- Historic Sites
My Vanderbilt Movie
November 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 7
The “grey-eyed man of destiny,” as Walker liked to call himself, had gone too far. In a letter to United States Secretary of State William L. Marcy, Vanderbilt requested “interposition of the government...to wrest from the aggressors their plunder, and to restore us to the enjoyment of our outraged rights.” His request was refused, however, on the ground that the Accessory Transit Company had been incorporated not in the United States but in Nicaragua.
With the Nicaraguan route closed to him, Vanderbilt considered using his vessels on the route through Panama. His competition would have cut deeply into the profits of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company on the Pacific side of Panama and the United States Mail Steamship Company on the Atlantic side. The Commodore was a savage competitor, but he never competed if the opposition gave him a good reason not to. Over the next two years the Pacific Mail and the U.S. Mail paid him $1,200,000 in return for his agreement not to operate on the Panama route. In addition, Vanderbilt pledged that he would make every effort to crush the new Nicaraguan line operated by his enemies Morgan and Garrison—an effort that he would have made, no doubt, even if no one had paid him a cent.
Having failed in his attempt to persuade the United States government to intervene against Walker, Vanderbilt decided to organize his own army. Late in 1856 two of his agents, William R. C. Webster and Sylvanus H. Spencer, invaded Nicaragua from Costa Rica with a force of 120 men. The men were armed with Minié rifles and ammunition supplied by Vanderbilt. They hacked their way through miles of jungle, took rafts and canoes down the San Carlos and San Juan rivers, and won a series of victories that put Walker in a hopeless position. On May 1, 1857, he surrendered. Destiny, in the person of a sixty-threeyear-old American businessman, had caueht up with him.
“Gentlemen,” wrote Vanderbilt, “You have undertaken to cheat me. I won’t sue you, for the law is too slow. I’ll ruin you.”
With the fall of Walker, Vanderbilt regained control of the Nicaraguan transit route and thus completed his revenge against Morgan and Garrison. He did not reopen the route, so the Panama lines continued to operate without competition—a courtesy for which he charged fifty-six thousand dollars a month. Eventually the details of this arrangement were made public, and on February 9, 1859, The New York Times paid a reluctant tribute to the Commodore: “If ever there was a man who has made his way in the world, it is Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt....Like those old German barons who, from their eyries along the Rhine, swooped down upon the commerce of the noble river, and wrung tribute from every passenger that floated by, Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt, with all the steamers of the Accessory Transit Company held in his leash, has insisted that the Pacific Company should pay him toll....”
William Walker recovered from his defeat at the hands of Vanderbilt, launched a new expedition in Nicaragua that was thwarted by the U.S. Navy, and finally was executed by a Honduran firing squad in 1860. The Accessory Transit Company was dissolved in 1863. Of the Nicaraguan episode as a whole, the biographer Wheaton J. Lane comments: “A grandiose project for uniting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans had degenerated into a transit company whose career, initiated by Vanderbilt’s bold daring, became marked by fraud, trickery, political intrigue, and physical warfare. With the possible exception of a few who sold their shares in the first speculative boom, Vanderbilt was the only person who profited from the affair, and at the end his gains were derived exclusively from blackmail.”
Nicaraguan attitudes toward the United States might owe something to the memory of Walker and Vanderbilt with their private armies, but beyond that, what happened in the 185Os doesn’t help decide proper policy today. As for my movie, I think I’ve got plenty of material even if I don’t emphasize Nicaragua: Vanderbilt’s apprentice period as a ferryman; the years as a captain of sailing ships; the years running steamships on the Hudson River and Long Island Sound; rate wars with other lines; competition with Samuel Cunard in transatlantic steam transportation; the bizarre effort, encouraged by Lincoln, to ram the Confederate ironclad Merrimack with the steamship Vanderbilt ; the disposition of shipping properties and, at the age of seventy, entry into the railroad business; the defeat of Daniel Drew’s bear raids on the Harlem Railroad; the “Battle of Erie” against Drew, Jim Fisk, and Jay Gould; the construction of an enormous new terminal, the Grand Central, in the heart of New York City; the extension of the railroad empire to Chicago; marriage to a woman of thirty at the age of seventy-five; séances on Staten Island; sponsorship of the spiritualist sisters Tennessee and Victoria Claflin, on Wall Street; and the last business battle—the last victory—a fierce rate war that the Commodore directed from his deathbed.
On second thought, forget the movie. I’ll need a mini-series—at least twelve hours—to tell this story. For Vanderbilt before the age of fifty, get me an actor as tough as James Cagney, but larger, more commanding. From fifty on, George C. Scott will do.