Richard Mather Bayles.

History of Richmond County (Staten Island), New York from its discovery to the present time online

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to Stapleton, Staten Island, where he built the commodious and
stately residence at present in the possession of Mr. George H.

From the time of his leaving New Brunswick. Mr. Vander-
bilt made money rapidly, and the schemes which he put into
operation for the increase of his fortune followed each other in
quick succession. In the spring of 1830 he commenced running
a line of boats, which had been built for him and which con-
tained many improvements of his own invention, on the Hud-
son river. At first he was opposed in this by the Stevenses,
Daniel Drew and Dean Richmond, all of whom, however,
rapidly disappeared before his unconquerable management and
indomitable industry. For five years after leaving Gibbons he
made thirty thousand dollars a year, which he doubled after
the expiration of that period. At the age of forty he had more
than a score of vessels running in all directions, and the num-
ber was so rapidly increasing that he began to be called the
Commodore, a name which ever afterward clung to him. Be-
tween 1840 and 1850 his receipts were enormous, and he realized
that people were looking upon his extensive operations and
growing wealth with that curiosity which phenomenal success
always attracts.

In 1849 he commenced his famous battle with the Pacific Mail
Steamship Company by transporting passengers across Lake
Nicaragua, located among the tops of the Andes. To accom-
plish this he was obliged to get a small side-wheel steamer ("The
Director") up the San Juan river, full of cascades and rapids,
which he succeeded in jumping by tying down the safety valve,


to the great consternation of the accompanying engineers. He
made more than one million dollars a year in Nicaragua, besides
the income from his other enterprises at the same time. In
1853 he sold out the route to the Transit Line and started on his
voyage in the "North Star," then the largest steam yacht
ever constructed. Accompanying him were his wife and eleven
children. Everywhere through Europe Mr. Vanderbilt was re-
ceived with marked respect by the various sovereigns and peo-
ples, who looked upon his self-made wealth with surprise and
wonder. This trip gave a great impetus to emigration, and was
influential in bringing to this country many who recognized in
him the legitimate product of free institutions.

On his return to America Commodore Vanderbilt became en-
gaged in an altercation with the Nicaragua Transit Company,
which, in his absence, had grown rich by systematically de-
frauding him. The course which lie took on that occasion was
characteristic. After first warning them of his intentions, he
put on an opposition line, and in one year the Transit Company
was bankrupt. Nine years longer he continued in the California
business, accumulating not less than ten million dollars; but
the filibuster Walker put an end to further operations by seiz-
ing the Vanderbilt franchise and nearly capturing his steamers.

Mr. Vanderbilt' s next venture was in the direction of the
transatlantic traffic. At that time this was divided between the
Cunard Line of English steamers and the Collins Weekly Line
(American). These furnished only half the service required.
The commodore offered to form a partnership with Collins, but
the latter declined, fearing that if Mr. Vanderbilt once got his
hand on the European trade he would monopolize it and in all
probability crowd him out. For some time the commodore
waged war with his voluntary antagonist over the United States
mails, which had heretofore been carried at an enormous rate;
and finally, when Mr. Collins' power at Washington was too
great to be overthrown, he offered to carry the mails for noth-
ing. President Pierce vetoed the Collins subsidy and Mr.
Vanderbilt placed the three steamers, "Vanderbilt," "Ariel''
and "Harvest Queen," on the route. With these he beat the
Collins steamer^ nine times out of ten. He soon made his line
the favorite of travelers, and before long succeeded in so mo-
nopolizing the trade that the Collins line disappeared from the
ocean. For years he continued the transatlantic traffic, and


gave it up only when lie found that the rapidly growing railroad
interests of the country furnished him with a better invest-
ment for his money. At the time he commenced to put money
in railroad stock he had built fifty-one steamboats and steam-
ships, besides schooners and other vessels,and he was the largest
employer in the country. He owned nearly a hundred vessels,
and his powerful hand was felt in every commercial circle in
the world.

r dae war of the rebellion, in its effect upon a man of Mr.
Vanderbilt's wealth and temperament, was of the greatest im-
portance. From its outbreak he favored offensive measures,
and, together with Thurlow Weed, interested himself in the
sending of troops to the front. Mr. Lincoln, noticing the ardor
with which he espoused the federal cause, sent for him, after
the sinking of the " Cumberland " by the "Merrimac," and
offered him money to stop the progress of the rebel ram. Re-
fusing compensation, he returned to New York, received a
quota of government seamen aboard his favorite ship "Van-
derbilt," and soon afterward was steaming up the James in quest
of the confederate ram. The "Merrimac" did not reappear,
however, and the commodore wrote to Mr. Lincoln offering him
the loan of his ship till the close of the war. Congress ordered
a medal struck in his honor and presented to the donor, and
the " Vanderbilt," then probably the handsomest and best
equipped steamer afloat, and representing a value of eight hun-
dred thousand dollars, passed into the possession of the United
States government.

In the winter of 1862-63, Mr. Vanderbilt made his first invest-
ments in railroad stock, a move which at the time was consid-
ered by his friends to be impolitic. He was then in his 69th
year, and it was thought that the intricate methods of Wall
street would be too much for his declining days. But the fact
that in the next fourteen years he succeeded in withdrawing
his immense fortune entirely from its maritime investment,
doubling it four times over, and obtaining for it the most solid
of all security then known to the American financier, shows the
mental power which he possessed and the clearness of his judg-
ment. His first investment was in Harlem, then selling at from
seven to nine. Under the impetus of his name it soon rose to
thirty, and shortly afterward to par, on his obtaining from the
common council of New York city a franchise for a street rail-


road to the Battery. The phenomenal rise thus given the stock
excited the bears, who, after selling immense quantities of Har-
lem short, attempted to injure the commodore by influencing
the withdrawal of the street franchise. They succeeded, by
forming a combination with the aldermen, in having the charter
repealed; but found to their sorrow that he had outdone them
by purchasing all the stock and holding it in his possession.
Some of it sold as high as two hundred and eighty-five, and
from the millions which he realized in this cornering of Harlem
Mr. Vanderbilt began investing in Hudson Eiver stock, then (in
the fall of 1863) selling at twenty-five. His idea was, if pos-
sible, to control the road and secure its consolidation with the
Harlem. For this purpose he went to Albany and secured the
promises of a majority of the legislators that they would give
their votes in favor of the measure. Again, as in the instance
of the common council, he found that duplicity was being prac-
ticed upon him. The honorable members of assembly and their
friends were selling Hudson River short, preparatory to break-
ing their pledges and defeating the bill. This caused Mr. Van-
derbilt to form a combination with John Tobin, afterward pres-
ident of the road, and Leonard Jerome. They secured, as in
the Harlem corner, nearly all the stock of the road. The legis-
lators went on selling till they had disposed of twenty-seven
thousand more shares of stock than existed, and when the time
came to cover their shorts there was a panic in Wall street.
Hundreds were ruined outright, and Mr. Vanderbilt' s reputa-
tion as a railroad manipulator was firmly maintained.

The acquisition of the Hudson River Railroad by the com-
modore gave him great power over the transit of the state, which
was, however, hampered to a certain extent by the arbitrary
conduct of the New York Central, under the control of Dean
Richmond and Peter Cagger. These gentlemen adopted a
course with Mr. Vanderbilt which was from the first calculated
to excite his displeasure. They refused to unite with him in
any measure for the better accommodation of either passengers
or freight, and caused him to retaliate by a bold movement,
which finally gained him possession of the New York Central
road. Richmond and Cagger had been in the habit of using
Drew's river boats as an outlet for their freight in New York
city during the summer months, but in the winter they were
obliged to send it over the Hudson River road. Mr. Vander-


bilt took advantage of this fact, and refused to run any trains
to Albany during the winter, thus reducing the stock of the
Central more than fifteen per cent., after which he bought large
amounts of it, and gained the management. Three years later,
November 1, 1869, he secured its consolidation with the Hudson
River road under the name of the New York Central and Hud-
son River Railroad Company. Even now Mr. Vanderbilt found
that his path was not entirely clear. New difficulties presented
themselves in the senseless and ruinous rate cutting of the Erie
road, against which all his remonstrances were in vain. After
trying in various ways to outwit Daniel Drew and his friends,
then in control of that company, he decided that his only plan
would l)e to purchase the road. He accordingly commenced a
rapid absorption of Erie stock, while Drew, Fisk and Gould
sold short. For a while the issue of the battle between these
giants of finance seemed doubtful, but the odds were in favor
of the commodore. No one suspected the trick which Drew
and his companions were about to put in practice; nothing less,
indeed, than the issue of bogus stock. One hundred thousand
shares of this were suddenly thrown on the market, and Mr.
Vanderbilt unknowingly bought the whole issue. Immediately
on discovering the fraud, he put the machinery of the law in
motion. Drew, Fisk and Gould fled to New Jersey, carrying
nearly seven million dollars of greenbacks with them. But
they were finally pressed to such an extent by Mr. Vanderbilf s
lawyers that they agreed to a restitution of several millions.
The commodore, however, never fully recovered his loss in this
transaction. After the matter had subsided, he made no
further effort to obtain control of the Erie road, and for some
years devoted his energy to the improvement of the properties
already in his possession. He caused the tracks of the Harlem
and New York Central and Hudson River Roads to be relaid
and reballasted, new rolling stock was added to their outfit, the
St. John's Park property was purchased and the freight depot
erected. A charter was also obtained for an immense union de-
pot at Forty-second street, and the building was constructed,
together with the splendid system of viaduct tracks forming
the entrance to the city of the northern, western and eastern
railroads. This was accomplished at a cost of six million five
hundred thousand dollars, half of which was borne by the city
of New York. On November 10, 1869, the famous Albert de


Groot bas-relief, emblematical of Commodore Vanderbilt' s
career, was unveiled in tlie presence of more than ten thousand
people. The design was most happy, and plain! y tells the story
of his rise from farmer's boy to railroad king. It occupies a
position over the east front of the depot at St. John's Park,
and it is said to have cost in the neighborhood of two hundred
and fifty thousand dollars. The vast improvement which Mr.
Vanderbilt made in his roads by the constant exercise of his
managerial skill, together with their ever-increasing traffic, add-
ed greatly to their value, and he at last applied to the legis-
lature for permission to increase their capital stock from thirty-
five million dollars to ninety million dollars. This was granted,
and he derived as his personal share of profit from the transac-
tion twenty-six million dollars.

In November. 1873, Mr. Vanderbilt "found himself obliged by
the death of his son-in-law, Horace F. Clark, who had formerly,
through his position of president of the Lake Shore & Mich-
igan Southern, controlled for the Xew York Central road an
outlet in Chicago, to purchase the former road. The advantage
secured by rival railroad managers through the combination of
the Grand Trunk and Great Western railroads also obliged him
later on to secure the Canada Southern and the Michigan Central,
which, when added to his former acquisitions, composed the
finest and best equipped railroad property in the world.

The commodore met with the loss of his wife August 17,
1868. Her death took place at the residence of her son in-law,
Horace F. Clark, where she was visiting. It was a great blow
to her husband and family. Mrs. Vanderbilt was one of the
noblest of women, affectionate, thoughtful and self-denying.
She had borne thirteen children, twelve of whom reached ma-
turity. Her burial took place at Xew Dorp in the presence of a
crowd of affectionate friends. Among the pall bearers were A.
T. Stewart and Horace Greelj 7 .

A year later, in 1S69, Mr. Vanderbilt married, at the little
town of London in Canada, another of his cousins, Miss Frank
A. Crawford. Augustus Schell and James Tillinghast were the
sole witnesses of this ceremony. The second Mrs. Vanderbilt
exercised a softening and refining influence over her husband
and made him a loving and attentive companion in his old age.
It was largely due to her influence that he established the "Van-
derbilt University," of Tennessee, at a cost to himself of 81, 000,-


000, and also that lie purchased for the friend of his latter days,
Rev. Dr. Deems, "The Church of the Strangers," costing $50,000.

