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The influence of one earnest, energetic life upon the world is scarcely appreciated. Where that life has given birth to some grand idea, we readily see the effect upon society. The inventor of the cotton gin, for instance, worked a revolution apparent to all wherever cotton cloths are made or used. But when one's life, though successful, is not thus signalized, its influence upon the present and future is not so readily appreciated. In a biography, too, we must fail to show it, for it is only now and then that the acts of even our most prominent men attain publicity. The steady flow of their lives carries with it a power felt by every one, although not always acknowledged or even known. Like the current of a river, noiseless though it be, yet making every object it touches on either bank bend beneath its influence, until the land itself is shaped by the river that thus flows through it, so the acts, views and purposes of all men, yes and the external and internal policy of the country itself, are shaped by the few who have a decided and single purpose in life, and the energy, perseverance and will faithfully to pursue it. To measure that influence—to state in every instance its extent and potency, is not, as we have already said, possible: yet by referring to their more public acts we can show, but only in part, the work that has been accomplished.
Especially is this true in the case of those eminent in the commercial world. Is not the progress and glory of this city inseparably connected with, and almost made up of, the lives and works of the merchants and commercial men who have held, and now hold, the foremost rank? Without the results they, and others like them in sister cities, have accomplished, would not the wealth of the country be still unproductive and its commerce undeveloped ? Lawyers and politicians may claim and obtain the official positions, but if there is progress, the power that propels the ship must come from cominercial men.
We place at the head of this article the name of one whose life has thus contributed very largely to the general prosperity of the country; a VOL. LII.-NO, I.
name inseparably connected with our commercial history, and synonymous with the rapid growth of our merchant navy. His enterprise, genius and success are known and felt the world over, and we propose to follow the course of his life, briefly noting, in many instances, the motives of action as well as the acts themselves, and thus adding a valuable page to history, while furnishing incentives to young men everywhere.
The sturdy Knickerbocker babits of industry, developed so early, and forming, as it were, the corner-stone in the character of Commodore VANDERBILT, may be traced to his ancestors, who left Holland for America at an early period in the history of New York. His father, whose name was also CORNELIUS, settled on Staten Island, living very comfortably and pleasantly on his own farm. At that time the Island was divided into large estates, being worked by those living there, for the purpose of raising supplies for the city. Communication with New York was of course a necessity, and many of the Islanders, therefore, kept small sail-boats, for the purpose
of carrying their products to market. As the inhabitants increased, other facilities for communication became necessary, and Mr. VANDERBILT, Sr., would, at times of leisure, undertake to convey those not having boats themselves. Out of this, and the demand for some public and regular communication, grew up a ferry, which he established in the form of a perryauger, departing every morning for the city and returning every afternoon.
In the meantime, however, and on the 27th day of May, 1794, a son, the subject of this sketch, was born to Mynheer VANDERBILT. Young CORNELIUS was not one of those sleepy babies, making no trouble (the pride of our Dutch ancestors) but very early showed that he had voice, will, muscle, and mind. As the days of bis infancy merged into those of boyhood, his naturally ambitious temperament began to develope itself and assume shape. Books be did not seem to fancy. It was the practical of life rather than the theoretical that engaged his thoughts. Even thus early his aim appeared to be to strike out new and untried paths, rather than to walk along the well-worn old ones. A school was too confining for his restless nature, and neither the urgent entreaties of his mother, nor the more forcible logic of his father, could convince him of the great importance of a thorough school education. His disposition led him to draw his knowledge from another source, making nature bis instructor: and so absorbed did he become in the execution of his many plans and ideas, that it was with difficulty he could find time for his meals.
