The rise and fall of the Vanderbilts—America’s wealthiest family

The Vanderbilts were arguably the most prominent family of the Gilded Age, but time has slowly eroded their fortune and legacy.

The Vanderbilts is an American family of Dutch origin who became the wealthiest and arguably the most prominent family of the Gilded Age. Their success began with the shipping and railroad empires of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the family expanded into various other areas of industry and philanthropy.

Cornelius Vanderbilt’s descendants went on to build grand mansions on Fifth Avenue in New York City; luxurious “summer cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island; the palatial Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina; and various other opulent homes. But time has slowly eroded their fortune and legacy.

The Commodore

Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1846.

The 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

The city of New York in the 1800s.

Three-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

1879 cartoon depicting William Henry “Billy” Vanderbilt as “The Modern Colossus of (Rail) Roads.”

Cornelius 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.

Inheritance issues

Physician Jared Linsly testifying as to the mental and physical condition of Cornelius Vanderbilt during court proceedings surrounding the challenge to his will. From an 1877 illustration in Harper’s Weekly.

Cornelius 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

The Cornelius Vanderbilt II House, located at 1 West 57th Street, New York City.

When 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.

Social stature

William 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. Regarding the picture above, here’s an interesting story from MessyNessyChic involving the famous Astors:

Mrs. Astor did not receive an invitation to the Vanderbilt ball. Nor did her daughter Carrie Astor, who had been excitedly preparing her costume and dancing skills for weeks. When all their friends received invitations except for them, Mrs. Astor was going to have to do some grovelling. As the gossip stories go, Alva (pictured above) claimed that since Mrs. Astor had never called on the Vanderbilt home on Fifth Avenue to introduce herself formally, she had no address to send an invite. Mrs. Astor begrudgingly dropped in on the French chateau style mansion that overshadowed all the other luxurious homes on the street and left her visiting card. The following day, the Astor’s received their invite.

A lavish lifestyle

Concert in Saratoga Springs, New York; the Vanderbilt family. Painted by Franz Dvorak,1890.

The Breakers, built in 1892–1895 for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, Newport, Rhode Island.

Instead 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.

Collecting mansions

Biltmore House, with reflecting pool in the Biltmore gardens Esplanade (1900).

The 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

Fifth Avenue, New York 1905.

By 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

Over 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.”