The Consolidator

by Samuel McCracken
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
By T.J. Stiles
Knopf, 736 pages, $37.50
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The First Tycoon by T.J. StilesPeople know four things about Cornelius Vanderbilt: He founded the New York Central Railroad. His nickname, “Commodore,” referred sardonically to his beginnings sailing a one-man Staten Island ferry. He remarked, “The public? The public be damned!” And he inadvertently caused the potato chip to be invented.

Wrong on each count.

Vanderbilt made the New York Central (founded by others) great, but Commodore was the press’s salute to a shipping mogul. He left it to his son William to damn the public, and the irresistible potato chip myth — the crusty Commodore sends back fried potatoes as insuffi ciently thin and salty, and the equally crusty Saratoga Springs chef says, “I’ll give him thin and salty” — is belied by the fact that the chip got to the restaurant ahead of the Commodore.

These corrections, amid an extraordinary wealth of learning and insight about a great man and his times, can be found in the meticulously researched and brilliantly written The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles ’91GSAS. Over 66 years, Vanderbilt (1794–1877) devoted himself to one business: transportation. He ended as the master of a railroad empire linking the Hudson to Lake Michigan. En route, he sailed, dominated, and forsook New York Harbor, the Hudson, Long Island Sound, the route from New York to San Francisco via Central America, and the North Atlantic.

A creature of the water from the start, he became an amphibian when he linked Boston and New York by water and rail. He did not crawl onto land for good until the end of his seventh decade, when he sold his empire on water to fund his new one on land.

Although Vanderbilt’s reach occasionally exceeded his grasp, both were prodigious. He projected and nearly built the interoceanic canal that the Nicaraguan government pursues today. In 1862, when Washington, D.C., lived in terror of the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (aka Merrimack), he pulled his liner Vanderbilt off her run, equipped her to fi ght, and gave her to the Union government. This kept Virginia bottled up in Norfolk until fleeing Confederates destroyed her.

As the epic began, in 1818, young Vanderbilt attracted the attention of a steam ferry operator on the New Jersey–Manhattan run. Temporarily short a captain, Thomas Gibbons hired Vanderbilt for a few days. He had acquired not merely a temp but a general manager and consigliere. Gibbons needed the last: Steamboat service in New York Harbor was a legal monopoly. Gibbons defied the monopolists, who harassed him with the law. Vanderbilt encouraged Gibbons to attack the monopoly as an unconstitutional infringement of the interstate commerce clause. With Daniel Webster pleading, Gibbons prevailed.

For a time, the new opportunities thus opened lay in New York Harbor, but Vanderbilt gradually moved up the Hudson to Albany. From there, he turned to Long Island Sound and the developing sea-land route between New York and Boston. This led to his fi rst tentative interest in a railroad, a short line connecting the Connecticut port of Stonington with Providence.

A greater destination now beckoned: not Boston, but San Francisco. Americans wanted to go to the new state of California, an El Dorado for farmers, even before the gold strike. There were three routes: overland, by sea around Cape Horn, and by sea-land via Panama. Vanderbilt envisioned a fourth, shorter route by water, with a short canal across Nicaragua. He was fi nally frustrated by William Walker, the American adventurer who improbably seized control of Nicaragua. In their struggle, Vanderbilt functioned more as sovereign than CEO. He organized and funded a coalition of Nicaragua’s neighbors to drive Walker out, and when Walker imprudently tried to return, he met a firing squad in Honduras.

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