Cornelius Vanderbilt, an American capitalist, born near the present Stapleton, Staten Island, N. Y., May 27, 1794. He was averse to education, and at the age of 16 he bought a boat with which he plied between the island and New York. At 18 he owned two boats and was captain of a third. At 19 he married, removed to New York, and bought boats, sloops, and schooners; and at 23 he was free from debt and worth $9,000. In 1817 he assisted Thomas Gibbons in building the first steamboat ever run between New York and New Brunswick, N. J., and became captain of her at a salary of $1,000 a year. In 1818 he took command of a much larger and better boat on the same line, his wife at the same time keeping the hotel at New Brunswick and making much money. In 1824 Vanderbilt had full control of the Gibbons line, and brought it up to paying $40,000 a year. In 1827, while still superintending the Philadelphia route, he leased for 14 years the ferry between New York and Elizabethport, N. J., put on new boats, and made it very profitable.
In 1829 he left Gibbons, and in the following 19 years till 1848 he built and operated steamboats on the Hudson, on Long Island sound, on the route to Boston, and on the Delaware from Bordentown to Philadelphia. He would put on new and superior boats in opposition to an old line, till he was bought off or drove off his competitors so that he had the monopoly and profits. In 1848-'9 he built the steamship Prometheus, in which in 1850 he sailed for the isthmus of Darien. He had already purchased a controlling interest in the "American Atlantic and Pacific Ship Canal Company," which projected a canal across the isthmus; but for this scheme Vanderbilt substituted a transit route from Greytown at the mouth of the San Juan to San Juan del Sur on the Pacific, which had the advantage over the old transit from Chagres to Panama of saving 700 m. between New York and San Francisco. In 1851 he put three steamers on the Atlantic side and four on the Pacific side, and went into competition with the "United States " and the " Pacific Mail" companies.
In 1852, with three more steamers, he started a branch line from New Orleans to Greytown. In 1853 he went to Europe in his steam yacht North Star, and while he was abroad C. K. Garrison and Charles Morgan, holding a large amount of the transit stock, threw him out of the management. On his return he organized an opposition line to Morgan's between New Orleans and Galveston, and in 1854 established an independent line between New York and Aspinwall, with steamers on the Pacific side to compete with the Pacific mail line. He soon compelled a compromise, and once more held the control of the transit company. In 1856 William Walker, then ruling in Nicaragua, seized the property of the transit company, and Vanderbilt, with the assistance of Oosta Rica, fomented an insurrection which expelled Walker. The bar at the mouth of the San Juan rendered approach to Greytown difficult, which led to the abandonment of the transit business. In April, 1856, Vanderbilt received a large subsidy for withdrawing his California line, the field not affording profit for two companies. His independent transatlantic line, started in 1855, was abandoned in 1861 by the withdrawal of the Vanderbilt, a steamer costing $800,000, which Vanderbilt gave to the government on the outbreak of the civil war.
During his steamship career he owned 21 steamers, 11 of which he built, and with steamboats his entire steam fleet numbered 66; and for many years he had been popularly known as the " Commodore." When he abandoned the water in 1864 his accumulations were estimated at $40,000,000. As early as 1844 he had become largely interested in the New York and New Haven railroad, and in 1845 he began to buy the stock of the Harlem railroad, and in 1864 held the whole of it. In 1859 and subsequently he invested several millions in the mortgage bonds of the Erie road. Soon after coming into possession of the Harlem road he secured a controlling interest in the Hudson River and New York Central railroads, and consolidated the two. Since 1873 the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern has been operated in conjunction with the New York Central and Hudson River roads as one continuous route 978 in. in extent, and with the Harlem and side lines and branches presenting an aggregate of 2,128 m. subject to one management, representing an aggregate capital of $149,000,000, half of which is said to belong to Vanderbilt and his family.
He has given a liberal sum of money for education in the south. (See Vanderbilt University).