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Definition: Vanderbilt from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

Cornelius Vanderbilt 1794–1877 Am. industrialist

Summary Article: Vanderbilt, Cornelius
From Encyclopedia of United States - Latin American Relations
  • Keywords
  • Nicaragua
  • U.S. Businessmen
  • Famous and Infamous Individuals

Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794–1877) was a U.S. business tycoon who derived his fortune from railroads and shipping. He was born on May 27, 1794, in Port Richmond, Staten Island, New York to working-class parents. Young Cornelius worked with his father in the ferrying business around the islands that today make up New York City. At age 11, he quit school and, by 16 he was running his own company transporting freight and passengers between Staten Island and Manhattan.

Vanderbilt's big break came in the War of 1812, when he won a government contract to supply the forts around New York City. Between 1814 and 1818, he expanded his fleet to ship freight and passengers in the coastal trade from New England to Charleston, South Carolina. By 1818, “The Commodore,” as he was known, began to focus on steamships. He successfully defeated monopoly on steamships granted to Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston by the state of New York, winning a U.S. Supreme Court case. By the 1840s, he had a hundred steamships and the most employees of any U.S. company.

In 1851 Vanderbilt took advantage of the 1849 California Gold Rush and established the Accessory Transit Company (ATC), which offered a shortcut from the East Coast through Nicaragua to California. The Nicaraguan government gave Vanderbilt exclusive rights to run transport through Nicaragua and to build a canal if he so chose. Even without the canal, his steamboat/railroad saved the traveler six hundred miles half of the cost of the Isthmus of Panama shortcut. The ATC route was also less difficult than crossing North America by land. This venture netted him over one million dollars per year and made him the principal transportation service provider on the East Coast-to-San Francisco route. From 1851 to 1854, his company became embroiled in a dispute over Nicaragua between the United States and Great Britain that became known as the Greytown Incident.

Vanderbilt's ATC interests and his dream of a canal through Nicaragua soon made him a leading opponent of the military adventurer William Walker. In 1855 Walker made himself president of Nicaragua with the help of two of Vanderbilt's trustees, Cornelius K. Garrison and Charles Morgan, and the new president seized the assets of the ATC, handing them over to a new company run by Garrison and Morgan. This move incensed Vanderbilt. He took over a transit route through Panama and undercut the prices of the Nicaraguan route so effectively that he drove the Garrison and Morgan enterprise to bankruptcy. Furthermore, he influenced the neighboring governments (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) not to recognize Walker's government. Walker's entire adventure in Central America had been embarrassing to the U.S. government, so it turned a blind eye when Central American forces, backed by Vanderbilt, ousted Walker in 1857. Despite Vanderbilt's help in bringing them to power, the new Nicaraguan government refused to honor Vanderbilt's exclusive rights to run transport through Nicaragua. Ultimately, he cut a deal with rival steamship companies running the Panamanian route and agreed to close the ATC, first for $40,000 a month and, later, $56,000 a month. Vanderbilt never did build the canal due to political instability and volcanic activity.

Vanderbilt's second wife, Frances Armstrong Crawford, convinced him to donate one million dollars to Nashville's Central University, which was soon renamed Vanderbilt University. Cornelius died in 1877, at the age of 83, estimated to be worth $100 million; his assets were equal to roughly one of every twenty dollars then in circulation.

See also Central America, Filibusters; Greytown Incident, 1854; Nicaragua, U.S. Relations with; San Juan River Canal Project

  • Dando-Collins, Stephen. Tycoon's War: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded a Country to Overthrow America's Most Famous Military Adventurer. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2008.
  • Hoyt, Edwin Palmer. Commodore Vanderbilt. Chicago: Reilly & Lee, 1962.
  • Hull, Gary. The Abolition of Antitrust. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction, 2005.
  • Lane, Wheaton J. Commodore Vanderbilt: An Epic of the Steam Age. New York: Knopf, 1942. Reprint Johnson Reprint Co., New York, 1973.
  • Renehan, Edward. Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. New York: Basic Books, 2007.
  • Stiles, T. J. The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. New York: Knopf, 2009.
Copyright © 2012 by CQ Press, an Imprint of SAGE Publications, Inc.

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