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Robert McNamara

Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt

By January 4, 2013

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Newspapermen and curious onlookers crowded in front of a house on Washington Place in New York City 136 years ago today. The house was relatively modest considering it was the home of the richest man in America, Cornelius Vanderbilt.

On the morning of January 4, 1877, the 82-year-old Vanderbilt died after a long illness. Bulletins raced across the telegraph wires, and extensive obituaries would fill pages in the nation's newspapers in the following days.

Known as "The Commodore," in honor of his early years piloting boats in New York Harbor, Vanderbilt had amassed a fortune that was difficult to comprehend in the mid-1800s. His personal wealth was estimated to be $100 million.

Vanderbilt, who had started his career as a hardworking teenager on Staten Island ferrying produce across New York Harbor to Manhattan, eventually controlled a fleet of steamships and a network of railroads. Anyone in America who wanted to travel or transport anything eventually became his customer.

He was virtually uneducated, and the New York Tribune, on the day after his death, noted that "he could not write a note of five lines without betraying ignorance of grammar and spelling book." Yet a fanatical work discipline as well as a ruthlessness toward any and all competitors had made "The Commodore" a central figure in American business.

More: Biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt

Photograph: Statue of Cornelius Vanderbilt outside Grand Central Station in New York City/photograph by Robert McNamara

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