But it was not until he was sixteen years of age that he entered upon his first independent business venture. Living upon the Island, being of necessity much upon the water, he early developed a fondness for that kind of life, as affording the widest scope for his ambition. Thus far he had acted for others, but now he wished to strike out for himself, and determined, therefore, to have a sail-boat of bis own. He went to bis father and made known his plan and desire. Little encouragement did he receive, his father deeming it rather a dangerous and uncertain business for so young a boy. Not discouraged, he continued to plead bis cause with the greatest earnestness, and finally received the qualified promise that if he could accomplish a certain amount of work on the farm the money should be furnished. The task set was no slight affair. To do it would require time-more time than he could consent to give, with bis enterprise delayed. In the absence of his father, therefore, he determined to make the job a short one. Being popular with his companions in the neighborhood, young VANDERBILT imparted to them his secret, and summoned them to his aid. Meeting with a hearty response, they all went to work with a will, and soon completed the allotted task. At once he reported to his mother the successful achievement, and claimed the boat. Her aversion to his proposed business was as great as his father's, and she also tried to dissuade him. But it was of no use. His purpose was fixed, and fearing that if this cherished project fell through he might carry out his oft expressed intention of running away to sea, she gave him the hundred dollars as being the lesser evil. With the money in hand, he was soon at the PortRichmond shore, where the selected boat was snugly moored to the dock. The purchase was made at once, and with a proud heart he took possession of his long-coveted prize. One can easily imagine the sensations of this boy of fourteen, as he first walked the deck of his little craft, and set sail for home. He was now a full-fledged captain-a man of businessdependent upon his own exertions. What visions must have danced through his head of future successes! But every picture has its shadows. As the little boat, freighted with so many hopes, was cutting its way through the water, a rock in the Kills was struck, and our, as yet, inexperienced sailor was only able to run the boat ashore before it sunk. Here was certainly a discouraging accident. Still, nothing daunted, the young captain at once brought to his service the needed assistance, and in a few hours all damage was repaired, and his little craft safe and sound at the Stapleton dock.
An important point had now been gained. No great work to be sure had been accomplished, but the means to an end were obtained. He had stepped out from under his father's care, and was the owner and captain of a boat. The world was now before him. Launched upon life's broad sea, his character must at once show itself. In every community there will be found three classes of young men: those who boldly put forth their energies and cleave for themselves a way through life; those who simply float along the play of every wind and tide ; and those who sink at once. The latter class would have taken this little boat, enjoyed a pleasurable but brief existence, while indulging every folly and every passion of youth, and making a speedy shipwreck of their characters and hopes. Another, with little force of character, would have wistfully looked out upon the vast expanse before him, waiting for fortune to come, half frightened, leaning upon friends for support, and thus, by using these lifepréservers, have been able just to keep his head above surrounding waves. But the hero in the strife makes good and bad fortune equally his servant. Striking always with a strong arm and a brave heart-prepared alike for failure or success—a way is soon cleared : even the most discouraging circumstances becoming subservient to his wishes. Thus, young VanDERBILT was now in a position to choose what should be his future: the question to be decided was, should he rise, float or sink. Many and varied difficulties at once beset him. Young and inexperienced as he was, he must necessarily compete with older heads, long used to the work, and with reputations made. He felt, therefore, that he could not simply float, be must fight or fail, and feeling thus, at this early day, when but sixteen years old, he set up his first opposition line-a prophetic miniature of later efforts.
Of course, in such a position, and with such ideas, VANDERBILT could not be idle. He at once made the necessary effort to obtain business, and succeeded wonderfully. At that time the fortifications of Staten and Long Islands were being built by Government, and the carrying of labourers to and from New York furnished work for him and bis perryauger, which was quite remunerative. Amid, however, these first successes one fact troubled him. The money that bought bis boat came from his mother; and this being so, he could not feel that perfect independence his spirit craved. Day by day, therefore, from his first earnings, he scrupulously laid by every cent that could be saved, for the purpose of returning this sum; and but a little time elapsed before he quietly placed in his mother's lap the hundred dollars. Probably a happier, prouder child never lived than CORNELIUS VANDERBILT at that moment; and he had certainly won the right to be so.
