Award-winning author and longtime St. John visitor T.J. Stiles discusses his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, with attendees on Tuesday, March 22.
Every seat was filled at the Elaine I. Sprauve Library on Tuesday evening, March 22, as audience members eagerly awaited award-winning author T.J. Stiles’ presentation of his book, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Stiles, whose parents own a home in Fish Bay, has been visiting the Virgin Islands for more than 20 years. The author focused on Cornelius Vanderbilt’s ties to the Caribbean during the presentation of his comprehensive biography of the 19th century magnate.
“Vanderbilt so closely identified with New York City, but his life was very wrapped up in Caribbean waters,” said Stiles.
Vanderbilt, who built up the fortune that his family is still known for today, came from a modest, hard-working family, and lived simply, Stiles explained. Thanks in large part to Vanderbilt’s innovation, the U.S. went from a smattering of colonies on the Atlantic coast when he was born in 1794 to a continental empire when he died in 1877.
“His life was wrapped around that change,” said Stiles.
Vanderbilt’s interest in transportation began in 1810, when, as a young teen, he got into the ferry business. Despite his lack of education — or perhaps, because of it — Vanderbilt brought a fresh approach to business matters, helping him to become wildly successful.
The tycoon’s ties with the Caribbean began with the 1849 California gold rush, when it became apparent that traversing the U.S. via wagon train was too time-consuming. Passengers began traveling on steam ships from the east coast south to Panama, where they rode the rails across the Central American country, picking up steam ships on the Pacific side to continue their journey to California.
Vanderbilt saw an opportunity and created his own route via canal in Nicaragua, whose more northerly latitude saved time over the Panama route. He shunned more modern engine designs in favor of an old-fashioned setup, helping him to edge out his competition.
“Vanderbilt’s ships were consistently the fastest and most fuel efficient,” said Stiles.
Vanderbilt eventually sold his ships to his business partners, who owned the Nicaragua route, effectively taking himself out of the business, and after the takeover of Nicaragua by American William Walker, Vanderbilt was never able to reopen the route.
Instead, owners of the Panama route paid him a monthly sum to stay out of Nicaragua.
“He effectively collected a toll on all Americans who had business in California,” said Stiles. “At that time, competition was condemned by many, and Vanderbilt was called a ‘robber baron.’ He began to create the idea that there are corporations so vast, we need to regulate them.”
Stiles delved further into the personality of a man who’s been depicted as a brutal tyrant.
“He was demanding and exacting, but true to his word,” said Stiles. “People could trust him, even if they wouldn’t invite him to dinner.”
“He was very confident in everything that he did,” Stiles continued. “But he was never so villainous that you wanted to give up on him.”