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- Great Fortunes from Railroads - 30/57 -

"The Vanderbilts": 113.]

If we are to place credibility in current reports, she was forced time and time again to undergo the most violent scenes in interceding for one of their sons, Cornelius Jeremiah. For the nervous disposition and general bad health of this son the father had not much sympathy; but the inexcusable crime to him was that Cornelius showed neither inclination nor capacity to engage in a business career. If Cornelius had gambled on the stock exchange his father would have set him down as an exceedingly enterprising, respectable and promising man. But he preferred to gamble at cards. This rebellious lack of interest in business, joined with dissipation, so enraged the old man that he drove Cornelius from the house and only allowed him access during nearly a score of years at such rare times as the mother succeeded in her tears and pleadings. Worn out with her long life of drudgery, Vanderbilt's wife died in 1868; about a year later the old magnate eloped with a young cousin, Frank A. Crawford, and returning from Canada, announced his marriage, to the unbounded surprise and utter disfavor of his children.


An end, however, was soon coming to his prolonged life. A few more years of money heaping, and then, on May 10, 1876, he was taken mortally ill. For eight months he lay in bed, his powerful vitality making a vigorous battle for life; two physicians died while in the course of attendance on him; it was not until the morning of January 4, 1877, that the final symptoms of approaching death came over him. When this was seen the group about his bed emotionally sang: "Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy," "Nearer, My God, To Thee," and "Show Ye Pity, Lord." He died with a conventional religious end of which the world made much; all of the property sanctities and ceremonials were duly observed; nothing was lacking in the piety of that affecting deathbed scene. It furnished the text for many a sermon, but while ministerial and journalistic attention was thus eulogistically concentrated upon the loss of America's greatest capitalist, not a reference was made in church or newspaper to the deaths every year of a host of the lowly, slain in the industrial vortex by injury and disease, and too often by suicide and starvation. Except among the lowly themselves this slaughter passed unprotested and unnoticed.

Even as Vanderbilt lay moribund, speculation was busy as to the disposition of his fortune. Who would inherit his aggregation of wealth? The probating of his will soon disclosed that he had virtually entailed it. About $90,000,000 was left to his eldest son, William H., and one-half of the remaining $15,000,000 was bequeathed to the chief heir's four sons. [Footnote: To Cornelius J. Vanderbilt, the Commodore's "wayward" son, only the income derived from $200,000 was bequeathed, upon the condition that he should forfeit even this legacy if he contested the will. Nevertheless, he brought a contest suit. William H. Vanderbilt compromised the suit by giving to his brother the income on $1,000,000. On April 2, 1882, Cornelius J. Vanderbilt shot and killed himself. Croffut gives this highly enlightening account of the compromising of the suit:

"At least two of the sisters had sympathized with 'Cornele's' suit, and had given him aid and comfort, neither of them liking the legatee, and one of them not having been for years on speaking terms with him; but now, in addition to the bequests made to his sisters, William H. voluntarily [sic] added $500,000 to each from his own portion.

"He drove around one evening, and distributed this splendid largess from his carriage, he himself carrying the bonds into each house in his arms and delivering them to each sister in turn. The donation was accompanied by two interesting incidents. In one case the husband said, 'William, I've made a quick calculation here, and I find these bonds don't amount to quite $500,000. They're $150 short, at the price quoted today.' The donor smiled, and sat down and made out his check for the sum to balance.

"In another case, a husband, after counting and receipting for the $500,000, followed the generous visitor out of the door, and said, 'By the way, if you conclude to give the other sisters any more, you'll see that we fare as well as any of them, won't you?' The donor jumped into his carriage and drove off without replying, only saying, with a laugh, to his companions, 'Well, what do you think o' that'"-- "The Vanderbilts": 151-152.] A few millions were distributed among the founder's other surviving children, and some comparatively small sums bequeathed to charitable and educational institutions. The Vanderbilt dynasty had begun.

