Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,496

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,496

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You can’t really tell here, but from this angle you can kind of see (or I could when I took the picture, it’s the white distant thing between the trees) the tomb of Cornelius Vanderbilt, which is in a private part of this cemetery because of course it is. Thanks to GPS though, I am almost sure that this is the tomb.

Born in Staten Island in 1794, Vanderbilt came from old Dutch stock from the first days of the Dutch settling New Amsterdam. The family wasn’t really rich though in the late 18th century. Vanderbilt’s father ran a ferry in New York harbor. Vanderbilt left school in 1805 to help his dad. But the kid had ambitions. He wanted to run his own business. His family helped him buy a boat and he started his service connecting Staten to Manhattan. He took his job very seriously, to the point that the other ferry captains thought he was hilarious. They started calling him “The Commodore.” And of course this is what Vanderbilt is still known as today for many people.

Well, Vanderbilt was slightly successful in these early years. He was a respected person in his community. He married his first cousin and they had 13 children. He started adding operations, often working with his family. He got a deal with Thomas Gibbons to run a steamship line between New York and New Jersey. This is actually a critical moment in American history, not just Vanderbilt’s. That’s because Gibbons was running this in opposition to a monopoly for the route given to Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton years earlier. Those guys were dead, but Livingston’s heirs held it and they licensed it to a guy named Aaron Ogden. So all you lawyers already know where this is headed–Gibbons v. Ogden, the landmark legal case that decided the Commerce Cause included navigation and more importantly opened the nation to economic growth with the restraint of the trade through monopolies.

Vanderbilt was Gibbons’ right hand man by the early 1820s. In fact, it was Vanderbilt who went to DC to get Daniel Webster to represent Gibbons. Vanderbilt moved to New Jersey to help Gibbons and then also started a very profitable inn for travelers. Gibbons died in 1826 and in 1829, Vanderbilt went out on his own. As the 1830s went on, Vanderbilt kept building and growing his empire. He became the dominant figure in the steamboat world in the New York area and then quickly moved into railroads. He would force out competitors by the old process of cutting prices to drive them into bankruptcy and then control the line. He kept growing and growing his enterprises. Real estate was next and he bought heavily in New York.

Then the California gold rush happened. Vanderbilt immediately saw the opportunities and so he went all-in on steamships. He went into Nicaragua in a major way. He wanted a canal across it, still proposed today. That didn’t happen but he did build an empire in that nation to move goods and people from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He had to move that to Panama after the William Walker fiasco made American involvement in Nicaragua no longer politically possible. Then it was trans-Atlantic steamships to control the trade to Europe. In the railroad boom after the Civil War, Vanderbilt used all his resources to control a lot of lines, especially in New York. Grand Central Station was initially built as the terminal for Vanderbilt’s rail lines.

So even before the Civil War, Vanderbilt, along with John Jacob Astor, became the symbol of new and frankly unforeseen wealth in American life. People were confused about how one could make this much money. The corruption that would come to dominate American life after the Civil War in the Gilded Age was already in motion. The Civil War very much propelled it forward by the sheer need of the government to rely on private people to make the war happen since the central government was so weak. But all the ingredients were already there, ready to be stirred together by the railroads.

He and Jay Gould hated each other during these years but then all these railroad guys thought they were morally pure and all the other railroad guys were pure evil, even thought they were all bribing the same legislators and stealing the same money. The stories behind this are a good window into the complete scumbaggery of post-Civil War capitalism. Basically, Vanderbilt wanted to screw over a guy named Daniel Drew, who was a top executive of the Erie Railway. So he tried to corner the market on the railroad. But Gould and Jim Fisk were on the board of directors. So Drew, Fisk, and Gould decided to issue fake stock to water down the price and force Vanderbilt to buy worthless paper. It worked. Vanderbilt spent $7 million buying complete bullshit. Vanderbilt sued Gould and was able to get most of money back but then he accepted his defeat. Fisk and Gould then worked with Boss Tweed to kick out Drew. It’s just all the worst people coming together to screw each other over in the worst way possible. And if other people got hurt? Who cares, they were mere peons in this world of new capitalism. And for however much as Gould and Vanderbilt loathed each other, they both engaged in the same actions, such as giving huge rebates to John D. Rockefeller’s empire that drove his competitors out of business and then they would make up the lost money by charging said peons ever more.

Vanderbilt also spent some of his money putting up the bail to get Jefferson Davis out of prison for his crimes. He and Horace Greeley led the effort to raise this money. This was the first moment in the northern reconciliation with the South based on allowing the South to do whatever it wanted on race and also believing the South was also correct about race and so we should treat Black people in the North the same way as they do. Just without slavery. So gross. Once they did this, Davis was just freed for good.

Vanderbilt died in 1877, at the age of 82. He was worth $105 million at the time, which is something like $3 billion in 2023 money. He left almost all of his fortune to his son Billy and that son’s kids. The rest of the family got a pittance. There were lawsuits, but it mostly stayed in Billy’s hand. He and his kids would become the premier example of extreme wealth and inequality in America, building monstrously tasteless homes in Hyde Park, in Newport, on the family’s gargantuan estate outside of Asheville. Today, people visit these homes and I’ve been to all three. They are all interesting, but more for their utter tastelessness than anything else, though mostly people just awe at how rich they were and it makes them watch to watch bad shows like The Gilded Age.

Cornelius Vanderbilt and many other Vanderbilts are buried in The Vanderbilt Mausoleum in Staten Island. Among them are the record producer John Henry Hammond II and Gloria Vanderbilt. Maybe this is where Anderson Cooper will end up too. Maybe Timothy Olyphant too, who is another descendant. America truly is a meritocracy. Sometime, I hope to get back there and hopefully the gate up there will be open. In the mean time, here’s a real picture of it.

And if the first picture isn’t actually the same as this one, well, I tried. The grave series can do a lot, but it cannot work miracles!

If you would like this series to visit other Gilded Age railroad scumbags, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Daniel Drew is in Brewster, New York and Horatio Brooks is in Fredonia, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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