William H. Vanderbilt
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
The Vanderbilt family have been a sturdy race for five generations. The stock is Dutch, and for more than a century the family has flourished with extraordinary vigor on Staten Island. A laborious, out-door life, familiar acquaintance with hardship in various forms developed not only thrift and industry, but also laid the foundation for rugged bodies, simple habits, strong wills and clear perceptions. No doubt the gruff Commodore and his son William H. owe the major part of their greatness to the frugal habits of their ancestors developed in the "turnip fields" of Staten Island.
William H. Vanderbilt was born in the inn at New Brunswick, May 8th, 1821, where he lived with his parents for nine years. The family then removed to New York and young Vanderbilt secured there such education as Columbia Grammar School afforded. The crotchety Commodore placed little value upon book learning and the education of his son was soon finished. His first employment, upon leaving school, was work in a ship chandlery. At the age of eighteen he entered the banking office of Drew, Robinson & Co., where he mastered the art of keeping accounts, and laid a good foundation for his future business career. When twenty years of age he was receiving a salary of one thousand dollars a year, which justified him in marrying the girl of his choice. The young lady was. a Miss Kissam, the daughter of a clergyman of the Dutch Reformed Church. This union was a fortunate one and the young couple passed a long and happy life together. We are told that Mrs. Vanderbilt never outgrew the simplicity and frugality of her younger days, and that the great palace on Fifth Avenue was never so much a home to her as the farm house on Staten Island or the modest residence of their early life in New York.
The confinement in the office at Drew, Robinson & Co. proved fatal to William's health and he was obliged to resign his place just as he was about to be made junior partner in the concern. It was now that one of the crotchets of the Commodore was carried out and the young railroad king was sent to recover his health and hew out his fortune on a seventy-five acre farm on Staten Island. It is a part of the Vanderbilt nature not to be discouraged by untoward circumstances; and the dutiful son seems to have gone from his desk in New York to his post in the ''turnip field" without discouragement or repining. But surely the change from a banking office with a good salary to the income of seventy-five acres of unimproved land was a great transition and one calculated to break the spirits of an ordinary man. But thither went the young banker with broken health and a courageous and loving wife. The first years were not successful and the little farm was soon mortgaged for six thou-sand dollars to carry out projected improvements. The mortgage was afterwards lifted by the irate Commodore and the young farmer was given a blessing in the old gentleman's best and choicest phrase. But soon William began to demonstrate his ability to run a farm. The improvements began to tell; the young farmer's industry had its full reward. Year after year the boundaries of the little farm were widened until they included 350 acres, and the young Vanderbilt counted his gains high among the thousands.
The turning point in the young man's career had now arrived. The Commodore was just beginning to change his capital in Steamboat Lines into Railroad Enterprises. With this in view the Staten Island Railway had been chartered. It was not a large in-vestment. The road extended from Stapleton to Tottenville, a distance of only thirteen miles. The road was completed in 1858 and was bankrupt in 1860. William H. was now the most important man on the Island and was unanimously chosen Receiver of the defunct railroad. It was not a large field in which to exercise great abilities; but it served to educate him in railway management and raised him to the highest place among railway kings. He speedily mastered the details of the business, cut down the expenses of the road, stimulated travel through cheap excursions, systematized the business of the road and soon had it paying a dividend. In two years it was out of bankruptcy and the young farmer stepped into the presidency of the corporation. His success was now won. He had demonstrated to the world, and especially to the doubting father, that he had business in him even in the exalted idea of that term held by the self-made Commodore.
The presidency of the Staten Island Road was laid aside to enable William to attend the sick bed of his brother on the shores of the Mediterranean. In 1864 he returned to New York, and became vice-president of the Harlem Road. The Commodore was now in the midst of his greatest railroad speculations. He took his son into his confidence, and made him a sharer of his plans and their emoluments. In 1864 the elder Vanderbilt had bought control of the Hudson River line. William was made its vice-president in 1865. In 1867 the control of the New York Central was also assumed by the grasping Commodore. The next year he accomplished the feat of watering the stock to 8o per cent., and carried off a clean six millions as his share of the spoils. In 1869 the Central and Hudson River Roads were united, with William H. as vice-president of the new company. Stock was again watered, and millions more fell into the coffers of these two mighty men. Combination and stock-watering were only two elements in their policy. Every road was run on business principles, and made to pay a dividend. All leakage of capital was stopped ; ornaments were torn from cars and locomotives; extravagance was checked; idlers were dis-charged ; nothing was wasted ; tracks were extended, improved and doubled ; depots built, and the business of the road increased by improving facilities and destroying competition. It was here that the great abilities of William H. Vanderbilt were exercised. The talent which brought the expenses of the farm within the limits of a reasonable income, enabled this wise manager to bring order out of chaos in the business of a railroad line, and make it pay a handsome dividend to the stockholders. In the pursuit of this policy the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, the Michigan, and Canada Southern with their accessories were added to the Vanderbilt system, until a magnificent corporation had grown out of so small a beginning, and the fortune of this family was counted by the hundred millions.
In 1877 the Commodore died, and Upon the shoulders of the son fell the burdens of these mighty enterprises. They were now in their fullest develop-ment and for two years longer the great magnate stood at the head of the greatest railroad corporation on earth. But in 1870 to protect their great system from some of their great rivals, it was thought necessary to change the complexion of the corporation by the sale of stock. 250,000 shares of New York Central stock were put up for sale and disposed of at 1.20. In 1883 Mr. Vanderbilt surrended the presidency of the road with which he had been identified for so many years. He retired from active duty and became only a counsellor to his sons who have since managed the business of the family estate.
On December eighth, 1885, he suddenly fell dead without warning and without pain. Overworked by the tremendous cares of his life, the brain broke down and his life was ended in a moment. For a man so wealthy Mr. Vanderbilt lived a simple, unpretentious life. It was only after he had mounted high among the millions that he left his modest home and built his palatial residence where he ended his life. His vast fortune made possible the great railway lines, with which our land is girded. This wealth was in the main wisely and beneficently used. It is not a sin to possess a great fortune. In so far as it is connected with the name of the subject of this sketch, it was honorably accumulated and used with discretion and judgment.
He gave much to numerous benfactions. He might have given vastly more, and there are instances in which the money of this millionaire was wasted in foolish and senseless expenditure, but in reviewing carefully the life of this distinguished man, we can find little to criticise, much to admire and many useful lessons. The marvellous successes of his life were won by industry, thrift and wise management. These qualities must win our respect wherever found.