- Historic Sites
The American Heritage
A ranking of the forty wealthiest Americans of all time (Surprise: Only three of them are alive today)
October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
The Canadian son of Irish immigrants, he started out as a two-dollar-a-day laborer for a steamboat company in St. Paul and within a decade had his own fleet. In 1873 he persuaded the stockholders of the decrepit St. Paul & Pacific Railroad to sell out to him and his partners; he planned to extend the line to the Pacific. “HiIPs folly” reached Puget Sound by 1893 without any public subsidies, thriving on low grades, low cost, and skilled management. He enticed new residents into the area to ensure his railroad’s success, and his renamed Great Northern outlived bad economies that withered other railroads. To reach Chicago, he (with the help of J. P. Morgan [No. 23]) snatched the Northern Pacific and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy from under the nose of E. H. Harriman (No. 24), sparking a lifelong rivalry.
The younger, more gregarious brother of John D. Rockefeller (No. 1), he served as president of Standard Oil of New York, putting to work his considerable salesmanship skills to acquire refiners, pipelines, oil fields, and shipping lines. -When the Supreme Court dissolved Standard Oil in 1911, he went on to close numerous Wall Street deals as an officer of the National City Bank. Unlike his philanthropist brother, he kept secret what few gifts he gave.
ELIAS HASKET DERBY
Without ever going to sea, he applied his thorough understanding of ship design and geography to the prosperous merchant business he inherited, making himself rich and turning Salem, Massachusetts, into a major international seaport. All but one of his ships returned safely, largely because he chose for his crews the best men available and promised them a hefty slice of the profits. His ships were the first from New England to reach the Orient.
A German-born immigrant, he got into sugar in 1863 at the urging of his brother, with whom he established the Bay Sugar Refining Company in San Francisco. In 1867, after studying sugar manufacture in Europe, he built the California Sugar Refinery, which within five years was putting out fifty million pounds annually. He eventually had a monopoly in West Coast sugar, but a six-year family feud wrested away some of his empire late in his life.