Aspire | Action | Acquire
Aspire | Action | Acquire

Defining competitive strengths

It was not until the age of thirty-nine that Cornelius Vanderbilt sailed himself to South Ambon, New Jersey, to experience his first train ride. Described by biographer T J Styles, three flattop passenger carriages were linked by heavy chains to a locomotive that resembled an oversize barrel with a smokestack in front. This was in November 1833 at the dawn of America’s rail era. As the locomotive chugged away from the station one of its two axles broke flinging Vanderbilt from the middle carriage to the bottom of an embankment. Unperturbed from his near-death experience, the tall and physically robust Vanderbilt would emerge four decades later as the king of the New York Central.

Vanderbilt’s first experience with rail was not without precedent. Having apprenticed to his father for five years, Vanderbilt bought his first sailboat, a periauger, at age sixteen. Popular legend has it that his mother required him to plough an eight-acre patch of untilled family land before loaning him $100 to buy the boat. This he did with the same resourcefulness he would demonstrate time and time over again by enlisting the help of others. On his maiden voyage, the young mariner pulled away from the dock and collided with a large rock below the water’s surface. This maiden misadventure did not deter Vanderbilt’s ambitions.

In an industry renown for bare-knuckle physical competition, Vanderbilt grew a small fleet of sail-powered vessels servicing passengers and freight between Staten Island and New York. On one adventure, he repeatedly pressed the setting pole to propel his periauger ahead of his main rival and tore a hole in his chest, leaving a lifelong scar. On another, he had fisticuffs with a passenger. At the age of twenty-three having acquired competitor boats, Vanderbilt embarked on a second apprenticeship that would become a partnership in steamboats. Vanderbilt’s life was a series of repeated experiences.

In business, competitive pursuits are for market share or stock ownership. Vanderbilt would overcome recurring setbacks to master both. His venture into steamboats culminated in attempting to open the Nicaragua Canal to transcontinental passenger traffic and the cartage of US mail. On making a maiden voyage, and reminiscent of an earlier cited instance, the riverboat’s pilot scraped the hull on rocks. Aged fifty-seven, “the Commodore,” as he’d become known, rescued the riverboat from its perilous course. One day later, he and his passengers and crew were defeated by the Castillo rapids and were paddled or carried ashore. On his final voyage, Vanderbilt would again personally command his boat from near certain disaster in the middle of the night.

Undeterred by adversity, Vanderbilt grew a transcontinental fleet which he later sold to the Accessory Transit Company. He then used the funds from the sale to amass a majority of the suitor’s publicly traded shares; only to see the company’s transit rights revoked and his vessels stolen in an act of revenge. With military-like precision he delegated a bloodless coup to retrieve his boats and set up the Atlantic & Pacific Steamship Company which he would sell to pursue the New York Central Railroad. Akin to an athlete, the Commodore took any setback as training for the next encounter.

At the age of seventy, what the Commodore had experienced in his quest for control of the Accessory Transit Company would stand him strong to gain control of the New York Central.


[1] Stiles, T. J., The First Tycoon (New York: Vintage, 2010), 90.