Rising to the Challenge: The Story of William Vanderbilt

By Phineas Upham


The vast estate of Corneilius Vanderbilt was to be given to his son William upon his death. William, born in 1821, would take his inheritance and turn his father’s already successful railroad venture into a booming transportation and shipping operation.

William’s father hadn’t thought much of his son. In fact, William was a source of disappointment for Corneilius. He viewed his son as someone too frail and someone who lacked ambition. Case in point, William was sent to work for a rival entrepreneur named Daniel Drew. Drew apparently forced too much work on young William, and the boy had a nervous breakdown in response. His father sent William off to Staten Island to live on a farm, where his son almost immediately improved fortunes. Corneilius took notice of the boy’s accomplishments and wondered if he had just needed focus.

Corneilius was busy expanding his own Lon Island Rail Road, and he decided to take a chance on William. He called him back home and gave him some degree of control over the organization. This was during the 1840s, when business was booming. William reorganized an ailing part of the business and flipped it into a thriving revenue producer. His father was delighted with the progress, if not a bit puzzled by it.

Still, William would be a significant factor in the expansion of his family business. He became vice president of railways in New York, and took over the organization when his father passed away in 1877. William honored his father’s legacy by founding the New York Central Rail System, and he acquired several holdings across the East Coast. He retired in 1883, due to failing health, and died 8 years after his father. In that time, he’d doubled the family fortune.

Phineas Upham is an investor from NYC and SF. You may contact Phin on his Phineas Upham website or Twitter page.

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