The Story of One of The Richest Families In America and How They Lost It All

By | April 3, 2017

The Vanderbilts were one the most outstanding family of the Gilded Age, yet time has gradually eroded their legacy and fortune.

The Commodore

Cornelius Vanderbilt started the legendary wealth of the Vanderbilt family. He left school when he was 11 years old. After four years he borrowed $100 from his mother to purchase a boat. He bought his own steamboat in 1829, which gradually turned into a fleet of 100 steamboats by 1840s. “Commodore”  the nickname that other boatmen usually call him and it would remain with Cornelius throughout his life.

A Monopoly On New York

Almost three-fourths of the American commerce came through New York City’s harbor at the time, and most of it came from Vanderbilt’s fleet. But the Commodore continued to expand the family business after the Civil War by entering to railroad industry, managing to achieve a monopoly on trains entering and leaving the city as well.

William The Blatherskite

Cornelius had an imperfect relationship with his two sons. He often called his elder son William Henry Vanderbilt as “blatherskite” and “blockhead.” When Cornelius died in 1877, it was William who inherited the majority of his father’s wealth covering an amount worth $100 million.

Inheritance Issues

Cornelius has given inheritance to his eight daughters with only less than a million each, and his youngest son also received a significantly lower amount. The family disputed Commodore’s will in a public trial. It lasted for more than a year and a half, and William H. claimed mostly victorious. He had doubled the inheritance of his father within nine years.

The Third Generation

The Vanderbilt dynasty began its downfall after the death of William H. in 1899. The fortune was obviously willed to William H.'s sons, William Kissam Vanderbilt and Cornelius Vanderbilt II (owner of the mansion located at West 57th St., New York City).

Social Stature

William Kissem Vanderbilt was married to Alva Erskine Smith, who just went about winning over the New York high society with her elaborate social events. It was 1883 when she threw a massive ball that had finally paved the Vanderbilt's place in NY hierarchy of the Gilded Age. Can you imagine every female guest that night went home with an actual piece of jewelry from Tiffany's?

A Lavish Lifestyle

Expanding the railroad West was not in their minds as the family continued to spend lavishly on palaces and parties. Alice Vanderbilt built the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island amounting to $7 million.

Collecting Mansions

The Vanderbilts had a total of 10 mansions located on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. It was between 1889 and 1895, when George Washington Vanderbilt II consumed a huge portion of his inheritance to build in Asheville, North Carolina his Biltmore estate.

The Fortune Crumbles

New federal taxes were felt on the wealth of Vanderbilt by the 1920s. The mansion located at 1 West 57th street had been torn down and other family properties had been sold off during the Depression for just a fraction of their actual expenses. Only one of their many New York City mansions survived.

The Vanderbilts Today

The Vanderbilt fortune was actually dispersed between more heirs throughout the years. The transport industry that brought the family such wealth changed dramatically. CNN reporter, Anderson Cooper, great-great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, informed the world when he visited the Howard Stern’s radio show:“My mom’s made clear to me that there’s no trust fund.” That was despite being a great-great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt.