Cornelius Vanderbilt was born May 27, 1794, to a poor family on Staten Island. Vanderbilt quit school at age 11 to help his father with his boating business. At the age of 16, he convinced his mother to loan him $100 to buy a small two-masted flat-bottomed sailing vessel to start his own business. He then launched a transporting service between Manhattan and Staten Island.
After the War of 1812, Vanderbilt decided to focus on steamboats. Over the next several decades, he built a lucrative business and became a very rich man—by the 1840s, he owned 100 steamboats. At age 70, he encouraged by his son William to get into railroading, Vanderbilt decided he’d try to build a railroad empire. The most significant railway acquisitions started with the purchase of stock in the New York and Harlem Railroad of which he later became director. By the end of 1867, he had acquired the Hudson River Railroad and the New York Central Railroad.
By 1869, he controlled the Lake Shore, Northern Indiana and Michigan Southern, among others, to complete his system. Vanderbilt was also responsible for initiating construction of the first New York Grand Central Depot in 1871. When he died on January 4, 1877, he was the richest man in the world with a fortune of around $95 million.
Many of the railroads he purchased were under financed and overwhelmed by the costs of railroad construction and start-up operations. Vanderbilt had sufficient capital to improve infrastructure and purchase better rolling stock, plus political connections and management abilities to create a profitable company. He succeeded in ensuring the profitability of the railroad industry through his strong leadership.
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Railroad Rivals - Cornelius Vanderbilt on the left, James Frisk, Jr., on the right.