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Railroad Tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877)

Shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) was a self-made multi-millionaire who became one of the wealthiest Americans of the 19th century. As a boy, he worked with his father, who operated a boat that ferried cargo between Staten Island, New York, where they lived, and Manhattan.

After working as a steamship captain, Vanderbilt went into business for himself in the late 1820s, and eventually became one of the country’s largest steamship operators. In the process, the Commodore, as he was publicly nicknamed, gained a reputation for being fiercely competitive and ruthless. In the 1860s, he shifted his focus to the railroad industry, where he built another empire and helped make railroad transportation more efficient.

Building a Railroad Empire

During the Civil War, Vanderbilt donated his fleet's largest ship, aptly named the Vanderbilt, to the Union Navy. By 1864, he had retired from shipping, having amassed nearly $30 million in wealth. At age 70, Vanderbilt turned his attention more closely to railroads, acquiring the New York & Harlem and Hudson Line (which ran along the Erie Canal), and then going after the New York Central Railroad. In a ruthless act during a bitter winter when the Erie Canal was frozen over, he refused to accept Central’s passengers or freight, cutting them off from connections to western cities. Forced to capitulate, the Central Railroad sold Vanderbilt controlling interest, and he eventually consolidated his hold on rail traffic from New York City to Chicago. This new conglomerate revolutionized rail operations by standardizing procedures and timetables, increasing efficiency and decreasing travel and shipment times.

Vanderbilt Worth More Than $100 Million

When Vanderbilt died, he was worth more than $100 million.

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