Home Previous TOC Next Switch


STATEN ISLAND lies in the beautiful bay of New York, seven miles distant from the great city. Its lofty heights shut in the snug anchorage of the inner bay, and protect it from the rude storms which howl along the coast. It lies full in sight of the city, and is one of the most beautiful and attractive of its suburbs. The commanding heights and embowered shores are covered with villas and cottages, and afford a pleasant and convenient summer resort for the people of New York. It now contains a large and flourishing population, and maintains a speedy and constant communication with the metropolis by means of steam ferry-boats, the total travel on which sometimes reaches as many as ten or twelve thousand passengers per day.

Seventy-six years ago, Staten Island was a mere country settlement, and its communications with the city were maintained by means of a few sail-boats, which made one trip each way per day.

One of these boats was owned and navigated by Cornelius Vanderbilt, a thriving farmer, who owned a small but well cultivated estate on Staten Island, near the present Quarantine Grounds. He was a man of exemplary character, great industry, and was generally regarded as one of the most prudent and reliable men on the island. Having a considerable amount of produce to sell in the city, he purchased a boat of his own for the purpose of transporting it thither. Frequently, residents of the island would secure passage in this boat to the city in the morning, and return with it in the evening. He realized a considerable sum of money in this way, and finally ran his boat regularly between the island and the city. This was the beginning of the New York and Staten Island Ferry. Mr. Vanderbilt, by close application to his farm and boat, soon acquired a property, which, though small, was sufficient to enable him to maintain his family independently. His wife was a woman of more than usual character, and aided him nobly in making his way in the world.

This admirable couple were blessed with nine children. The oldest of these, Cornelius, the subject of this sketch, was born at the old farm-house on Staten Island, on the 27th of May, 1794. He was a healthy, active boy, fond of all manner of out-door sports, and manifesting an unusual repugnance to the confinement and labors of the school-room. He has since declared that the only books he remembers using at school were the New Testament and the spelling-book. The result was, that he merely learned to read, write, and cipher, and that imperfectly. He was passionately fond of the water, and was never so well pleased as when his father allowed him to assist in sailing his boat. He was also a famous horseman from his earliest childhood, and even now recalls with evident pride the fact that when but six years old he rode a race-horse at full speed. When he set himself to accomplish any thing, he was not, like most boys, deterred by the difficulties of his undertaking, but persevered until success crowned his efforts. So early did he establish his reputation for overcoming obstacles, that his boyish friends learned to regard any task which he undertook as already virtually performed.

When he was only twelve years old his father contracted to remove the cargo from a ship which had gone ashore near Sandy Hook, and to convey it to New York. The lighters which were to carry the goods to the city could not reach the ship, and it was necessary to haul the cargo, transported in wagons, across the sands from the vessel to them. In spite of his tender age, little Cornelius was placed by his father in charge of the undertaking, which he accomplished promptly and successfully. He loaded his lighters, sent them up to New York, and then started for home with his wagons. Upon reaching South Amboy, where he was to cross over to Staten Island, he found himself, with his wagons, horses, and men, without any money to pay his ferriage across to the island. The ferriage would amount to six dollars, and how he was to raise this sum he was, for a time, at a loss to determine. Finally, he went to the keeper of the tavern, to whom he was a stranger, and asked for the loan of six dollars, offering to leave one of his horses as a pledge for the money, which he promised to return within two days. The tavern-keeper was so well pleased with the boy's energy, that he loaned him the money, and the party crossed over to Staten Island. The pawned horse was promptly redeemed.

Young Vanderbilt was always anxious to become a sailor, and, as he approached his seventeenth year, he determined to begin life as a boatman in the harbor of New York. On the 1st of May, 1810, he informed his mother of his determination, and asked her to lend him one hundred dollars to buy a boat.

