkes moved to Chicago and by 1886 he controlled a majority of the city's street railway systems on the north and west sides. He built The Loop in Chicago's business district before selling the majority of his Chicago Transport stocks and moving to New York in 1899. He moved to London the next year and worked extensively on the construction of its railways.
In 1892, in an alleged effort to fix his public image, Yerkes contributed nearly $300,000 to the University of Chicago to build an observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. The crater Yerkes on the Moon is named in his honour.
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