Tuesday, January 26, 2016


While I was in Newport, Rhode Island, I visited a bookstore and bought a book about the history of the Vanderbilt family.  I had heard of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt who had amassed the wealth, and the Vanderbilt name was linked with rich elite, but the name was not as commonly referred to as Rockerfeller or Roosevelt so I didn’t know much of anything about them.  Perhaps if Grand Central Station had been named Vanderbilt Center, they’d still be more in the forefront.

What I learned was that Cornelius Vanderbilt was born and raised on a farm on Staten Island.  When he was a teenager, he worked a ferry service shuttling people and produce from the farms on Staten Island to various docks in Manhattan.  While continuing his ferry service, he went to work managing the steamboat service of Thomas Gibbons who wanted to drive his competition to either sell out to him or go out of business.   

Cornelius to New Jersey with his wife Sophia, also his first cousin, and she opened a profitable inn there.  For the California Gold Rush, Vanderbilt turned to ocean shipping.   Then he bought the stock of the Harlem Railroad, made it profitable, and the rest is history..

The competitiveness was passed through the generations – his grandson Cornelius II bought the block on Fifth Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets to build the biggest house ever constructed in the US.  And why?  Because he wanted to outdo his friends and neighbors.  By contrast, the amasser of the
Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt House
10 Washington Place, NY
wealth, the Commodore moved from New Jersey to a relatively moderate home at 10 Washington Place (torn down to build a 6-story commercial building in 1900) which is now owned by NYU.  I was there while it was being renovated and took a walk inside. 

After his first wife (Sophia) died in 1868, Commodore Vanderbilt eloped in 1869 with another cousin, 43 years his junior.  Her name was Frank Armstrong.  A year later he financially sponsored Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tinny in become members of the New York Stock Exchange.  There were rumors that Vanderbilt had an affair with Tinny, also much younger than he.  The Woodhulls made a fortune on Wall Street and started their newspaper Woodull & Clafflin’s Weekly which published the first English version of Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx.  Did the Commodore read it, I wonder.

Commodore Vanderbilt donated land to the Moravian Church in Staten Island and that is where he and some other members of his family are buried.  I wanted to see it, so I took a trip over to Staten Island.  

I only visited Staten Island twice while I lived in Brooklyn.  I drove across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (this is the bridge in Saturday Night Fever) just for fun and was surprised when I was charged a hefty toll to get back to Brooklyn.  The second visit, I took the ferry from Manhattan.  Staten Island doesn’t have a subway (underground), but it does have a train which I took to the New Dorp stop and walked up to the cemetery.  The feeling being there was like a fishing village.  The area isn't as densely populated or over-constructed as the other boroughs, and the feeling is lighter, newer.

I knew from the book that the Vanderbilt Mausoleum was at the rear of the cemetery and so that’s where I headed.  At the back, I passed a vaulted exit with locked iron gates and couldn’t find the Vanderbilts.  I asked some people in the cemetery and they directed me back to that vaulted exit.  That was the entrance to the Vanderbilt portion of the cemetery.  I found my way passed the gate and into a weird, silent, dead feeling.  I walked about a quarter of a mile up a narrow road, passing lots of fallen dead trees and not seeing or hearing a living creature – not a bird or squirrel – the whole way.

Vanderbilt Tomb Interior
At the top, the feeling was creepy.  The Vanderbilt Mausoleum resembles a small church with three sets of doors at the front and small vaulted windows above them.  At one time the doors were iron gates, but in the 1960s a woman pulled on the gates trying to get inside the tomb and the gates fell on her and killed her.  So, the gates have been replaced with gray steel industrial doors with padlocks.  The windows above the doors have been stopped up with concrete blocks. 

It is difficult to describe the feeling – sadness, loneliness, desolation.  But certainly the place felt empty.   I didn’t linger.  I would never want to go back there.

It was only when I was walking back down through the cemetery that I realized I was walking on the farmland where Cornelius Vanderbilt grew up.

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