On January 4, 1877, the great railroad king, then at the age
of eighty-three, died. His funeral excited an intensity of inter
est equal to that shown toward no other man, purely of a private
character, who had preceded him. A large number of friends
followed his body to its last resting place at New Dorp, and the
items of his will were telegraphed to all parts of the world, where
they were eagerly sought by thousands whose interests they
might incidentally affect.

Thus passed from the stage of usefulness perhaps the ablest
man of affairs the world has ever seen. He left, behind him a
large family, of whom William Henry Vanderbilt was the eldest
son. On examination of the will it was found that the commo-
dore had left the bulk of his fortune, amounting to nearly $90,-
000,000, in his hands. How well he managed the trust imposed
on him by his father will be seen in the following sketch of his

William Henry Vanderbilt was born at New Brunswick, N.
J., May 8, 1821. For four years he attended the public school
in that place; but shortly after his father's removal to New
York city, in 1829, he became a student of Columbia Grammar

At sixteen he began his business career as a ship chandler,
and two years later he entered the office of Drew, Robinson &
Co., bankers on Wall street, the senior partner of which was
Daniel Drew. The young man had been for some time consid-
ering the adverse opinion which his father seemed to have
formed of him. He saw that it was an obstacle to his progress,
and resolved if possible to remove it. With this end in view,
he devoted himself unreservedly to his work, and as a result,
his advancement at the bank was a rapid one. On entering it
his salary was placed at $150 per annum. The second year it
was $300, and the third it was $1,000. At the age of
twenty he married Miss Maria Louisa Kissam, daughter
of a Brooklyn clergyman of the Dutch Reformed church, and
with her he went to board in East Broadway. His father was
then worth in the neighborhood of $1,000,000, but he had made
up his mind that his son was reckless and that helping him
would but be wasting money; so he allowed him to live on as he
had started, without his aid. At last the young man's health


gave way, and his physicians notified his father that he mast
be taken from the bank or the result might prove fatal.

The commodore looked about for some means of employing
his son, which would at the same time enable him to recover his
health. Finally he decided on purchasing for him a farm at
New Dorp, S. I., between the old Moravian church and the sea,
and to it William and his wife removed (in 1842) with the deter-
mination that they would make the best of the situation. The
house to which they went was a plain two-story structure facing
the sea, with a lean-to for a kitchen. It probably did not contain
more than live rooms. The farm also was very small, and was
a part of the neglected barrens of Staten Island. It needed to
be carefully tilled and abundantly fertilized to make it fruitful.

From the first Mr. Vanderbilt made a success of farming. As
at the bank, he gave his undivided attention to the task before
him, and got as much as was possible out of his narrow acres.
His rule was hard work during the day, and rest at night. Essen-
tially a domestic man, he lived, while at New Dorp, and, in fact,
during his whole life, always with and for his family. When
he left Staten Island, on his father's accession to the control of
Harlem, he had by his own efforts enlarged his farm to three
hundred and fifty acres, re-built his house, now one of the
finest farm-houses of Richmond county, and his produce was
yielding him $1,000 a month or 812,000 a year.

The construction of the Staten Island railroad shortly before
the war was a scheme in which Mr. Vanderbilt had deeply inter-
ested himself. This thoroughfare proved of great convenience,
especially to the farmers and residents in the southern portion
of the island, but owing to bad management it was soon over-
laden with debt, and it became necessary to place it in the
hands of a receiver. Through his father's influence, who was
then a principal stockholder, he was appointed to the place.
He had no experience as a manager, but he began by applying
rules of common sense to the task before him ; and at last suc-
ceeded, by reducing expenses, stopping leaks, discovering new
sources of patronage, and connecting the road with New York
city by an independent line of ferries, in placing the company
on such a footing that its stock, from being valueless, rose to
$175 a share. All this was accomplished in two years, and as a
result Mr. Vanderbilt was made president of the road.

