Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Cornelius Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt, a synonym for wealth and luxury. Who indeed has not wished that he could have at least a small part of the vast wealth possessed by the Vanderbilts? Yet, when Cornelius Vanderbilt was a boy, he enjoyed far less privileges to make money than the majority who now look on and wish; but Cornelius Vanderbilt differed from other boys of his age. One difference was his strong determination.

It was then, much as it is now, boys liked to spend their money and have a good time.

It was a common saying in the neighborhood where he lived, ‘that when Corneel. Vanderbilt concludes to do anything it will certainly be done.’ A ship stranded off the shore; young Cornelius’ father took the contract to transfer the cargo to New York city. This was a job requiring many teams and a force of men to carry the produce to a different part of the island where they were to be taken by water to New York. Although but twelve years old, young Vanderbilt was given control of this part of the work. His father, by accident, neglected to furnish him the money with which to pay his ferriage. Here he was, a lad twelve years old, with no money, in charge of a lot of horses which must be ferried over at a cost of over five dollars. He hesitated but a moment; walking boldly up to the hotel proprietor he said: “Sir, I am here without money, by accident; if you will kindly advance me the money to pay the ferriage, I will leave a horse as your security.” The proprietor was a perfect stranger to Vanderbilt, but he was struck with such enterprise. The money was advanced, and the horse redeemed within forty-eight hours.

Vanderbilt wanted a small boat. On the tenth day of May, 1810, he went to his mother and asked for the money with which to buy it. There was a very rough piece of land on the parental farm which had never been plowed. His mother told him that if he would plow, drag and plant that field to corn within seventeen days, she would buy the boat for him. It was a hard job, doubtless, the mother considered it an impossible one. Vanderbilt, however, seemed never to recognize such a word, as can’t. He set about the work at once, and hard as it seemed to be, the task was accomplished, the boat was bought, and Vanderbilt was a happy boy. He had earned it. Now, as Vanderbilt did not want this boat for pleasure, he at once began business carrying produce from Staten Island to New York city. When the wind was unfavorable he used oars or a pole to aid his sails, thus, his produce was always on time. People said, “Send your stuff by Vanderbilt and you can depend on its being in season.” Now Vanderbilt had to give all of his earnings during the day time to his parents, so he worked nights, but his father also required one-half of what he earned nights, thus his opportunities were not as great as one might think. He worked very hard and at the end of three years, it was found that Corneel. Vanderbilt had saved for himself over, or about $3,000 and the best of all, had earned the reputation of being the best boatman on the river. While others were smoking and drinking, ‘having fun while they were young, for when would they if not then?’ Vanderbilt was either earning more money working over time, or at least saving what he had earned, home asleep recruiting for the next day’s labor.

He wished to marry a Miss Johnson, but could not unless his parents would release him from all parental restrictions. He was only nineteen, yet luckily for the young people the lady was a favorite of the father; the desired permission was obtained and henceforth Vanderbilt had the exclusive benefit of his labor. As he had begun, so he continued, and at the age of twenty-three he was worth about $9,000. In 1817 he became captain of the first steam boat that ever run between New York and New Brunswick, New Jersey, at a salary of $1,000 per year. His wife proved to be a helpmeet in the truest sense of the word, she at this time keeping hotel at New Brunswick and making no small amount herself. Seven years passed and Vanderbilt was made superintendent of the company of which he had been an employe. If a man has ability and applies it, his talent will not remain hid ‘under a bushel.’ His ability and indomitable energy brought the “Gibbons Line” up to paying $40,000 a year. Seeing a chance, for which he was ever on the alert, he leased the ferry between New York and Elizabeth, New Jersey, for fourteen years, put on new boats and it became a very profitable venture. In 1829 he left the “Gibbons Line,” and began to operate on the Hudson and between New York and Boston; also on the Delaware river. He would start an opposition line, and either drive off the old line or effect a compromise. In 1849 he obtained from the Nicaraguan Government a charter for a steamship company. He next went to England and raised the extra funds needed. He then went personally and inspected the whole route that was used, and by a system of cables fastened to trees, shortened the same about seven hundred miles over all existing lines. He placed steamers on each ocean and cut the fare from New York to San Francisco one-half. Soon he had destroyed all opposition and then made immense profits. Afterward he sold out for two millions.

Mr. Vanderbilt, like all successful men, made finance a study; he foresaw that there were great profits to be realized in the near future in the undeveloped railway systems in the country. To see a chance was to at once set about planning to improve it. He at once began to withdraw his money from the water and invest in railroads, which were then coming rapidly to the front. The wisdom of Vanderbilt can be seen, for at the beginning of the war, which he had been long expecting, his money was all transferred from the water, and thus his interests were not jeopardised by the war made upon our commerce. He, however, had owned so many vessels, that he had long since been known as Commodore Vanderbilt, in fact few people to-day know him by any other name. He, at the beginning of hostilities, presented the government with a magnificent steamship, the “Vanderbilt,” worth $800,000. When he entered the railroad business he was estimated at from thirty-five to forty millions. He had dealt somewhat in New York and New Haven, and now began to buy Harlem when it was in a most helpless and depressed condition. He advanced a large sum to the company when it was in need, and for this, among other things, he was made its President in 1863. By judicious management and influences common in ‘The street,’ he successfully ran Harlem from thirty to two hundred and eighty-five. Such a man was just what the New York Central railroad desired, and after this great ‘bulling’ movement he became President of that road. All that was needed now was the Hudson River road and this he bought outright, becoming President of the New York Central and Hudson River Rail Road, extending from New York to Buffalo.

At one time there was a bill to be voted on at Albany; the bill was in the interest of Harlem; Mr. Vanderbilt was sure it would pass, but Daniel Drew, his antagonist, who ever fought Harlem or Central as they were against Erie, caused a counter movement to be made which defeated the bill. Vanderbilt heard of it, and of course was disappointed but made no foolish protests with the treacherous ‘friends’ at the capitol. In the meantime these people were selling Harlem short for future delivery, expecting that the stock would “take a tumble” when it became known that the bill was defeated. As before said Vanderbilt said nothing, but quietly bought up every scrap of stock there was to be found loose. The fatal day came but Harlem stood firm. The derelict Assemblymen were thunderstruck when they had to buy at a greatly enhanced price, and many of the would-be victors were ruined. In 1873 the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern railroad was operated in connection with the Vanderbilt system, making a Palace Car route from New York city to Chicago. From New York to Buffalo a quadruple track, thence a double track.

Among the charities of Mr. Vanderbilt is a gift of three-quarters of a million to the University in Nashville, Tennessee, which bears his name. He died in 1877 worth about eighty millions.