Richest People in History Cornelius Vanderbilt

About Cornelius Vanderbilt one of the richest men in history, biography and worth of the man.



"The Commodore" was born in Staten Island, N.Y., on May 27, 1794. A descendant of Dutch farmers living in the area since 1650, Vanderbilt was an ornery young man who quit school at 11 and was in business for himself at 16. He purchased a small boat with money borrowed from his parents and began ferrying passengers from Staten Island to New York City. An immediate success, he eventually enlarged his fleet to three schooners, but then in 1817 he sold his sailing vessels in order to learn the steamboat business.

For several years he managed the steamboat fleet of Thomas Gibbons, but knowing what all rich people instinctively know--one never makes the really big money while an employee--Vanderbilt entered the steamboat business for himself in 1829. By 1835 he was earning $60,000 a year, and by 1846 the Commodore was a millionaire. How did he do it? By charging lower fares and offering better service, he drove his weak competitors out of business. By establishing a network of steamboat lines along the New York and New England seaboard--at one point he owned 100 vessels--Vanderbilt created a monopoly in American transportation.

With the discovery of gold in California in 1849, Vanderbilt found a way to multiply his already enormous assets. He established the Accessory Transit Company to convey prospectors to Panama, then overland to the Pacific, and then on to California. With 2,000 passengers a month at $300 a head, ATC provided by far the cheapest transit to the gold country. Rival firms succumbed to Vanderbilt's enterprise, and soon he was making a million dollars a year; his net worth, the Commodore boasted in 1853, stood at $11 million.

In 1860 Vanderbilt quit the shipping business to go into railroads. He bought controlling interest in the badly mismanaged New York and Harlem and later in the New York and Hudson River and then merged the two into a profitable line. After a long and bitter fight, he acquired the New York Central, eventually establishing the first New York-to-Chicago rail system.

How Much?

At his death on Jan. 4, 1877, the 82-year-old Vanderbilt was the richest man in the U.S. The first of the great American money captains, he was worth more than $100 million. Some of his fortune went to Central University of Nashville, Tenn., which later changed its name to Vanderbilt University. The bulk of his estate--some $90 million--went to his son, William Henry Vanderbilt, who increased this nestegg to $194 million by the time of his death in 1885.

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