The good lady had always opposed her son's wish to go to sea, and regarded this new scheme as equally hair-brained. As a means of discouraging him, she told him if he would plow, harrow, and plant with corn a certain ten-acre lot belonging to the farm, by the twenty-seventh of that month, on which day he would be seventeen years old, she would lend him the money. The field was the worst in the whole farm; it was rough, hard, and stony; but by the appointed time the work was done, and well done, and the boy claimed and received his money. He hurried off to a neighboring village, and bought his boat, in which he set out for home. He had not gone far, however, when the boat struck a sunken wreck, and filled so rapidly that the boy had barely time to get into shoal water before it sank.


"Undismayed at this mishap," says Mr. Parton, from whose graphic memoir the leading incidents of this sketch are taken, "he began his new career. His success, as we have intimated, was speedy and great. He made a thousand dollars during each of the next three summers. Often he worked all night; but he was never absent from his post by day, and he soon had the cream of the boating business of the port.

"At that day parents claimed the services and earnings of their children till they were twenty-one. In other words, families made common cause against the common enemy, Want. The arrangement between this young boatman and his parents was, that he should give them all his day earnings and half his night earnings. He fulfilled his engagement faithfully until his parents released him from it, and with his own half of his earnings by night, he bought all his clothes. He had forty competitors in the business, who, being all grown men, could dispose of their gains as they chose; but of all the forty, he alone has emerged to prosperity and distinction. Why was this? There were several reasons. He soon became the best boatman in the port. He attended to his business more regularly and strictly than any other. He had no vices. His comrades spent at night much of what they earned by day, and when the winter suspended their business, instead of living on their last summer's savings, they were obliged to lay up debts for the next summer's gains to discharge. In those three years of willing servitude to his parents, Cornelius Vanderbilt added to the family's common stock of wealth, and gained for himself three things—a perfect knowledge of his business, habits of industry and self-control, and the best boat in the harbor."

During the War of 1812, young Vanderbilt was kept very busy. All the harbor defenses were fully manned, and a number of war vessels were in port all the time. The travel between these and the city was very great, and boatmen were in demand.

In September, 1813, a British fleet attempted to run past Fort Richmond, during a heavy gale. The commanding officer was anxious to send to New York for reinforcements, but it was blowing so hard that none of the old boatmen were willing to venture upon the bay. They all declared that if the voyage could be made at all, Cornelius Vanderbilt was the only man who could make it. The commandant at once sent for the young man, who, upon learning the urgency of the case, expressed his belief that he could carry the messengers to the city. "But," said he, "I shall have to carry them part of the way under water." He set out with the messengers, and in an hour landed them safe, but drenched through, at the foot of Whitehall Street, which was then the landing place of all the boatmen of the harbor.

He was now so prosperous in his calling that he determined to marry. He had wooed and won the heart of Sophia Johnson, the daughter of a neighbor, and he now asked his parents' consent to his marriage, and also requested them to allow him to retain his own earnings, in order that he might be able to support a wife. Both of his petitions received the approval of his parents, and in the winter of 1813 he was married. His wife was a woman of unusual personal beauty and strength of character, and proved the best of partners. He has often declared since that he owed his success in life as much to her counsel and assistance as to his own efforts.

In the spring of 1814, it became known in America that the British were fitting out a formidable military and naval expedition for the purpose of attacking one of the Atlantic ports of the United States. The whole coast was on the lookout, and, as it was feared that the blow would be struck at New York, every precaution was taken to be ready. The militia were called into service for three months, under a heavy penalty for refusing to obey the call. The term of service thus marked out covered the most prosperous season of the boatmen, and made the call fall particularly hard upon them. About this time, an advertisement was inserted in the city journals by the Commissary-General of the army, calling for bids from boatmen for the purpose of conveying provisions from New York to the various military posts in the vicinity. The labor was to be performed during the three months for which the militia were called out, and the contractor was to be exempted from all military duty during that time. Bids poured in from the boatmen, who offered to do the work at ridiculously low figures—the chief object of each one being to secure the exemption.

