November 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 7
Everyone has fantasies to help make life bearable, and one of my fantasies is that someday some billionaire in need of a tax loss is going to give me ten million dollars to make a movie based on the life of my favorite robber baron, Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Now I’m worried that someone may beat me to the box office. Under the headline NICARAGUA RELIVES ITS YANKEE PAST, The New York Times informs me that a movie is being made about the adventures of the American soldier of fortune William Walker in Nicaragua in the 1850s. What worries me is that the story of Walker’s adventures connects at vital points with the story of Vanderbilt’s adventures, which I wanted for my movie.
As I write this, the film about Walker has not yet been released, so I don’t know how it will portray Vanderbilt. What I do know is that Vanderbilt’s adventures in Nicaragua were just as remarkable as Walker’s, though today they are not nearly as well remembered. People think of steamships and railroads when they think of Vanderbilt, and they should. But they also should think of Nicaragua.
The Nicaraguan episode occurred in the middle of a career that spanned much of the nineteenth century. Born in 1794 in a tiny farmhouse on Staten Island, the son of a Dutch farmer, Vanderbilt left school at the age of twelve, and at sixteen, with one hundred dollars advanced as a loan by his parents, he bought his first boat, a small two-masted sailing vessel, and went into business carrying freight and passengers between Staten Island and the southern tip of Manhattan. At a time when ferrymen charged eighteen cents for the sevenmile trip between the island and the city, Cornelius earned more than one thousand dollars in his first year of work.
By the late 1840s Vanderbilt owned and operated more steamboats than any man in the country, and his contemporaries had begun to call him “Commodore.” His shrewdness as a businessman never showed more clearly than in 1849, when the discovery of gold in California sent thousands of fortune hunters hurrying west. While the minds of his contemporaries turned to gold, the mind of Cornelius Vanderbilt turned to transportation routes.
Nicaragua is about three times as wide as Panama, but a water route crosses much of it. At the closest point, only eleven miles separate the western shore of Lake Nicaragua from the Pacific. In the east the San Juan River descends from the lake to the Atlantic. Vanderbilt figured that if his ships could ascend the San Juan, he could cross the lake and get to the Pacific by canal or by road.
Ascending the San Juan, a distance of 119 miles, was no small task. No steamboat had ever done it, and when Vanderbilt’s steamship Orus tried, it was wrecked in one of the rapids that made the trip dangerous.
With characteristic bravado Vanderbilt decided to take matters into his own hands, and late in 1850 he sailed for Nicaragua. On his arrival, Wheaton J. Lane reports in his fine biography, “Vanderbilt curtly announced, amid sharp recriminations at worthless employees, that he had come to open up the river and would show them how.”
The next section of my movie should appeal to anyone who liked The African Queen. With Vanderbilt at the helm, the steamship Director started up the river despite the objections of his engineers, one of whom later recalled the voyage: “The Commodore insisted upon ‘jumping’ all the obstacles, and tied down the safety valve, put on all steam, and compelled the little steamer to scrape and struggle over the obstructions into clear water again.” On New Year’s Day 1852 the Director steamed into Lake Nicaragua.
By the middle of 1852 Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company could offer the traveler a route of 4,531 miles from New York to San Francisco via Nicaragua, as compared with its competitor’s route of 4,992 miles via Panama.
In 1853 Vanderbilt confided to a friend that his fortune had reached eleven million dollars (approximately $220 million today), invested so as to yield 25 percent annually. In the same year the fiftynine-year-old titan took the first vacation of his life, a grand tour of Europe in a steamship built specially for the voyage.
Before he left, Vanderbilt resigned the presidency of the Accessory Transit Company and turned over its management to a pair of aggressive associates, Charles Morgan and Cornelius K. Garrison. In the Commodore’s absence these gentlemen took steps that challenged his interests, thus provoking a letter that I like so much I quoted it in an earlier column: “Gentlemen: You have undertaken to cheat me. I won’t sue you, for the law is too slow. I’ll ruin you.”
By February 1856, through a series of maneuvers too complicated to describe here, Vanderbilt had regained the presidency of the Accessory Transit Company. Morgan and Garrison weren’t ruined yet, however. The year before, the government of Nicaragua had been overthrown by a band of fifty-eight adventurers led by William Walker. Morgan and Garrison had helped Walker, and now they proposed that he help them in return. Accordingly, less than two weeks after Vanderbilt resumed the presidency of the Accessory Transit Company, Walker rescinded its charter, seized its property, and granted a new charter to his friends Morgan and Garrison.
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.
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.