Little Bits of History

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 4, 2010

Cornelius Vanderbilt from Vanderbilt University

January 4, 1877: Cornelius Vanderbilt dies at the age of 82. He was a prominent US entrepreneur in the shipping and railroad industries. He quit school at the age of 11 to work on the NYC ferries. By age 16, he was operating his own ferry business, transporting cargo and passengers. On December 19, 1813 he married his cousin and neighbor, Sophia Johnson. They would go on to have twelve children together. By the age of 24, he expanded his operations into steamships.

He became involved with railroad development and on November 11, 1833 was injured in one of the earliest railroad derailments. By the 1860s, Vanderbilt was taking monies out of his steamship industries and investing it in his railroads. In 1871, he joined forces with other railroad businessmen to build Grand Central Terminal in NYC.

Vanderbilt’s first wife died in 1868 and Cornelius then went to Canada. There, he married another cousin, Frank Armstrong Crawford. She was 43 years younger than her new husband when they wed on August 21, 1869. It was at this point another relative convinced Cornelius to endow a university to be named after him. He also bought a church for $50,000 for his wife’s congregation, the Church of the Strangers. He began donating to churches in New York City, including the Moravian Church on Staten Island. There he gave 8.5 acres of land to be used as a cemetery. It was where he would be buried.

He was a ruthless businessman with few friends during his lifetime. He was known as vulgar, mean-spirited and apt to make life miserable for those near at hand, including family. He disinherited all his children except for William, another ruthless businessman. He left William and his four sons 95% of his estate. Cornelius II got $5 million and each of his brothers got $2 million. (Each $1 million in 1877 would be worth about $28 million in 2010.)  He left $1 million of his estimated $100 million to Vanderbilt University, the largest donation made in America at the time.

“You have undertaken to cheat me. I won’t sue you, for the law is too slow. I will ruin you.” – Cornelius Vanderbilt in a letter to former business associate.

“I have been insane on the subject of moneymaking all my life.” – Cornelius Vanderbilt

“The gambling known as business looks with austere disfavor upon the business known as gambling.” – Ambrose Bierce

“’Whom are you?’ he asked, for he had attended business college.” – George Ade

“In the business world, the rearview mirror is always clearer than the windshield.” – Warren Buffet

Also on this day, in 871 the Battle of Reading was fought.

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  1. Top Ten « Little Bits of History said, on January 4, 2011 at 7:08 am

    […] on this day: Cornelius Vanderbilt – In 1877, the business magnate died. Battle of Reading – In 871, this defining battle in […]


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