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Cornelius Vanderbilt I (May 27, 1794 - January 4, 1877), also known by the sobriquets The Commodore or Commodore Vanderbilt , was an American entrepreneur who built his wealth in shipping and railroads and was the patriarch of the Vanderbilt family.
Vanderbilt was the fourth of nine children of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Phebe Hand, a family of modest means in Port Richmond on Staten Island in New York City.
His great-great-great-grandfather, Jan Aertson, was a Dutch farmer from the village of De Bilt in Utrecht, the Netherlands, who immigrated to New York as an indentured servant in 1650. The Dutch "van der" (of the) was eventually added to Aertson's village name to create "van der bilt", which was eventually condensed to Vanderbilt. Most of Vanderbilt's ancestry was English, with his last ancestor of Dutch origin being Jacob Vanderbilt, his grandfather. Cornelius Vanderbilt's business was railroads. His company name was the Accessory Transit Company..
On December 19, 1813, Cornelius Vanderbilt married his cousin and neighbor, Sophia Johnson (1795-1868), daughter of his aunt Elizabeth Hand Johnson. He and his wife had 13 children, 12 of whom survived childhood.
Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, is named for Cornelius, and the university's mascot is the commodore.
As a young boy, Cornelius Vanderbilt worked on ferries in New York City, quitting school at age 11. By age 16 he was operating his own business, ferrying freight and passengers between Staten Island and Manhattan.
During the War of 1812, he received a government contract to supply the forts around New York City. He operated sailing schooners, which is where he gained his nickname of "Commodore."
In 1818, he turned his attention to steamships. The New York legislature had granted Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston a thirty-year legal monopoly on steamboat traffic. Working for Thomas Gibbons, Vanderbilt undercut the prices charged by Fulton and Livingston for service between New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Manhattan-an important link in trade between New York and Philadelphia.
He avoided capture by those who sought to arrest him and impound the ship. Livingston and Fulton offered Vanderbilt a lucrative job piloting their steamboat, but Vanderbilt rejected the offer. He said "I don't care half so much about making money as I do about making my point, and coming out ahead." For Vanderbilt, the point was the superiority of free competition and the government-granted monopoly. Livingston and Fulton sued; the case went before the United States Supreme Court and ultimately broke the Fulton-Livingston monopoly on trade.
In 1829, Vanderbilt struck out on his own to provide steam service on the Hudson River between Manhattan and Albany, New York. By the 1840s, he had 100 steamships plying the Hudson and was reputed to have the most employees of any business in the United States.
During the 1849 California Gold Rush, he offered a shortcut via Nicaragua to California-shaving 600 miles (960 km) at half the price of the Isthmus of Panama shortcut.
Vanderbilt's involvement with early railroad development led him into being involved in one of America's earliest rail accidents. On November 11, 1833, he was a passenger on a Camden & Amboy train that derailed in the meadows near Hightstown, New Jersey, when a coach car axle broke because of a hot journal box. He spent a month recovering from injuries that included two cracked ribs and a punctured lung. Uninjured in this accident was former U.S. President John Quincy Adams, riding in the car ahead of the one that derailed. Adams's son was killed in the accident.
In 1844, Vanderbilt was elected as a director of the Long Island Rail Road, which at the time provided a route between Boston and New York City via a steamboat transfer In 1857, he became a director of the New York and Harlem Railroad .
In the early 1860s, Vanderbilt started withdrawing capital from steamships and investing in railroads. He acquired the New York and Harlem Railroad in 1862-63, the Hudson River Railroad in 1864, and the New York Central Railroad in 1867. In 1869, they were merged into New York Central and Hudson River Railroad.
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