William Henry Vanderbilt was the oldest son of Cornelius Vanderbilt [1794-1877], the American entrepreneur of both shipping and rail transportation during the 19th century. Although Cornelius, the father had married at age 19, he was quite upset when his son William also wanted to get married at age 19 in 1840. William was a frail youth and did not appear to be the ambitious entrepreneur his father had been at the age of 19. As a result Cornelius, the father, was disappointed that his son was seemingly worthless in helping him run the family's thriving shipping and railroad businesses.
So in 1840 Cornelius decided to send William to Staten Island to run one of the Vanderbilt family's farms. Cornelius apparently felt that William could do little damage on the farm but hopefully the experience would turn him into a man, as envisioned by his father. To the surprise of many, including the father, William not only improved the farming operation but was able to make it profitable, and in profits Cornelius believed.
The Vanderbilt organization bought the then bankrupt Long Island Railroad and William was put in charge to reorganize it. Within a few years William was not only able to revamp and reorganize the railroad, but he also was able to make it into a profitable operation with a strong financial footing, again much to the surprise of many including the father, Cornelius.
William was rewarded for his accomplishments in rebuilding the Long Island Railroad, and became essentially the driving force behind the railroad business of the Vanderbilts. Several other railroads were acquired, and in the mid sixties William became a vice president of both the New York and Harlem Railroad and the Hudson River Railroad. The New York and Harlem Railroad and the Hudson River Railroad were merged with the Long Island Railroad and the Central Railroad and formed the beginning of the New York Central System. The Vanderbilt organization at that point essentially became a railroad operation. Most of the steam shipping operations were sold off.
Although William had proven himself as a capable manager of the railroad operations, his father continued to maintain tight control of the overall company organization. When Cornelius passed away in 1877, the entire company was turned over to William. It was only upon his death that Cornelius gave his son William the ultimate compliment for being a proven manager by turning over the entire Vanderbilt organization to William so that he could manage it as he saw fit. Cornelius at the end of his life knew that by turning the organization over to William, it would be managed the same way he would have managed it.
William greatly expanded the railroad operations including the New York Central System. He acquired the Chicago and Northwestern, the Nickel Plate, serving Chicago and Saint Louis, the Cleveland Railroad, the Columbus Railroad, the Cincinnati Railroad, the Indianapolis Railroad and many other smaller lines. He fought against railroad regulation and engaged in freight rate wars to expand his business. By the time he retired in 1883 because of ill health he had doubled the Vanderbilt fortune, all in a period of less than ten years. The Vanderbilt railroad business then consisted of ten railroads, a sleeping car company and the Hudson River Bridge.
Although Cornelius had never been much of a philanthropist, except for his one million dollar gift to Central University in Nashville, Tennessee, which then became the now prestigious Vanderbilt University, William became quite active as a philanthropist in his later years. He gave substantial additional gifts to Vanderbilt University and to the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. He also built a mansion on Fifth Avenue to display the art he had donated to it.
William passed away on December 8, 1885, two years after his retirement. He was born on May 8, 1821 and since 1841 he had been happily married to Maria Louisa Kissam [1821-1896], the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. William was only 64 years old when he died. He had been rather frail during his life as opposed to his more burly father. In his will William was more equitable in dividing his fortune than his father had been. He left bequests to his still living siblings, to his own children and to others. He also left bequests to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the YMCA, and to several churches and hospitals.
The William Henry Vanderbilt estate was valued at about $200 million at the time of his death. Based on the national gross domestic product per capita ratio at the time of Vanderbilt's death, and the present time, a ratio of about 260, Vanderbilt's estate would be valued at about $52 billion dollars in today's terms.
William Henry and Louisa Vanderbilt had eight children, consisting of:
Note that Emily Thorn Vanderbilt lived to the centenarian age of 104, and Florence Vanderbilt Twombley lived to the advanced age of 98 years.
For those interested to read about other successful Dutch American entrepreneurs, please check out the book by the author entitled:
At the end of the bio profile of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt is an extensive description how the Vanderbilt in this bio profile fits in with the other prominent Vanderbilts who preceded or followed him. Please refer to it for further understanding of the Vanderbilt family tree.
E-BOOKS AVAILABLE FROM AMAZON; GOOGLE: Kindle Store Pegels
PROMINENT DUTCH AMERICANS, CURRENT AND HISTORIC
EIGHT PROMINENT DUTCH AMERICAN FAMILIES: THE ROOSEVELTS, VANDERBILTS AND OTHERS, 2015
FIFTEEN PROMINENT DUTCH AMERICAN FAMILIES: THE VAN BURENS, KOCH BROTHERS, VOORHEES AND OTHERS, 2015
PROMINENT DUTCH AMERICANS IN U.S. GOVERNMENT LEADERSHIP POSITIONS, 2015
DUTCH PEGELS INVOLVED IN WARS
ALLIED EUROPE CAMPAIGN—1944/1945: TACTICAL MISTAKES, 2017
THE SECOND WORLD WAR IN THE NETHERLANDS: MEMOIRS, 2017
FRENCH REVOLUTION, NAPOLEON AND RUSSIAN WAR OF 1812, 2015