Presenting: The Amazing Story Of The Vanderbilts, Who Came From Nothing To Conquer America

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Photo: wikipedia

Continuing in our series profiling fabulously wealthy American families, we present to you the history of the Vanderbilts.What sets this brood apart is how long they’ve been in America — and how little of their industrial empire remains.

But while their financial holdings may have faded away, the physical remnants of their wealth stretch the length of the East Coast.

The Vanderbilts have been in New York since the 17th century.

Their American patriarch, Jan Aertsen Van Der Bilt, was in the city at least by 1651, the year his son Aris' name appears in the registry of the Dutch Reformed Church in Brooklyn (which still stands).

Source: Renehan, Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

By the time Cornelius Vanderbilt was born in 1794, the family was practically destitute.

His father was a local sea merchant. One author has written that the 18th century Vanderbilts were 'a miserable set of farmers, fishermen and laborers, noses close to the grindstone and the clods never shaken off their boots -- when they could afford boots.'

However, Cornelius senior is described as a 'very handsome man,' and he was able to marry above his station.

Source: Renehan, Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

Cornelius was illiterate, and remained so for most of his life.

He was removed from school at age 11 to assist his father's river shipping business.

Source: Renehan, Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

Instead, he valued physical prowess.

He preferred sailing and dressage. 'Even his worst critics admitted that he never made any pretense to being a gentleman,' Renehan writes.

Source: Renehan, Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

Already at the age of 23 he ran a profitable business delivering freight via waterway. By his 40s he was a full-blown shipping magnate.

This did not exactly translate into mannered behaviour. He was 'defined in the public eye by his undisguised, undignified and ravenous hunger for increased wealth ' and 'near-legendary status as a self-absorbed boor and braggart, intent on self-glorification, and devoid of generosity.'

Source: Renehan, Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

And yet: Vanderbilt's success was considered emblematic of what was possible in America.

From the London Daily News:

'America was not known four centuries ago; yet she turns out her Vanderbilts, mall and large, every year....The great feature to be noticed in America is that its citizens have full permission to run the race in which Mr. Vanderbilt has gained such immense prizes.'

Source: Renehan, Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

Cornelius' final investment was in railroads.

When Cornelius died in 1877, he left 95% of his fortune -- nearly $150 billion in 2005 dollars -- to Billy.

Source: Renehan, Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

Billy gamely took up the relay, expanding the railroad empire to the Midwest.

He also built what became the world's most famous railway depot, Grand Central Terminal, in 1871.

A statue of Billy's father beckons travellers in front of the building.

Other sons-in-law also had their own success in expanding the rail empire.

Source: Renehan, Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

But the family's commercial exploits began to stall in the 20th century.

Pick any of the male Vanderbilts after Billy. You'll find they excel at...inheriting.

  • William Kissam (b. 1849): 'His stock operations, therefore, were planned on a large scale, and he made some daring and brilliant moves. He was cornered at last, however, and was obliged to have recourse to his father for help out of his difficulties. After this experience he gave up operations in Wall street, and confined his financial energies strictly to railroad interests.'
  • Alfred Gwynne (b. 1877): 'Social entertainment given or received, was by no means the whole of his career. Mr. Vanderbilt was an expert whip, and whether tooling a coach along the roads of this country or enjoying his favourite pastime in England, he was always a genial and enthusiastic sportsman.'
  • Harold Stirling (b. 1884): 'Vanderbilt's fame was not so much in railroading as it was in two recreational activities, one active and one not so active.'

Source: Appletons' Cyclopedia, The New Netherland Institute

There was less pressure on the women. Whether in spite or because of this, they seem to have had better sense.

  • Alva (b. 1853) -- who married into the family -- was a heavyweight in the women's suffrage movement.
  • Consuelo (b. 1877) married Winston Churchill's cousin and remained lifelong friends with the future Prime Minster.
  • Gertrude (b. 1875) married into the Whitney family and helped found the Whitney Museum.

Source: NPR

The advent of the Interstate Highway System proved the death knell of the Vanderbilts' industrial rail empire.

Why do you think we have Amtrak now?

Luckily, the many billions built up by Cornelius were still floating around.

If you weren't a champion polo player, sailor or autoracer, you weren't living up to the family name.

In contemporary times, the most relevant Vanderbilt remains Gloria.

She was raised by her aunt, the aforementioned Gertrude, after her 'raucous' mother lost a custody battle. Eventually she cut her mother off entirely.

Source: Goldsmith, Little Gloria Happy At Last

Trained as an artist, Gloria ended up signing major designer contracts for jeans and perfume.

She continued writing and painting on the side.


In 1963, she married author Wyatt Cooper. They had two children, Carter...

...And Anderson.


Anderson's youth proved tragic.

His father died from heart surgery complications when Anderson was 11.

10 years later, his brother committed suicide. The family maintains the act was a result of an acute psychotic episode brought on by an allergic reaction.


But he persevered.

The principal legacy of the Vanderbilts are the massive, opulent homes they built. These include...

Rough Point, Newport, R.I.

Marble House, Newport, R.I.

McAuley Hall, Newport, R.I.

The Vanderbilt Grace Hotel, Newport, R.I.

The Breakers, Newport, R.I.

And finally, The Biltmore, Asheville, N.C. It's the largest home in the U.S.

Things named after Cornelius Vanderbilt

  • Vanderbilt University
  • The Vanderbilt Cup for auto racing, active 1904-1968
  • Vanderbilt Avenues (three of them -- in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island)
  • Towns of Vanderbilt (in Michigan and Pennsylvania)

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