Cornelius Vanderbilt was one of America's richest men in the second half of the 19th century. He started in business when he was 16 years old -- he borrowed money, bought a boat and started as a ferryman between Staten Island and New York City. He went on to make his fortune in the steamship business -- earning the nickname "Commodore" -- and got rich off opportunities such as the War of 1812, the California Gold Rush of 1849 and the Crimean War (1853-56). When he was nearly 70 years old he sold his ships and got into the railroad financing business, and by the time he died Vanderbilt was said to be America's richest man. A self-made multimillionaire, he was known for his crude manners and cutthroat approach to business.
Unlike the next generation of American industrialists — John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie — Vanderbilt was not known for philanthropy, although he did give the money to found Nashville’s Vanderbilt University… Grandson George W. Vanderbilt hired architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted to design the Biltmore Estate (outside Asheville, North Carolina); it opened in 1895 as America’s largest residential home and is now a national landmark.