Young Vanderbilt, knowing that the work could not be done at the rates at which his comrades offered to perform it, at first decided not to bid for it, but at length—and more to please his father than because he expected to succeed—offered to transport the provisions at a price which would enable him to be sure of doing it well and thoroughly. He felt so little hope of success that he did not even trouble himself to go to the office of the Commissary on the day of the awarding of the contract, until he learned from his companions that all their efforts to secure it had been ineffectual. Then he called on the Commissary, merely through curiosity, to learn the name of the fortunate man, and to his utter astonishment was told that the contract had been awarded to himself. The Government was satisfied, from his sensible offer, that he would do the business thoroughly, and this the Commissary assured him was the reason why they had selected him.

There were six posts to be supplied—Harlem, Hell Gate, Ward's Island, the Narrows, and one other in the harbor, each of which was to be furnished with one load per week. The young contractor made arrangements to have a daily load of stores ready for him each evening at six o'clock, and thus performed all the duties of his contract at night, which left him free to attend to his boating during the day. He never failed to make a single delivery of stores, or to be absent from his post on the beach at Whitehall one single day during the whole three months. He was often without sleep, and performed an immense amount of labor during this period; but his indomitable energy and powerful physical organization carried him safely through it all.

He made a great deal of money that summer, and with his earnings built a splendid little schooner, which he named the "Dread." In 1815, in connection with his brother-in-law, Captain De Forrest, he built a fine schooner, called the "Charlotte," for the coasting service. She was celebrated for the beauty of her model and her great speed. He continued to ply his boat in the harbor during the summer, but in the fall and winter made voyages along the coast, often as far south as Charleston. During the three years succeeding the termination of the war he saved nine thousand dollars in cash, and built two or three small vessels. This was his condition in 1818.

By this time it had become demonstrated to his satisfaction that the new system of steamboats was a success, and was destined to come into general use at no very distant day. He therefore determined to identify himself with it at once, and thereby secure the benefits which he felt sure would result from a prompt connection with it. Accordingly, in 1818, to the surprise and dismay of his friends, he gave up his flourishing business, in order to accept the captaincy of a steamboat which was offered him by Mr. Thomas Gibbons. The salary attached to this position was one thousand dollars, and Captain Vanderbilt's friends frankly told him that he was very foolish in abandoning a lucrative business for so insignificant a sum. Turning a deaf ear to their remonstrances, however, he entered promptly upon the duties of his new career, and was given command of a steamboat plying between New York and New Brunswick.

Passengers to Philadelphia, at that day, were transported by steamer from New York to New Brunswick, where they remained all night. The next morning they took the stage for Trenton, from which they were conveyed by steamer to Philadelphia. The hotel at New Brunswick was a miserable affair, and had never paid expenses. When Captain Vanderbilt took command of the steamer, he was offered the hotel rent free, and accepted the offer. He placed the house in charge of his wife, under whose vigorous administration it soon acquired a popularity which was of the greatest benefit to the line.

For seven years he was harassed and hampered by the hostility of the State of New York, which had granted to Fulton and Livingston the sole right to navigate New York waters by steam. Thomas Gibbons believed this law to be unconstitutional, and ran his boats in defiance of it. The authorities of the State resented his disregard of their monopoly, and a long and vexatious warfare sprang up between them, which was ended only in 1824, by the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in favor of Mr. Gibbons.

As a means of crippling Gibbons, the New York authorities at one time determined to arrest Vanderbilt and his crew; but the wary captain was too cunning for them. He would land his crew in Jersey City, and take charge of the engine himself, while a lady managed the helm. In this way he approached the wharf at New York, landed his passengers, and took on more. As soon as he had made his boat fast, he concealed himself in the hold until the moment of his departure. As soon as he appeared on deck, the Sheriff's officer (who was changed every day to avoid recognition) would approach him with a warrant for his arrest. His reply was an order to let go the line. The officer, unwilling to be carried off to New Jersey, where he was threatened with imprisonment in the penitentiary for interfering with the steamer, would at once jump ashore, or beg to be landed. This was kept up for two months, but the captain successfully baffled his enemies during the whole of that period. The opponents of Mr. Gibbons offered a larger and better boat than the one he commanded if he would enter their service, but he firmly declined all their offers, avowing his determination to remain with Mr. Gibbons until the difficulty was settled.

