Vanderbilt, Cornelius, 1794–1877, American railroad magnate, b. Staten Island, N.Y. As a boy he ferried freight and passengers from Staten Island to Manhattan, and he soon gained control of most of the ferry lines and other short lines in the vicinity of New York City. He further expanded his shipping lines and came to be known as Commodore Vanderbilt. In 1851, when the gold rush to California was at its height, Vanderbilt opened a shipping line from the East Coast to California, including land transit across Nicaragua along the route of the proposed Nicaragua Canal. In Central America he came to be a violent opponent of the military adventurer William Walker.
After the outbreak of the Civil War, he entered the railroad field, and by 1867 he had gained control of the New York Central RR. Although his efforts to gain control of the Erie RR proved unsuccessful, Vanderbilt vastly expanded his railroad empire and by 1873 connected Chicago with New York City by rail. He amassed a great fortune and gave $1 million to found Vanderbilt Univ.
A son, William Henry Vanderbilt, 1821–85, b. New Brunswick, N.J., succeeded Cornelius Vanderbilt as president of the New York Central RR and augmented the family fortune. He gave liberally to Vanderbilt Univ., to the College of Physicians and Surgeons (now part of Columbia Univ.), and to various other institutions.
Cornelius Vanderbilt, 1843–99, b. Staten Island, N.Y., was a son of William H. Vanderbilt. He took over the family holdings and helped to establish the Vanderbilt Clinic (affiliated with Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center) and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. With his wife, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt, 1845–1934, he built the famous “Breakers” estate in Newport, R.I. Their daughter, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1875–1942, became a sculptor, art patron, and founder (1930) of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. Her niece and ward, Gloria Vanderbilt, 1924–2019, became a well-known designer of jeans and other clothes in the 1970s. She was also an actress, author, and painter.
Another son of William H. Vanderbilt was William Kissam Vanderbilt, 1849–1920, b. Staten Island, N.Y., who also helped establish the Vanderbilt Clinic. He was a yachtsman, and his wife was a well-known society leader. The fourth son of William H. Vanderbilt was George Washington Vanderbilt, 1862–1914, b. Staten Island, N.Y. He engaged in numerous philanthropies, giving to agricultural research and donating land for the establishment of Teachers College, Columbia Univ. He also built the estate “Biltmore,” near Asheville, N.C.
One of the sons of Cornelius Vanderbilt the younger was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, 1877–1915, b. New York City. A noted horse breeder, he went down on the Lusitania. One of the sons of William K. Vanderbilt, Harold Sterling Vanderbilt, 1884–1970, born Suffolk co., Long Island, N.Y., gained note as a sportsman. He won the America's Cup yachting races three times. The modern game of contract bridge was largely invented by him. A grandson of the younger Cornelius Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., 1898–1974, became a well-known writer, newspaper publisher, and movie producer.
See biographies of Commodore Vanderbilt by W. J. Lane (1942) and T. J. Stiles (2009); W. Andrews, The Vanderbilt Legend (1941); E. P. Hoyt, The Vanderbilts and Their Fortunes (1962); C. Vanderbilt, Jr., Man of the World; My Life on Five Continents (1959).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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