The Vanderbilts are one of those mythic American families whose name invokes wealth, industrialism and power.
Patriarch of the Vanderbilt family, and one of the richest men to ever live, was Cornelius Vanderbilt, otherwise known as Commodore Vanderbilt, a nickname he received after he began operating ships. Uneducated, ruthless and shrewd Vanderbilt amassed a fortune which today would have been worth $167.4 billion.
Cornelius’s great-great-grandfather immigrated to New York as an indentured servant in 1650 and Cornelius himself was born on Staten Island in 1794. He left school at the age of 11, of which he said, “If I had learned education, I would not have had time to learn anything else,” to work with his father on the ferry’s in New York Harbor. By the age of 16, after a $100 loan from his mother, he was operating his own boat.
By the end of the 1830s, Vanderbilt had dominated the steamboat industry and had moved onto railroads, buying real estate with his wealth. Vanderbilt’s railroad empire stretched all the way to California and in New York, he built the Grand Central Depot for his trains, which later turned into Grand Central Station. By the time of his death in 1877, he was the wealthiest man in America.