* * * * * * *


At this time William H. Vanderbilt was fifty-six years old. Until 1864 he had been occupied at farming on Staten Island; he lived at first in "a small, square, plain two-story house facing the sea, with a lean-to on one end for a kitchen." The explanation of why the son of a millionaire betook himself to truck farming lay in these facts: The old man despised leisure and luxury, and had a correspondingly strong admiration for "self-made" men. Knowing this, William H. Vanderbilt made a studious policy of standing in with his father, truckling to his every caprice and demand, and proving that he could make an independent living. He is described as a phlegmatic man of dull and slow mental processes, domestic tastes and of kindly disposition to his children. His father (so the chronicles tell) did not think that he "would ever amount to anything," but by infinite plodding, exacting the severest labor from his farm laborers, driving close bargains and turning devious tricks in his dealings, he gradually won the confidence and respect of the old man, who was always pleased with proofs of guile. Croffut gives a number of instances of William's craft and continues: "From his boyhood he had given instant and willing submission to the despotic will of his father, and had made boundless sacrifices to please him. Most men would have burst defiantly away from the repressive control and imperious requirements; but he doubtless thought that for the chance of becoming heir to $100,000,000 he could afford to remain long in the passive attitude of a distrusted prince." (sic.)

[Illustration: WILLIAM H. VANDERBILT, He Inherited the Bulk of His Father's Fortune and Doubled It]

The old autocrat finally modified his contemptuous opinion, and put him in an executive position in the management of the New York and Harlem Railroad. Later, he elevated him to be a sort of coadjutor by installing him as vice president of the New York Central Railroad, and as an associate in the directing of other railroads. It was said to be painful to note the exhausting persistence with which William H. Vanderbilt daily struggled to get some perceptions of the details of railroad management. He did succeed in absorbing considerable knowledge. But his training at the hands of his father was not so much in the direction of learning the system of management. Men of ability could always be hired to manage the roads. What his father principally taught him was the more essential astuteness required of a railroad magnate; the manipulation of stocks and of common councils and legislatures; how to fight and overthrow competitors and extend the sphere of ownership and control; and how best to resist, and if possible to destroy, the labor unions. In brief, his education was a duplication of his father's scope of action: the methods of the sire were infused into the son.

From the situation in which he found himself, and viewing the particular traits required in the development of capitalistic institutions, it was the most appropriate training that he could have received. Book erudition and the cultivation of fine qualities would have been sadly out of place; his father's teachings were precisely what were needed to sustain and augment his possessions. On every hand he was confronted either by competitors who, if they could get the chance, would have stripped him without scruple, or by other men of his own class who would have joyfully defrauded him. But overshadowing these accustomed business practices, new and startling conditions that had to be met and fought were now appearing.

Instead of a multitude of small, detached railroads, owned and operated by independent companies, the period was now being reached of colossal railroad systems. In the East the small railroad owners had been well-nigh crushed out, and their properties joined in huge lines under the ownership of a few controlling men, while in the West, extensive systems, thousands of miles long, had recently been built. Having stamped out most of the small owners, the railroad barons now proceeded to wrangle and fight among themselves. It was a characteristic period when the railroad magnates were constantly embroiled in the bitterest quarrels, the sole object of which was to outdo, bankrupt and wreck one another and seize, if possible, the others' property.


It was these conflicts that developed the auspicious time and opportunity for a change of the most world--wide importance, and one which had a stupendous ultimate purport not then realized. The wars between the railroad magnates assumed many forms, not the least of which was the cutting of freight rates. Each railroad desperately sought to wrench away traffic from the others by offering better inducements. In this cutthroat competition, a coterie of hawk-eyed young men in the oil business, led by John D. Rockefeller, saw their fertile chance.

The drilling and the refining of oil, although in their comparative infancy, had already reached great proportions. Each railroad was eager to get the largest share of the traffic of transporting oil. Rockefeller, ruminating in his small refinery at Cleveland, Ohio, had conceived the revolutionary idea of getting a monopoly of the production and distribution of oil, obliterating the middleman, and systematizing and centralizing the whole business.

Then and there was the modern trust born; and from the very inception of the Standard Oil Company Rockefeller and his associates tenaciously pursued their design with a combined ability and unscrupulousness such as had never before been known since the rise of capitalism. One railroad after another was persuaded or forced into granting them secret rates and rebates against which it was impossible to compete. The railroad magnates--William H. Vanderbilt, for instance--were taken in the fold of the Standard Oil Company by being made stockholders. With these secret rates the Standard Oil Company was enabled to crush out absolutely a myriad of competitors and middlemen, and control the petroleum trade not only of the United States but of almost the entire world. Such fabulous profits accumulated that in the course of forty years, after one unending career of industrial construction on the one hand, and crime on the other, the Standard Oil Company was easily able to become owners of prodigious railroad and other systems, and completely supplant the scions of the magnates whom three or four decades before they had wheedled or brow-beaten into favoring them with discriminations.

Great Fortunes from Railroads - 30/57

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