The Vanderbilts were arguably the most prominent family of the Gilded Age, but time has slowly eroded their fortune and legacy.
Wikimedia CommonsThe legendary wealth of the Vanderbilt family had its origins with Cornelius Vanderbilt. He left school at age 11 and borrowed $100 from his mother to buy a boat four years later. In 1829, he bought his own steamboat, which he turned into a fleet of 100 steamboats by the 1840s. Other boatmen called him “Commodore,” a nickname that would remain with Cornelius throughout his life.
A Monopoly On New York
Wikimedia CommonsThree-quarters of American commerce came through New York City’s harbor at the time, much of it on Vanderbilt’s fleet. But the Commodore didn’t stop there. After the Civil War, he expanded the family business into the railroad industry, managing to attain a monopoly on trains entering and leaving the city.
William The Blatherskite
Wikimedia CommonsCornelius had a less than ideal relationship with his two sons, often calling elder child William Henry Vanderbilt a “blockhead” and “blatherskite.” It was William who inherited the bulk of his father’s wealth when Cornelius died in 1877, however, an amount worth $100 million.
Wikimedia CommonsCornelius left his eight daughters less than a million each, and his younger son also received a substantially lower sum. The Commodore’s will was contested by family in very public trial. It dragged on for more than a year and half, but William H. emerged mostly victorious. Within nine years of inheriting his father’s fortune, he had doubled it.
The Third Generation
Wikimedia CommonsWhen William H. died in 1899, the Vanderbilt dynasty began its downward slope. The fortune was willed to William H.’s sons, Cornelius Vanderbilt II (whose house at West 57th St., New York City is depicted) and William Kissam Vanderbilt.
messynessychic.comWilliam Kissem Vanderbilt married Alva Erskine Smith, who went about winning over New York high society through a series of elaborate social events. In 1883, she threw a massive ball that would finally cement the Vanderbilt’s place in the New York hierarchy of the Gilded Age. Every female guest that night went home with a piece of jewelry from Tiffany’s.
A Lavish Lifestyle
Wikimedia CommonsInstead of expanding the railroad West, the family began to spend more and more on lavish palaces and parties. Alice Vanderbilt built the Breakers in fashionable Newport, Rhode Island for $7 million.
Wikimedia CommonsThe Vanderbilts came to own a total of 10 mansions on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Between 1889 and 1895, George Washington Vanderbilt II used up a substantial portion of his inheritance building the Biltmore estate in Asheville, North Carolina.
The Fortune Crumbles
Wikimedia CommonsBy the 1920s, new federal taxes were taking a toll on the Vanderbilt’s wealth. The mansion at 1 West 57th street was torn down. Other family properties were sold off during the Depression for a fraction of what they cost to build. Only one of their New York City mansions survived.
The Vanderbilts Today
Bravo/NBCUniversal/Getty ImagesOver the years, the Vanderbilt fortune was dispersed between more heirs, and the transport industry that brought them such wealth changed dramatically. Great-great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt and CNN reporter, Anderson Cooper, told the world on Howard Stern’s radio show: ”My mom’s made clear to me that there’s no trust fund.”