Mr. Vanderbilt was born near Stapleton, Staten Island, New York, May 27, 1794. He was descended from a Dutch immigrant, Jan Aertsen Van der Bilt, who came from Holland about 1650 and settled upon a farm near Brooklyn, New York. Jan's grandson, the great-grandfather of Cornelius, went over to Staten Island in 1715 and became the owner of a farm near New Dorp. The Vanderbilts continued to live on Staten Island till the time of Cornelius. The 'father of Cornelius was a farmer in moderate circumstances, who could have given his son a fair education, but the lad's interest lay in other ways. He learned to read and write, and that was about all, save that he had naturally a genius for arithmetic.
Mr. Vanderbilt was not slow to see that the railroads were destined to interfere seriously with the water traffic on the Hudson River and Long Island Sound. As early as 1844 he began very quietly to buy shares in the New York and New Haven Railroad.
In 1863, when he was sixty-nine years old, he entered upon a new career, one in which he was to achieve his greatest success, make the most radical changes, and accumulate an immense fortune. He became the greatest and most successful railroad manager the world had known. He differed from all railroad managers of that time in that he improved the roads he bought, and brought them to the highest degree of efficiency, while others made money by "wrecking" roads. His chief business maxim was "Do your business well, and don't tell anybody what you are going to do till you have done it."
|Title: [Cornelius Vanderbilt, head-and-shoulders portrait, slightly to left, with side whiskers] Produced by Mathew B. Brady Studio, ca. 1823-1896. Date Created / Published: [between 1844 and 1860] Medium: 1 photograph : half plate daguerreotype, gold toned. Restored by Michel Vuijlsteke|
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The Harlem Railroad had been so mismanaged that in 1863 its stock was selling at $10 a share. Mr. Vanderbilt bought a controlling interest in the road, and at the same time bought shares in the Hudson River road at $75 a share. This was the beginning of a battle royal between Vanderbilt and his business rivals. He obtained a charter for a system of street railways in New York to connect with his road, which sent its stock up to par; but prominent Wall Street operators and politicians entered into a combination against him, the politicians undertaking to secure the repeal of his charter, while the operators were to force down the price of the stock. This they succeeded in doing, the stock going lower and lower, but Vanderbilt kept buying it till he had the whole stock of the road, and the operators who had sold short had to settle with him on his own terms.
By this time he had secured a controlling interest in the Hudson River road, and he applied to the legislature for an act providing for a union of the Hudson River and Harlem roads under one management. Here he met the same kind of opposition as before from those who had not yet learned what kind of man they had to deal with. The stock went down, down below what it sold for before Mr. Vanderbilt took hold of it, and again he bought all that was offered. The contest went on until it was found that the men opposed to him had contracted to sell twenty-seven thousand more shares than had ever been issued.
In order to avert a general panic the " commodore " had to settle with the " shorts," but he did it at a price that brought him immense profits. The two roads were made one, with Mr. Vanderbilt as president of the new company. He surprised old railroad men with the minuteness of his knowledge of railway construction. Great improvements were made in every department. He insisted that only the very best appliances should be used, and that the employees should be well disciplined, faithful, and efficient. This was a revolution in railroad management.
Soon Mr. Vanderbilt began to buy stock in the Central road. Its managers decided to make war upon him and arranged to send as much of their freight and as many of their passengers as possible from Albany to New York by water. This did not prove to be a wise movement, for when the ice closed the river traffic Mr. Vanderbilt changed the terminus of his road from Albany to the other side of the river and refused to receive freight from the Central. The result was that the stock of the Central fell rapidly, the holders were anxious to sell, and Mr. Vanderbilt was soon able to unite the Central with his other roads.
TEXT CREDIT: Some successful Americans