Having concluded my nuptial celebration last week, my new hubby and I embarked on a short but welcome retreat up the Hudson River in New York. We chose a small hotel in the hamlet of Rhinecliff with balconies overlooking the beautiful river that flows in two directions. Surrounded by the river and the soft-shouldered Catskill Mountains, we were left to muse on the beauty and history of the region.
This happy location put us in the vicinity of Hyde Park, home of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt estate and library. But, being good conservatives, we eschewed a visit to the home of the father of American socialism and instead spent the day at the Vanderbilt mansion. This gorgeous edifice was the spring/summer retreat of Frederick William Vanderbilt, grandson of the patriarch, Cornelius.
Donated to the public by the Vanderbilt family in 1940 and run by the National Park Service, the mansion and grounds are magnificent; both a monument to a more genteel past, and a reminder that great wealth for a few is often conducive for a more general diffusion of same to the many; a lesson we seem to have forgotten.
The descendant of Dutch immigrants, Cornelius Vanderbilt was known as the Commodore after founding a massive steamship business, capitalizing in part on the California gold rush. He then parlayed this fortune into a railroad empire which included the New York Central and Hudson River lines and ultimately resulted in the construction of the Grand Central Terminal. At his death in 1877, his worth was estimated at $100 million — about $143 billion by today’s standards — making him America’s second richest man ever, behind John D. Rockefeller.
Determined that his wealth would be the cornerstone for an American dynasty, the flamboyant Commodore left the bulk of his estate to his son, William Henry Vanderbilt (1821-1885), who doubled the family fortune in less than a decade. Not quite the character that his father was, he was no less an exceptional entrepreneur who had no noble delusions about the family business: “The railroads are not run for the benefit of the ‘dear public’ — that cry is all nonsense — they are built by men who invest their money and expect to get a fair percentage on the same.”
Yet both father and son were philanthropists in the truest sense of the word. These brilliant and sometimes ruthless businessmen were some of the young country’s first philanthropists, giving among other gifts, a $1 million dollar endowment for Vanderbilt University, the largest charitable donation in American history up to that time. They also gave generously to the arts, helping to establish the Metropolitan Opera House.
This munificence also extended to their household help as was evidenced by the Commodore’s grandson, Frederick William Vanderbilt (1856-1938), the owner of the mansion I visited last week. As our excellent NPS guide informed us, the 60 or so servants at Hyde Park were treated well; indeed, each was paid twice the going rate. In addition, all the hired help and their families received free medical care from the Vanderbilts’ own family doctors as well as $1,000 endowments for their children’s college educations.
The Vanderbilts, whose empire grew on the heels of the Industrial Revolution, ushered in what was known as America’s Gilded Age; the period from the end of the Civil War to the onset of the 20th century. Great fortunes were made by men who took chances and worked hard; men who enjoyed the money that they earned and were not ashamed of it, building their mansions large and furnishing them expansively, as if to show the rest of the world what could be accomplished by these upstart Americans.
Of course some things never change. Men like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan were derided in their time as “robber barons” and worse. Yet, by the end of the Gilded Age, the nation experienced an explosion of wealth never witnessed in human history, and real prosperity was starting to spread to all classes of Americans.
And this would have been impossible without men like the Vanderbilts who built the railroads that employed thousands directly and enabled millions to share in the American dream they carried in their freight cars and steamships.