From this time forward, the commodore looked upon his son


with more favor. He soon afterward sent him to Europe to look
after a brother, Captain George Vanderbilt, whose health had
been wrecked in the war of the rebellion, and who had been
spending a year in the Riviera. This young man, his father's
favorite, died at Paris, not long after his brother's arrival, and
subsequently William occupied his place in the paternal affec-
tions. When his father assumed control of the Harlem Rail-
road he was made vice-president, and the management of the
commodore's schemes for the improvement of the property were
all intrusted to his care. He soon after became vice-president of
the Hudson River Railroad, and on the consolidation of the lat-
ter with the New York Central he was elected vice-president of
the combined system. He put into operation the same methods
in the reconstruction of these roads which had been used by him
with such success in that of the Staten Island road. Expenses
were reduced to a minimum ; old ties and old cars were burnt
and replaced with ne\v material ; ornaments were removed from
locomotives, superfluous and incompetent employees and officers
were either dispensed with entirely or replaced by men whose
ability was undoubted, and who, together with the intelligence
which directed their movements, made the Vanderbilt system
of railroads what it is to-day the finest and most thoroughly
equipped in the world. Its value was so greatly enhanced by
Mr. Vanderbilt' s management that, although the amount of stock
was nearly doubled, its selling price was increased from 75 to
$200 a share.

In superintending his father's roads, Mr. Vanderbilt was me-
thodical and industrious, and in familiarizing himself with
routine work he gave attention to the minutest details. He
carefully investigated every department of the vast machinery
under his charge, and probably no railroad manager in the
country ever became more conversant with the necessities of his
roads than did he. Together with his father, he controlled the
great trunk line to Chicago with an ability never before mani-
fested, and his addition to the New York Central railroad of
two extra tracks for freight, made that road the greatest com-
mercial highway in the country.

At the age of fifty-live, on his father's death, Mr. Van-
derbilt became the possessor of the greater part of his estate (
amounting to nearly $90,000,000. The interests which the com-
modore held seemed to render this disposition of his fortune


necessary, and the wisdom of his will lias been many times re-
cognized by the American public since his death. The passage
of this immense amount from father to son was unaccompanied
by any downward tendency of values, and was managed by Mr.
Vanderbilt with such ability that it created no ]ar or friction in
financial circles. He at once became president of all the roads
of which he had before been vice-president; but his relation to
affairs remained substantially the same.

The first year after his father's death was signalized by vig-
orous rate cutting among the trunk lines in west bound freight.
Mr. Vanderbilt from the first looked for a peaceful solution of
the difficulty, and his suggestion in favor of a compromise was
finally adopted. But trouble in this direction was hardly over
when the railroad strikes and riots began. The cutting of rates
had been the cause of reduced wages, and ten per cent, had been
taken from the employees of the Vanderbilt roads. At the
time Mr. Vanderbilt was at Saratoga, from which place, appre-
hending an outbreak, he sent out a proclamation to the effect
that the N"ew York Central would give to those in its employ,
the departmental and clerical forces excepted, $100,000, to be
divided ratably. He also promised a restoration of old rates as
soon as the business of the road warranted the action. This
quieted the apprehensions of his employees, and subsequently
no difficulty of the kind has been known on any road under his

In the life of a man of Mr. Vanderbilt' s prominence, im-
portant events follow each other rapidly. No sooner had the
last mentioned trouble been obviated than an attempt was made
by one or two of the commodore's heirs to break his will. The
interests which he had at stake compelled Mr. Vanderbilt to
defend himself to the extent of convincing aspiring contestants
that liis position was entirely tenable. When he had gained
this point, however, he brought the suit to a peaceable termina-
tion by compromise. To his epileptic brother, Cornelius .1., he
gave $1,000,000, and to each of his sisters 500,000, in addition
to the amounts already given them by the will of their father.
After the commodore's death, Mr. Vanderbilt completed the
purchase of the Canada Southern Railroad. This, together with
other acquisitions which he made, added considerably to his
already immense income; and he soon began at Fifth avenue
and Fifty-first street the construction of the elegant residence


in which he died, and descriptions of which have been plenti-
fully circulated in the newspapers ever since its completion.
Work was begun on the building in 1879, and was pushed with
such energy that the structure was completed in two years.
Six hundred workmen were employed upon it and sixty sculp-
tors, brought especially from Europe, were kept busy during

Online LibraryRichard Mather BaylesHistory of Richmond County (Staten Island), New York from its discovery to the present time → online text (page 58 of 72)