1885 One Hundred Years Ago


On the afternoon of December 8, the world’s wealthiest man collapsed on the floor of the study in his Fifth Avenue mansion and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. William H. Vanderbilt, financier and “Colossus of Roads,” had ruled a web of rail that spun from New York to Buffalo and from there to points west, southwest, and beyond. He was a hard man, “public be damned” arrogance, unsavory business dealings, and all. But he had learned in a hard school.

As the eldest son of Cornelius, the Commodore, the self-made multimillionaire, William was expected to enter and eventually take over the family business. As a youth, however, his sickliness and only average abilities so enraged his father that when he was twenty-one, the Commodore banished him with his wife to a small Staten Island farm. When William mortgaged the land to enlarge his holdings, his father reportedly said: “You don’t amount to a row of pins … I have made up my mind to have nothing more to do with you.” William struggled on, adding 280 acres to the original 70 and steadily increasing his profits.

Slowly the Commodore began to take notice of his eldest son. Needing manure to fertilize his farm’s sandy soil, William once asked his father to sell him some, at four dollars a load, from the stables of one of his horsecar lines. Without defining the term load , the Commodore agreed, knowing that price to be above the market value. The next day he saw William at the dock setting out for Staten Island with a scow loaded with dung.

“How many loads have you got on that scow, Billy?” asked the Commodore, delighted to have bested his son.

“How many?” responded William. “One, of course … I never put but one load on a scow.”

A workman nearby who observed the scene later said, “The Commodore wa’n’t no gret hand to stan’ around, and I never see him stan’ so long before as he stood that afternoon on the dock, looking at the scow goin’ across the harbor.”

Shortly after the bankruptcy of the Staten Island Railroad in 1857, William was appointed its receiver, and within two years he had returned it to financial health. It was this victory that finally prompted the Commodore to recognize his son’s business acumen. Plucking William from his farm, the senior Vanderbilt made him vice-president of the New York & Harlem Railroad and installed him in a Manhattan mansion. Two-thirds of William’s life had passed by: he was fortythree and reputed to be a bitter man.

Over the next decade the Commodore’s trust in his son grew until, upon his death, he left William the bulk of his fortune. When William himself died that December afternoon, he had outlived his father by only eight years, but within that time had doubled his nearly $100 million inheritance. The long-suffering son honored his father to the end.

• December 2: The first volume of Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs becomes available.