Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Vanderbilt, Cornelius (capitalist)

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VANDERBILT, Cornelius, capitalist, b. on Staten Island, N. Y., 27 Nov., 1843; d. in New York city, 12 Sept., 1899. He was the eldest son of William H. Vanderbilt (q. v.), and was educated at private schools. At the age of sixteen he commenced business life in the office of the Shoe and Leather bank of New York city. Here he remained three years, performing the simple duties of a clerk, but showing aptitude for the studies of accounts and affairs of finance. After two years spent in the private banking-house of Kissam Brothers he was appointed to a position in the treasurer's office of the New York and Harlem railroad company. From 1867 to 1877 he was reasurer, and from 1877 to 1886 vice-president of the New York and Harlem railroad. He then became president of the road, and on the death of Commodore Vanderbilt was chosen vice-president of the New York Central and Hudson river railroad, and took control of the finances of the road — a department for which his natural abilities and his ten years' experience as treasurer of the Harlem eminently fitted him. In 1878 he became treasurer of the Michigan Central railroad company and of the Canada Southern railway company; in 1879 vice-president and treasurer of the latter; in 1880 vice-president and treasurer of the Michigan Central. His father retired in May, 1883, from the presidency of the New York Central and Hudson river railroad company, the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern railway company, and the Michigan Central railroad company, and Cornelius and his brother William K. resigned their vice-presidencies. A new system of management was then inaugurated, under which the president was still the chief of the executive, but the supreme authority became rested in the chairman of the board of directors. Under the new arrangement Cornelius became chairman of the board of the New York Central and Hudson river railroad company and of the board of the Michigan Central railroad company, and his brother assumed the same position in the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern railway company. During Mr. Vanderbilt's incumbency of these various offices negotiations of magnitude and importance in the railroad world were consummated, notably the acquisition by the New York Central, under lease, of the West Shore railroad, the Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburg railroad, the Mohawk and Malone railroad, and the New York and Putnam railroad. The Vanderbilt system comprises the following roads: New York Central and Hudson river railroad and its leased lines, the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, the Michigan Central and its auxiliary line, the Canada Southern, the Chicago and Northwestern, the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha, and the Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and St. Louis. Over all of these roads the Vanderbilts exercise a strict supervision, and their name stands as a guarantee of careful, conservative, yet energetic management. Numerous and exacting as were his railroad interests, he nevertheless gave much time to religious and charitable work, and was associated as a director or trustee with many public organizations, societies, and institutions, among them being: Young men's Christian association, St. Luke's hospital, American museum of natural history, New York botanical garden, Columbia university. Domestic and foreign missionary society of the Protestant Episcopal church. General theological seminary, and the Metropolitan museum of art. Mr. Vanderbilt was for many years a member of the vestry of St. Bartholomew's church, New York, and was a vice-president of the New York genealogical and biographical society. Of a deeply religious and conscientious nature, he was always ready to fulfil every duty he assumed, and his attendance at a meeting of trustees of any of the above or other institutions was as faithful as his examination of an abstruse railroad statement of finance.


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Although warned by his physicians that his constant and unremitting attention to business was overtaxing his nervous system he refused to follow their advice to give up some of his cares. An additional burden came to him in the summer of 1896 by reason of the fruitlessness of his disapproval of the marriage of his eldest son. The relations between father and son became strained, and early in July the son left the father's house and made his home elsewhere. On the 14th of that month the father was stricken by cerebral hemorrhage and lay for several days at the point of death. Careful medical attendance saved his life then, but when he had recovered he was partially paralyzed, and took no active interest in business thereafter. When he was well enough to travel he went to Switzerland and the south of France, where he remained for nearly a year with his wife and younger children. He returned home greatly improved in health and spirits, but unable to take an active participation in business affairs. He spent the greater part of his time at his palatial residence, “The Breakers,” in Newport, seen in the illustration, making occasional visits to New York city when necessary. It was on one of these visits that the third and final attack came. Among his many public benefactions was the handsome hall given to Yale university, at a cost of $575,000, as a memorial of his eldest son, who was a student there; the fine building on Madison avenue for the use of railroad employees; a contribution of $100,000 for the Protestant Episcopal cathedral; jointly with his mother he erected and fully equipped the St. Bartholomew's parish-house; and to the Metropolitan museum of art he presented a valuable collection of drawings by the old masters, also the celebrated painting of the “Horse Fair,” by Rosa Bonheur. By his will Mr. Vanderbilt distributed nearly two million dollars in public and private bequests, including $400,000 to St. Bartholomew's church, $100,000 to Yale university, $100,000 to the Young men's Christian association, $50,000 to St. Luke's hospital, $50,000 to the domestic and foreign missions of the Protestant Episcopal church, $50,000 to Vanderbilt university, and to the Metropolitan museum of art Turner's magnificent painting of the Grand canal, Venice. —

