Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Cornelius Vanderbilt, A Young Millionaire not afraid to Work in Overalls

A tall, slender young man walked into the office of the master of motive power and construction, in the Grand Central Station, New York. He was dressed in clothes that showed marks of travel, and his face had a tired look. This was young Cornelius Vanderbilt, son of the head of the house of Vanderbilt, and great-grandson of his namesake, the founder of the Vanderbilt fortune. Cornelius had come to the office to report to the man under whom he is working, for the heir to the Vanderbilt millions was then serving his apprenticeship in the railroad business, and had to report the work he had accomplished, just like any other young mechanic on the road. Every clerk in the office stared at him, but the stare was affectionate, for every employee of the road has learned to like him. They have seen him with jacket and overalls, working in the yards and in the round-houses and machine-shops all along the system.

"It was not a sudden determination which led me to go out on the road and study the practical side of the railroad business," said young Cornelius Vanderbilt, in answer to my question as to his motive; "I had long intended to do it, because I know that the best way to learn a business is to begin at the bottom and work up. So when Mr. Depew arranged for me to begin in this department, I gladly accepted the place. I have been out on the road, off and on, for several months, and feel that I have learned a great deal that I could never have learned in any other way."


"I have enjoyed the experience, too. I think I have had a natural inclination for mechanics all my life, and I enjoyed having to do with engines and the construction of the roadbed. I am learning, gradually, of course, to build an engine, and to run one successfully. It won't be long before I can do that."

"And what will you undertake when you have finished with the construction and motive-power departments?" I asked.

"Well, I haven't planned that far ahead yet, but I hope, eventually, to know as much about the finances of the road as I do about the mechanics, and I also want to know something of the way in which the road is managed. All this will take time, but I am determined to give it all the time it needs. I think the advantages to be derived from such a training are worth a great deal of time and work."

"Does it seem like very hard work to you?"

"No; you know, I'm very much interested in such things, and so I don't mind the work. I would much prefer working in the yards and round-houses to working in the offices. It is much more to my taste."

I asked Mr. Vanderbilt whether he ever expected to run an engine attached to a train, and he said he had no idea of doing so, but he could, if necessary. "I'm glad to know how," he said.

And then Mr. Vanderbilt went to attend to some work awaiting him outside, and I entered Mr. Depew's office. When I asked Mr. Depew to tell me something more of the young man whom he has so nobly befriended in all his trials, he spoke with great animation.


"Cornelius," said he, "is a remarkable youth. From his early boyhood, I have seen in him signs of a peculiar ability. He has always been passionately fond of mechanics, and once, when a boy, was found trying to construct a steam engine out of an old saucepan. I have always hoped that he would enter actively into the work of the road, and I believe he has now begun a career that will prove both remarkable and glorious. I believe that, by pursuing this course, he will be the greatest railroad man of the age."

"Where did he get this natural taste for the work, Mr. Depew ?" I asked.

"From his father, who did much the same work, when he was young, that Cornelius, Jr., is doing now.

But I believe Cornelius, Jr., takes an even greater interest in the work. It is not a new duty with him, but a natural ambition, and I believe that he would have become a railroad man even if he were the son of the poorest parents in the land. He is fitted by nature for such a career.

"His progress has so far been very satisfactory in every way. He has a genius for mastering details, and has already learned the construction of a locomotive. He has an inventive faculty, too, and has prepared plans for a locomotive that will achieve greater speed with smaller expenditure of coal. He expects to devote the next few years to mastering every department of railroad business, and he will eventually be competent to fill almost any position on the road. He will shovel coal and dig in the trenches, and polish engines. He will lay rails and take them up, and learn how to mend a cracked one. He will learn to detect uncertain ground, too, and how to make it solid again. He agrees with me that the way to make a workman respect you is to work with him."


"When he has finished his work on the road, he will take his place in the ofifices here, and learn how the system is administered. He will study the financial department especially, which deals with expenditures and receipts. This is, perhaps, the most important department of all for him, but he will also study the freight and passenger departments, and learn why the business increases and decreases, and the remedy for a falling off. There are a hundred and one things to learn, and he couldn't learn them in any other way. It will, of course, take a long time, perhaps fourteen or fifteen years, but he has a great deal of grit and perseverance, and I believe he will stick to it until he has thoroughly mastered the business.

"He will, in all likelihood, be the next member of the family to enter into the active management of the road. His brothers and cousins may eventually go through the same training, but Cornelius, Jr., is destined to be the most active in the management. I may not live to see it, but if his health holds out, and he is allowed to pursue his own course, he will perpetuate the name and fame of the Vanderbilts for another century."

"He is a chip of the old block, indeed," said another friend of the Vanderbilt family, "and his industry brings to mind the push and energy of the first Cornelius Vanderbilt in the early part of his career. The Commodore was never ashamed of any kind of honest work, and Cornelius is not. He will always be a worker, and his success in life is therefore assured, whether his father disinherits him or not. It is not believed, however, that Cornelius Vanderbilt will deprive his son of his fair share in the estate. On the contrary, however strong the feeling of displeasure the father may have entertained toward Cornelius, it is thought by friends of the family that he will treat his son and namesake fairly and even liberally."


Young Cornelius, in his work as a machinist and office clerk, presents an example which other sons of millionaires could follow with profit. He is not alone, however, among yoimg men of his class in training for a useful life. One of New York's richest young men is said to be not only a worker, but an authority on mechanics, and is able both to roll up his shirt-sleeves and go to the bench, and to describe in the minutest detail the work on which he is engaged. His ability in the mechanical line would probably have won wealth and success for him, even had he not been born to a vast fortune. At the same time, the course of the next in succession to the control of the Vanderbilt millions, in entering upon an education in skilled labor as a common workingman, is an excellent assurance that the family stock is not degenerating, and that its interests are in trustworthy hands.

The ambition of Commodore Vanderbilt to establish and perpetuate a great railway empire seems likely to be fulfilled, so far as the present and the rising generation of the Vanderbilts are concerned. It is the most remarkable experiment of the kind since the beginning of the American republic.

«— Chapter 10, Lyman Gage || Index Page || Chapter 12, Colonel Robert C. Clowry —»