William H. Vanderbilt: the inspiring story of the heir in a rich, powerful family

A bit of Vanderbilt history

The Vanderbilts were a wealthy family of American entrepreneurs, originating in New York. It started with Cornelius Vanderbilt, of whom we’ve already talked on this blog. Son of a humble farmer, he worked as a child in the port of New York, until he was able to afford a boat at 16. He established a ferry service between New York and Staten Island, but sold everything to get to work as captain of a steamboat, in order to learn everything about  this new technology and to eventually found his own steam business. He became a millionaire by carrying passengers on short trips around New York.

Vanderbilt Mansion_american financial titans_patrick dwyer
Image courtesy of https://flic.kr/p/MSR25 at Flickr.com

In 1847 he created his first long-distance line from New York to San Francisco (via Nicaragua), with which he obtained great benefits thanks to California’s 1849 gold rush. In the 1850s he turned his attention to the railway sector, having achieved a strong compensation from his competitors to withdraw from the shipping business. He bought several railway companies serving in and around New York, merged them and offered the first regular service between New York and Chicago. He built the Central Station in New York. In the last years of his life he helped finance several social projects, such as the University of Nashville (Tennessee), which was later called the Vanderbilt University.

His son, William Henry Vanderbilt, inherited his businesses. After a period of stormy relations between father and son, he was the one who had “discovered” the interest of the new railway business, attracting towards him the founder of the dynasty. He wasn’t the best of students, but he soon began to unfold in the world of finances. When Cornelius died, in 1877,  he demonstrated his entrepreneurial skills to expand the railway network throughout the northeastern United States and doubled in just six years the fortune he had inherited. He redoubled the shy philanthropic efforts of his father, making large donations to universities, hospitals, churches and museums. He actually created one of the best art collections in the United States.

In 1841, William married Maria Louisa Kissam, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, with whom he had eight children: four men and four women.

When he died, he was the richest man in the world. If we consider inflation, his assets would make him the fourth richest man of all time.

A successful career

His father supervised his business training, which began when he was 18 as an employee of a bank in New York, between 1839 and 1842, when his father bought him a 75 acre farm near New Dorp, Staten Island, New York.

After joining the board of the Staten Island Railway, he was elected president of said company in 1862, and from that position he managed to connect it with the New York railroad through a ferry line. In 1865, he became vice president of the Hudson River Railroad, vice president of the Central Railroad of New York and Hudson River Railroad in 1869 and president in June 1877, succeeding his father as president of the railroads of Lake Shore and South Michigan, southern Canada and central Michigan.

But William Vanderbilt was not only an astute businessman, but his philanthropy led him to contribute to the support and splendor of Vanderbilt University, founded by his father, and to make major donations to the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.

William H. Vanderbilt_american financial titans_patrick dwyer
Image courtesy of Boston Public Library at Flickr.com

A philanthropic man

His fortune at the time of his death was estimated at 200 million dollars. In 1880, he canceled all costs assessed at $100,000 for the removal of the obelisk of Egypt (Cleopatra’s Needle) to Central Park. That same year, he donated $100,000 to finance the Theological School at Vanderbilt University, which his father had begun to give.

In 1884, he donated $500,000 to fund a medical school in connection with the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. By will, he bequeathed $200,000 to the Vanderbilt University, $100,000 to Saint Luke’s Hospital in New York, $100,000 to the YMCA of New York, 100,000 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, $50,000 to the American Museum of Natural History and $250,000 to other religious and charitable institutions.

The end of a fruitful life

In 1883, Vanderbilt renounced all the presidencies of his companies and had his sons appointed directors, but left the daily business to experienced men who were appointed presidents.

He died on December 8, 1885, in New York. He was buried in the mausoleum of the Vanderbilt family in the Moravian cemetery in New Dorp (Staten Island). His estate was divided among his eight children and his wife, with the majority of it to his two eldest sons, William Kissam Vanderbilt II (who was famous for founding the Vanderbilt Cup, the first trophy of motorsports in the United States) and Cornelius Vanderbilt II.

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