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Summary Article: Vanderbilt, Cornelius
from The Industrial Revolution: Key Themes and Documents

A key factor in ensuring that the Industrial Revolution could take off and be sustained in its course was the development of a transportation infrastructure capable of moving people and products efficiently. Those individuals prescient enough to see the opportunities in transportation positioned themselves to become multimillionaires, and none was more influential in that regard than Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was born on Staten Island, New York City, on May 27, 1794, and quit school at the age of eleven to go to work. Blessed with an enterprising mind and a gift for seeing opportunities, Vanderbilt started his own business at the age of sixteen, purchasing a small boat and ferrying people and goods from Staten Island to Manhattan. When the War of 1812 erupted, he secured a contract from the U.S. government to supply provisions to the forts in New York harbor. Vanderbilt then built a schooner to run passengers and supplies back and forth across Long Island Sound. From 1818 to 1829, Vanderbilt captained a supply ship plying the coast between New York, Boston, and New Brunswick.

Vanderbilt made his fortune, however, with steamboat operations along the Hudson River, ferrying freight and passengers between New York City and New Jersey and between New York City and Albany, New York. By 1834, he had accumulated more than $500,000, which he invested in transportation enterprises. When gold was discovered in California in 1848 and the rush of settlers and miners began, Vanderbilt negotiated and received a charter from the government of Nicaragua to operate a service taking passengers from the Caribbean side of the country to the Pacific side. Vanderbilt established the Accessory Transit Company to run the service, and using boats and wagons, he could deliver passengers from coast to coast in two days less than the isthmus route across Panama. In 1855, Vanderbilt sold the Accessory Transit Company and invested in shipping lines crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

After the Civil War, Vanderbilt branched out into railroads, which vastly increased his personal wealth. He first secured control of the New York & Harlem Railroad, added the Hudson River Railroad, and acquired control of the New York Central Railroad, which became one of the most important roads in the country. When Vanderbilt died in New York City on January 4, 1877, he was worth more than $100 million and was considered the wealthiest man in America.

Copyright 2014 by James S. Olson with Shannon L. Kenny

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