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Cornelius Vanderbilt and the Railroad: Accomplishments & Facts

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  • 0:01 Self-Made Man
  • 0:35 Early Career
  • 1:57 Railroad Empire
  • 3:26 Legacy
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the American industrialist, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and his railroad empire. As a keen businessman, Vanderbilt was highly successful owning transportation companies.

Self-Made Man

The 'self-made man' is one of those revered figures in American pop culture. Generally, through long hours of hard work, utilizing a keen business sense, and exploiting the virtues of America's capitalist system, the self-made man, as the term suggests, rises from a poor background and makes himself a fortune.

Cornelius Vanderbilt was the 19th century prototype of the self-made man. After dropping out of school to begin work on a ferry at age 11, Vanderbilt became one of America's most well-known industrialists and eventually created the country's first railroad empire.

Early Career

Born on Staten Island, New York in 1794, Vanderbilt worked on his father's ferry after dropping out of school at age 11. Before long, Vanderbilt began operating his own sailboat carrying cargo between Staten Island and Manhattan Island.

After marrying his first cousin, Sophia Johnson, in 1813, Vanderbilt began working as a steamship captain for Thomas Gibbons in 1817. Under Gibbons' tutelage, Vanderbilt learned how to run a large and complicated business, and Vanderbilt even assisted Gibbons in successfully fighting a New York steamship monopoly operated by the Livingston family. Vanderbilt's tenacity in business and appetite for growth was so intense that Gibbons once famously stated of Vanderbilt 'I am afraid of this man.'

Even while working for Gibbons, Vanderbilt continued to operate his own smaller steamship enterprises on the side, and in 1829, Vanderbilt stopped working for the Gibbons family to concentrate on his own businesses. Vanderbilt's steamship businesses prospered as commerce grew in the New York area and the rest of the northeast, and he even began acquiring some smaller railroads in Boston and New England.

During the California Gold Rush in the late 1840s and early 1850s, Vanderbilt made a fortune conducting oceangoing travel to the west coast. He even attempted to fund an overland route through Nicaragua to quicken the passage, though this venture largely failed.

Railroad Empire

After already amassing a fortune as a steamship owner and operator, Vanderbilt realized in the 1850s and 1860s that the future of travel and freight transportation was in the railroad industry. Though he had previously held other smaller lines, Vanderbilt acquired his first major railroad in 1863 when he bought the New York & Harlem Railroad, which started in the heart of Manhattan.

Vanderbilt immediately began buying up other railroads as well with lines connected with or in competition with his own, spreading west and north from New York City into the rest of the state, and then into southern Canada, Michigan, and Chicago. Lines he bought included the Canada Southern, New York Central, and the Lakeshore & Michigan Central.

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