Visitors to the Central Park on pleasant afternoons, rarely fail to notice a light buggy, generally with a single occupant, drawn by a pair of fine horses, whose whole appearance is indicative of their high breeding and great speed. The animals would command attention anywhere, and the driver would excite equal notice, for all are physically among the finest specimens of their kind to be met with in the country. The man is almost seventy-eight years of age, but he looks twenty years younger. He is large of frame, tall, erect, and with a face as handsome and as cold as a statue. He is one of the best known men in the country, and he is called Cornelius Vanderbilt.
He was born on Staten Island, May 27th, 1794. His father was a boatman, who had acquired money enough by attention to his business to purchase and stock a farm, on which the subject of this sketch passed his boyhood. Many interesting stories are told of Vanderbilt’s boyhood, showing an early development of the vigorous traits which have marked his maturer life. His passion for horses seems to have been born with him. In his seventeenth year he became a boatman in New York harbor, devoting himself to the task of rowing passengers about or across the harbor in his own boat. He displayed great energy and determination, and not a little genius, in this calling, and earned money rapidly and steadily. At the age of nineteen he married. In 1815, having saved money enough, he built a fine schooner, and in the winter embarked in the coasting trade, going as far south as Charleston, S.C., but continuing to ply his boat in the harbor during the summer. By the time he was twenty-four years old, he had saved nine thousand dollars, and had built several small vessels.
In 1818, he suddenly abandoned his flourishing business, and accepted the command of a steamboat, with a salary of one thousand dollars. His friends were greatly astonished at this step, and remonstrated with him warmly, but without shaking his resolution. He had the sagacity to perceive that the steamboats were about to revolutionize the whole system of water transportation, and he meant to secure a foothold in the new order of affairs without delay. The result vindicated his wisdom.
The steamer which he commanded was one of a line plying between New York and New Brunswick—the old route to Philadelphia. This line was conducted by Mr. Thomas Gibbons, and was warmly opposed by the representatives of Fulton and Livingston, who claimed a monopoly of the right to navigate the waters of New York by steam. Gibbons was effectively supported by Vanderbilt, who ran his boat regularly in spite of all efforts made to stop him, until the courts sustained him in his rights. Then Vanderbilt was allowed to control the line in his own way, and conducted it with such success that it paid Gibbons an annual profit of forty thousand dollars.
In 1829, at the age of thirty-five, he left the service of Mr. Gibbons, and for the second time began life on his own account. He built a small steamer, called the “Caroline,” and commanded her himself. In a few years he was the owner of several small steamers plying between New York and the neighboring towns. Thus began his remarkable career as a steamboat owner, which was one unbroken round of prosperity. He eventually became the most important man in the steamboat interest of the country. He has owned or has had an interest in one hundred steam vessels—hence his title of Commodore—and has been instrumental in a greater degree than any other man, in bringing down the tariff of steamboat fares. He has never lost a vessel by fire, by explosion, or a wreck. His “North Star” and “Vanderbilt” were famous steamships in their day, and in the latter he made an extended tour to the various ports of Europe.
A year or two before the Civil War, Mr. Vanderbilt began to invest largely in railroad stocks and iron works. He at length secured the control of the Hudson River, Harlem and New York Central Roads, and their dependencies, which made him as important a personage in this branch of our industry as he had been in the steamboat interest. His control of these roads also gave him a commanding influence in the stock market of Wall street, and brought within his reach numerous opportunities for enriching himself by speculations, of which he was not slow to avail himself. Wall street is full of stories concerning him, and it is evident from many of these that he has dealt the dealers there too many hard blows to be popular amongst them.
Mr. Vanderbilt resides in a handsome old-fashioned brick mansion in East Washington Place. His business office is in Fourth street, near Broadway. His wealth is very great, and is generally estimated in the city at over forty millions of dollars. He is said to have a greater command of large sums of ready money than almost any other American capitalist.
Mr. Vanderbilt has been twice married, and is the father of thirteen children—nine daughters and four sons, all the children of his first wife. His grandchildren are numerous.