After the decision of the Supreme Court placed Mr. Gibbons in the full enjoyment of his rights, Captain Vanderbilt was allowed to manage the line in his own way, and conducted it with so much skill and vigor that it paid its owner an annual profit of forty thousand dollars. Mr. Gibbons offered to increase his salary to five thousand dollars, but he refused to accept the offer.

"I did it on principle," he said, afterward. "The other captains had but one thousand, and they were already jealous enough of me. Besides, I never cared for money. All I ever cared for was to carry my point."


In 1829 he determined to leave the service of Mr. Gibbons, with whom he had been connected for eleven years. He was thirty-five years old, and had saved thirty thousand dollars. He resolved to build a steamer of his own, and command her himself, and accordingly made known his intention to his employer. Mr. Gibbons at once declared that he could not carry on the line without his assistance, and told him he might make his own terms if he would stay with him. Captain Vanderbilt had formed his decision after much thought, and being satisfied that he was doing right, he persisted in his determination to set up for himself. Mr. Gibbons then offered to sell him the line on the spot, and to take his pay as the money should be earned. It was a splendid offer, but it was firmly and gratefully refused. The captain knew the men among whom he would be thrown, and that they could never act together harmoniously. He believed his own ideas to be the best, and wished to be free to carry them out.

After leaving Mr. Gibbons he built a small steamer, called the "Caroline," which he commanded himself. In a few years he was the owner of several other small steamers plying between New York and the neighboring towns. He made slow progress at first, for he had strong opposition to overcome. The steamboat interest was in the hands of powerful companies, backed by immense capital, and these companies were not disposed to tolerate the interference of any new-comer. They met their match in all cases, however, for Vanderbilt inaugurated so sharp a business opposition that the best of them were forced to compromise with him. These troubles were very annoying to him, and cost him nearly every dollar he was worth, but he persevered, and at length "carried his point."

From that time he made his way gradually in his business, until he rose to the head of the steamboat interest of the United States. He has owned or been interested in one hundred steam vessels, and has been instrumental in a greater degree than any other man in bringing down the tariff of steamboat fares. He never builds a vessel without giving his personal superintendence to every detail, so that all his various craft have been models of their kind. He selects his officers with the greatest care, pays them liberal salaries, and, as long as they do their duty, sustains them against all outside interference or intrigue. In this way he inspires them with zeal, and the result is that he has never lost a vessel by fire, explosion, or wreck.

He built the famous steamer "North Star," and made a triumphal cruise in her to the Old World. It is said that he was at one time very anxious to divide the business of the ocean with the Collins Line of steamers. When the "Arctic" was lost he applied to Mr. Collins to allow his steamer to run in her place. He promised to make no claim for the mail subsidy which Collins received, and to take the vessel off as soon as Collins could build another to take her place. Mr. Collins was afraid to let Mr. Vanderbilt get any hold on the foreign trade of the country, and not only refused his request, but did so in a manner which roused the anger of the veteran, who thereupon told Mr. Collins that he would run his line off the ocean if it took his whole life and entire fortune to do it. He kept his word. He at once offered the Government to carry the mails more promptly and regularly than had ever been done before, and to do this for a term of years without asking one single cent as subsidy. It was well known that he was perfectly able to do what he promised, and he pressed the matter upon the Government so vigorously that he was successful. The subsidy to Collins was withdrawn, and the magnificent line soon fell to pieces in consequence of the bankruptcy of its owner, who might have averted his fate by the exercise of a little liberality.