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His brother, William Kissam, b. on Staten Island, 12 Dec., 1849, succeeded him as head of the Vanderbilt family, a position he had virtually held ever since Cornelius was stricken first by paralysis, in the summer of 1896, at which time William K. assumed direction of all the railroads held by Vanderbilt interests. Like his brother he was set to work by his father while yet in his teens. He had, however greater advantages in formal schooling than his brother, for his father sent the younger son abroad for a course of study at a Swiss academy in Geneva. He returned to the United States at the age of nineteen, and entered the service of the New York Central railroad as a clerk in the office of the treasurer. His grandfather, the “commodore,” and his father gave him plainly to understand that he was to receive no undue consideration, and that his advancement would depend entirely upon his own efforts and the return he made of his talents. He settled down to work, and applied himself with diligence sufficient to warrant his promotion. In the uneventful days of his clerkship he bore himself much as in the later days, when his word was law in his own sphere. Somewhat more reserved and taciturn by nature than his elder brother, Cornelius, he toiled at his desk, self-contained, dignified toward his fellow-clerks, respectful toward his superiors, but ever a steady worker, accurate, attentive, and always punctual. After a period of service in the office of the treasurer he was transferred to the traffic department of the road, where he made a close personal investigation of the methods and details of the department. His course received the approval of his father, who showed his appreciation by making the son a director in several of the Vanderbilt railroads. His first office of prominence came in 1877, when he was made second vice-president of the New York Central and Hudson river railroad company. In this position he looked after especially the bonded interests of the company. When his father retired from active business in 1883, William K. became chairman of the board of directors of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern railway, his brother, Cornelius, becoming chairman of the directors of the New York Central and of the Michigan Central. When the Vanderbilts bought the New York, Chicago and St. Louis railway he became its financial head. He was chosen also a director in each of the lines in the Vanderbilt system. In 1882 he became president of the Nickel Plate road.

About this time he took an interest in stock transactions in Wall street. A man of tireless energy, he must take an active part in whatever occupies his attention. His stock operations, therefore, were planned on a large scale, and he made some daring and brilliant moves. He was cornered at last, however, and was obliged to have recourse to his father for help out of his difficulties. After this experience he gave up operations in Wall street, and confined his financial energies strictly to railroad interests. He carried this same forceful driving into whatever he undertook, and when he built a town-house in New York city he reared a structure characteristic of the builder in its strength and beauty of outline, one of the show-places of the city. His home at Newport, R. I., known as the Marble House, is similar to the other in its striking qualities, and his country-house at Islip, Long Island, gave one more evidence of the pervading influence of the builder. He built a yacht which he named “Alva,” after his wife, and when this vessel was sunk he built another, the “Valiant.” one of the finest pleasure-yachts afloat, in which he made many trips to Europe and to other parts of the world. He has been also a member of most of the syndicates organized to build racing yachts in defence of the “America's” cup. A traveller of no mean experience, when he visited Russia he made his tour in a private train, a thing which until that time had seemed almost a prerogative of royalty in that country. Like his father and grandfather he had a fondness for horses, maintaining an extensive stable, but allowing none of his horses to appear on a public racecourse in this country. He is, however, a liberal patron of the American jockey club. Together with this love for travel, adventure, yachts, and horses goes an earnest and equally discriminating love for art in its various forms and for rare books. Contrasted with his brother in bearing and demeanor, he differs also in his attitude toward the conduct of the business enterprises in which both were engaged. Cornelius was a man for whom no detail was too small nor no question too trivial, while William K. is contented to apply himself to the larger aspects of the question in hand, leaving the details to be carried out by subordinates in the manner that appears best to each individual officer, insisting, however, that the end attained be along the general lines he has laid down. This he can do safely, for one reason, because of the rare discrimination he has exercised in the selection of men to carry out these larger ideas of his own conception.

When Cornelius Vanderbilt was stricken down, in the summer of 1896, by his first attack of paralysis, he recognized that he must retire in great measure from active participation in affairs, and he turned over to his brother as many as possible of the responsibilities that had devolved upon him. When William K. assumed charge of the Vanderbilt interests he began at once, not without frank and careful consultations with his elder brother, a series of consolidations, absorptions, changes, and retrenchments that soon showed remarkable results in railroad affairs. Up to that time the various roads comprised in the Vanderbilt system had been operated to a great extent independently. He concluded that closer relations between these roads would mean greater savings, increased usefulness to the public, and increased dividends to the stockholders. As chairman of the board of directors of the Lake Shore road he was perfectly familiar with its needs and its possibilities. He decided to bring it into the New York Central system, but in order to do that he knew it was necessary to absorb the Michigan Central road. After careful consideration he proposed to his brother a plan for attaining this object: his brother approved, the scheme was successful, and the two roads came under one management. This move necessitated a further step — an absorption of the West Shore road, which had hitherto been leased by the New York Central; this, too, was done successfully. One of the most important and dramatic pieces of news in railroad matters in this decade was the announcement in the New York “Times” newspaper, in the spring of 1899, of the contemplated absorption by the New York Central of the Boston and Albany railway. This striking step was conceived by William K. Vanderbilt, and to him is due the credit of its success. In its far-reaching effects upon the carrying trade from the west to the distributing ports of Boston and New York the consolidation is of prime importance. A steadily increasing Vanderbilt interest in the Chicago and Northwestern and the Union Pacific lines has led many shrewd observers to conclude that this far-sighted man has in mind a great transcontinental line from Boston and New York to San Francisco entirely controlled by Vanderbilt interests. — His daughter, Consuelo, married the duke of Marlborough, and the son, who bears the same name as his father, married a daughter of James Graham Fair, of Nevada.