If you want to win at Monopoly, buy all four railroads, assuring a constant cash flow. Cornering the market on the freight and transportation industries (sailing vessels, steamboats, and railroads) was the strategy of notorious capitalist Cornelius Vanderbilt, who amassed the second-greatest fortune in American history. Born on Staten Island to a family of limited means during the administration of George Washington, he died in 1877, two months before the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes. Vanderbilt lived through the Louisiana Purchase and influenced the California Gold Rush, ultimately accumulating $105 million in assets, estimated in 2005 to approximate roughly three times Bill Gates’s net worth. Moreover, the 19th-century tycoon’s investments and economic machinations would radicalize mercantilism as well as the stock market.
Acclaimed biographer and Hudson Valley historian Edward J. Renehan Jr.’s Commodore (a title indicating mastery of nautical matters as well as of would-be competitors) is an obsessively researched portrait of a ruthless business operator (on his deathbed, Vanderbilt pronounced himself “insane” on the subject of “money-making”), an overbearing yet distant family man, a notorious penny-pincher, and a coarse anti-sophisticate. One of only four Vanderbilt biographies to date, and the first since 1942, Renehan’s book prominently features the Hudson River and surrounding environs, from which Vanderbilt launched his remarkable career.
A gifted horseman who would later cofound the racetrack at Saratoga, the young Cornelius also “displayed a natural talent for water-borne activities.” At age 16, he purchased and operated his first small vessel, an open-boat periauger, ferrying produce and passengers between Staten Island and Manhattan. Coming of age alongside the New York Stock Exchange and other powerful financial institutions, Vanderbilt established a lifelong principle, applicable to banking as well as to personal morality: “Everything was negotiable. Everything. Always.” Married by 1813 to cousin-once-removed Sophia Hand, with whom he produced 14 children, Vanderbilt was a stern husband and father, demanding household thriftiness and docility in equal measures; he was also a lifelong frequenter of prostitutes.