Of late years, Mr. Vanderbilt has been withdrawing his money from ships and steamers, and investing it in railroads and iron works. Success has attended him in all his ventures, and he is to-day worth over thirty millions of dollars. He controls the Hudson River, Harlem, and New York Central Roads, and is largely interested in many others. He is all powerful in the stock market, and can move it as he will.

A few years ago he wished to consolidate the Hudson River and Harlem Railroads, and when the scheme was presented before the Legislature of New York, secured a sufficient number of votes to insure the passage of the bill authorizing the consolidation. Before the bill was called up on its final passage, however, he learned from a trustworthy source that the members of the Legislature who had promised to vote for the bill were determined to vote against it, with the hope of ruining him. The stock of Harlem Road was then selling very high, in consequence of the expected consolidation. The defeat of the bill would, of course, cause it to fall immediately. The unprincipled legislators at once commenced a shrewd game. They sold Harlem right and left, to be delivered at a future day, and found plenty of purchasers. They let their friends into the secret, and there was soon a great deal of "selling 'short'" in this stock. [D] Commodore Vanderbilt, although indignant at the treachery of which he was to be made the victim, held his peace. He went into the market quietly, with all the funds he could raise, purchased every dollar's worth of Harlem stock he could lay his hands on, and locked it up in his safe. When the bill came before the Legislature on its final passage, the members who had pledged themselves to vote for it voted against it, and it was rejected.

Footnote D: For the benefit of the uninitiated reader, we will explain the "game" more clearly. Harlem stock was selling at a high price, in consequence of the expected consolidation. Those who sold "short" at this time sold at the market price, which, as we have said, was high. By engaging to deliver at some future day, they expected to be able to buy the stock for little or nothing after the defeat of the bill, and then to demand for it the price for which they had sold it in the first place. Such a transaction was infamous, but would have enabled those engaged in it to realize immense sums by the difference in the price of the stock.

The speculators were jubilant. They were sure that the defeat of the bill would bring down "Harlem" with a rush. To their astonishment, however, "Harlem" did not fall. It remained stationary the first day, and then, to their dismay, began to rise steadily. Those to whom they had sold demanded the delivery of the stock, but the speculators found it impossible to buy it. There was none in the market at any price. Being unable to deliver stock, they were forced to pay its equivalent in money, and the result was, that all who were engaged in the infamous scheme were ruined. One of the shrewdest operators in New York lost over two hundred thousand dollars. He refused to pay, but his name was at once stricken from the list of stock-brokers. This brought him to terms, and he made good his contracts. Vanderbilt made enough money out of this effort to crush him to pay for all the stock he owned in the Harlem Road.

During the rebellion, Commodore Vanderbilt was one of the stanchest supporters of the Government. Early in the struggle he equipped his splendid steamer, the "Vanderbilt," as a man-of-war, and offered her to the Navy Department at a fair price. He found that, in order to sell the vessel, he would have to pay a percentage of the price received for her to certain parties who stood between the Government and the purchase, and levied black mail upon every ship the Government bought. Indignant and disgusted, he withdrew his ship, and declared she was not for sale. Then, satisfying himself that she was in perfect condition, he presented her to the Navy Department as a free gift to the nation.

Says a recent writer, whose fondness for courtly similes the reader must pardon, for the sake of the information he imparts: "No man is felt in Wall Street more than Commodore Vanderbilt, yet he is seldom seen there. All of his business is done in his office in Fourth Street. Here his brokers meet him, receive their orders, and give reports. Here the plans are laid that shake the street, and Wall Street trembles at the foot of an invisible autocrat. If the reader would care to visit the court of that great railroad king, whose name has become the terror of Wall Street, he may accompany us to a plain brick residence in Fourth Street, near Broadway, and distant from Wall Street nearly two miles. No sign indicates its imperial occupant, except that the upper story being occupied as a millinery establishment bears a legend of that character. However, as we enter the hall, we notice the word 'office,' and open the door thus inscribed. Here we see a table, a few chairs, and a desk, at which a solitary clerk of middle age is standing at work.

"The walls are bare, with the exception of a few pictures of those steamships which originated the title of 'Commodore,' This is the ante-chamber, and a pair of folding doors screen the king from vulgar gaze. He is closeted with his marshals, and this privy council will last an hour or so. One after the other they depart, and before three o'clock the effect of this council will not only be felt in Wall Street, but will be flashed over the Union. At length you are permitted to enter. The folding door is opened, and you behold an office as plain in appearance as the one just described. It contains a few arm-chairs and a long business-table, thrown flush before you, on the opposite side of which sits a large man, with his face fronting you. He is writing, and his eyes are fixed on the paper, so that you have a moment to note the dignity of frame and the vast development of brain. In a few minutes the countenance raises, and you meet its expansive and penetrating glance.

"You face the king. He smiles in a pleasant and whole-souled manner, and in a moment puts you at ease. No stiffness nor formality here. His kingship is in himself, not in etiquette. He is ready for a pleasantry, and will initiate one if it comes in the line of conversation. You note those wonderful eyes, bright and piercing, and so large and rich that one is fascinated, and does not know how to stop gazing into them. Such is the appearance of the railway king, and you take your leave, conscious that some men, as Shakespeare says, 'are born great.' Indeed, we know a man who would rather give five dollars to sit and look at Commodore Vanderbilt for an hour than to see any other sight in this city. Next door to the office is a building of brown stone, with spacious doors and a roadway. This is the Commodore's stable, where are some of the finest horses in the country.

"Every afternoon he is wont to take an airing, and after tea a game of whist affords an evening amusement. The Commodore is simple in his manners and habits. He is a representative of a former age, when men lived less artificially than at the present time, and when there was more happiness and less show. As for business, it is his nature. He can not help being king. He is but developing himself, and any other mode of life would be painful. He has in the Central afforded a third wonder, the Harlem and the Hudson River being the first and second, and if he gets the Erie he will soon show the world another wonder. On Sundays the Commodore attends Dr. Hutton's church on Washington Square, and here his tall and dignified form may be seen, head and shoulders above the rest of the congregation. He is a friend of the pastor, who takes a deep interest in his welfare, and we hope will meet him in a better world. He stood by the Commodore's side when his wife was laid in the tomb, and cheered him in that dark and trying hour. Among his more recent works is the completing of a tomb in the old Moravian burial-ground in Staten Island. The subterranean chamber is about thirty feet square, and is surmounted by a lofty shaft, and a statue of grief adds a peculiar finish to the spot. The cemetery is on an eminence, from which one gets a fine view of the ocean, dotted with ships."

Commodore Vanderbilt's early passion for horses still survives, and his stable contains some of the finest in the world. Nothing pleases him so well as to sit behind a fast team, with the reins in his hands, and fly along the road with almost the speed of the wind.

He is extremely generous to his friends, and gives liberally to charitable objects. He never puts his name to a subscription paper, but his donations are none the less liberal for that. His old acquaintances—especially those of his boyhood—find him a tender friend, and many of them owe to his bounty the comforts which surround their age.[E]

Footnote E: In July, 1870, Mr. Vanderbilt chanced to hear that the Rev. Dr. Deems, of New York, was in want of a church. Admiring the energy with which the reverend gentleman had built up his congregation in the short space of three years, Mr. Vanderbilt quietly made up his mind that he should not want in vain. Accordingly he bought the Mercer Street Presbyterian Church, and made the Doctor a present of it, keeping him in ignorance of his intention until he placed the title deeds in his hand.

He is the father of thirteen children—nine daughters and four sons—nearly all of whom are still living. A few years ago, at the celebration of his golden wedding, over one hundred and forty of his descendants and relatives assembled to congratulate him. He lost a promising son during the war, and his wife died two years ago. Not long since he married a second time. He is still one of the handsomest and most imposing men in New York, and will doubtless live to see his children's grandchildren.