We thus see with what spirit and earnestness, this mere boy laid hold of the stern realities before him. His life was regulated by self-imposed rules, and with a fixedness of purpose as invariable as the sun in its circuit. Among other things he determined to spend less every week than he earned. We have already seen the first fruit of this careful management; but it speedily produced other results, for very soon he was able to extend his business, by purchasing with his savings a vessel of larger dimensions than his first little craft. Thus, for three or four years, he went on daily adding to his worldly means, until on bis eighteenth birth-day, he found himself part owner and captain of one of the largest perryaugers in the harbor of New York, and shortly after became also interested in one or two other smaller boats engaged in the same business. In the meantime he almost lived on the water, carrying freight and passengers, boarding ships, and doing everything else coming within his line. Not satisfied with working all day, he undertook, and continued through the whole war of 1812, to furnish supplies by night to one of the forts up the Hudson, and another at the Narrows. In fact his energy, skill and daring became so well klown, and his word, when he gave it, could be relied upon so implicitly, that “ Corneile, the boatman," as he was familiarly called, was sought after far and near, when any expedition particularly hazardous or important was to be undertaken. Neither wind, rain, ice nor snow ever prevented bis fulfilling one of his promises. At one time, during the war, (sometime in September, 1813,) the British fleet bad endeavored to penetrate the port during a severe South-easterly storm just before day, but were repulsed from Sandy Hook. After the canonading was over, and the garrison at Fort Richmond had returned to quarters, it was highly important that some of the officers should proceed to headquarters, to report the occurrence, and obtain the necessary reinforcements against another attack. The storm was a fearful one-still the work must be done, and all felt that there was but one person capable of undertaking it. Accordingly, VANDERBILT was sought out, and upon being asked if he could take the party up, he replied promptly—“ Yes, but I shall have to carry them under water purt oj the way!" "They went with him, and when they landed at Coffee-House Slip, there was not a dry thread in the party. The next day the garrison was reinforced.
VANDERBILT also showed in these earlier days, what he has frequently exemplified in his later life, that he was very tenacious of his rights, and determined that no one should infringe them. Onone occasion, during the same war,
while his way to the city with a load of soldiers from the forts at the Narrows, he was hailed by a boat coming out from the shore, near the Quarantine. Seeing an officer on board, young VANDERBILT allowed it to approach him; but as it came nearer, he saw that it belonged to one of his leading competitors, and that the owner himself was with the officer. Still he awaited their approach, preparing to defend himself in case of any unauthorized interference. No sooner, however, were they alongside of his boat than the officer jumped on board, and ordered the soldiers ashore with him in the other boat, for inspection, etc. Young VANDERBILT seeing that t's whule affiir was a trick to transfer his passengers to his competitor, at once told the officer that the men should not move, that his order should not be obeyed. The military man, alınost bursting with rage, hastily drew his sword, as if about to avenge his insulted dignity, when young
VANDERBult quickly brought him, sword and all, to the deck. It did not take him many minutes more to rid himself of the officer and his companion, and quickly getting under way again his soldiers were soon landed, without further molestation, at the Whitehall dock.
But we have not room to dwell longer on these boyish exploits. They are important, bowever, as they forcibly illustrate the life and character of the man. Thus, the labors of young Vanderbilt having been rewarded with success, he now felt that the time had come when he might prudently carry out a long cherished wish. Having previously wooed and won Miss Sopara Jousson, of Port Richmond, Staten Island, they were married on the 19th of December, 1813. They settled temporarily on the Island, remaining there till the fall of 1814, when they moved to New York. About this time VANDERBILT became the master and owner of the new perryauger Dread, just launched, then by far the finest and largest craft traversing the bay of New York. In the summer of 1815 he built, in connection with his brother-in-law, DE FOREST, a scbooner remarkably large for her day. This vessel justly elicited the praise of others, and the pride and satisfaction of its owners. It was called the Charlotte, was commanded by De Forest, and profitably employed as a lighter, carrying freights between numerous home ports. Thus up to the year 1817, with varied experience, but always with success, VANDERBILT continued interested in the business we have indicated, improving the construction of vessels, and adding to his reputation among nautical men. Seven years were passed in this manner, from the time he was sixteen till some months after his twenty-third birth-day, laboring incessantly. During the last four years he had laid up nine thousand dollars of his earnings; yet his ambition was by no means satisfied. A new element had within a few years been made subservient to the
purposes of navigation, and quick to see the importance of this powerful agent steam, as thus applied, he determined to devote himself to exploring and developing its mysteries, as soon as an opportunity could be obtained. About this time he became acquainted with Thomas Gibbons, of New Jersey, a large capitalist, then extensively interested in the transportation of passengers between New York and Philadelphia. Very soon Gibbons proposed to take him into his employ, and offered him the position of captain of a little steamer, at a salary of one thousand dollars a year. For