Cornelius Vanderbilt was the name of this notable youth,—the same Cornelius Vanderbilt who has since built a hundred steamboats, who has since made a present to his country of a steamship of five thousand tons’ burden, who has since bought lines of railroad, and who reported his income to the tax commissioners, last year at something near three quarters of a million. The first money the steamboat-king ever earned was by carrying passengers between Staten Island and New York at eighteen cents each.
His father, who was also named Cornelius, was the founder of the Staten Island ferry. He was a thriving farmer on the Island as early as 1794, tilling his own land near the Quarantine Ground, and conveying his produce to New York in his own boat. Frequently he would carry the produce of some of his neighbors, and, in course of time, he ran his boat regularly, leaving in the morning and returning at night, during the whole of the summer, and thus he established a ferry which has since become one of the most profitable in the world, carrying sometimes more than twelve thousand passengers in a day. He was an industrious, enterprising, liberal man, and early acquired a property which for that time was affluence. His wife was a singularly wise and energetic woman. She was the main stay of the family, since her husband was somewhat too liberal for his means, and not always prudent in his projects. Once, when her husband had fatally involved himself, and their farm was in danger of being sold for a debt of three thousand dollars, she produced, at the last extremity, her private store, and counted out the whole sum in gold pieces. She lived to the great age of eighty-seven, and left an estate of fifty thousand dollars, the fruit of her own industry and prudence. Her son, like many other distinguished men, loves to acknowledge that whatever he has, and whatever he is that is good, he owes to the precepts, the example, and the judicious government of his mother.
Cornelius, the eldest of their family of nine children, was born at the old farm-house on Staten Island, May 27, 1794. A healthy, vigorous boy, fond of out-door sports, excelling his companions in all boyish feats, on land and water, he had an unconquerable aversion to the confinement of the school-room. At that day, the school-room was, indeed, a dull and uninviting place, the lessons a tedious routine of learning by rote, and the teacher a tyrant, enforcing them by the terrors of the stick. The boy went to school a little, now and then, but learned little more than to read, write, and cipher, and these imperfectly. The only books he remembers using at school were the spelling-book and Testament. His real education was gained in working on his father’s farm, helping to sail his father’s boat, driving his father’s horses, swimming, riding, rowing, sporting with his young friends. He was a bold rider from infancy, and passionately fond of a fine horse. He tells his friends sometimes, that he rode a race-horse at full speed when he was but six years old. That he regrets not having acquired more school knowledge, that he values what is commonly called education, is shown by the care he has taken to have his own children well instructed.