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Vanderbilt Survived Disaster to Be First Tycoon: Lewis Lapham

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Lewis Lapham
Lewis Lapham, of "Lapham's Quarterly," in New York. Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

July 10 (Bloomberg) -- It was Friday, Nov. 8, 1833, and the New Jersey train from Amboy to Bordentown was jammed. VIPs onboard included former U.S. President John Quincy Adams. A fire broke out and a carriage derailed, leading to the first recorded train accident involving the death of passengers.

Describing the bleeding, mangled and moaning injured lying along the road, Adams called it “the most dreadful catastrophe that ever my eyes beheld.”

Also on the train was 39-year-old Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose body was shattered, crushed ribs piercing his lung. Even in pain, blood filling his mouth, Vanderbilt kept his head and his commanding style. Not waiting for help, he arranged his own rescue, ordering that he be moved to a nearby cottage and that doctors be sent for.

He later said if he had died then, “the world would not have known that I had lived.” He went on to carve out a great transportation empire and shape the U.S. business landscape. By the end of Vanderbilt’s life in 1877, his assets represented one out of every twenty dollars in circulation.

T.J. Stiles’s biography, “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt” (Vintage), which won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, was recently published in paperback. I spoke with the author on the following topics:

1. Revolutionary Capitalist

2. Competition vs. Monopoly

3. Business Betrayal

4. Steamships to Railroads

5. Founding a Dynasty

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at lhl@laphamsquarterly.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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