19. William Henry Vanderbilt, although inheriting a significant portion of his wealth, nonetheless earned more than $20 billion in today’s terms in just eight years
William Henry Vanderbilt (b. 1821) was an American businessman and the eldest son of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Entering into the family businesses at the age of nineteen, William quickly rose through the railway ranks to become President of the Staten Island Railway in 1862. Becoming also President of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad in 1877, he succeeded his father as the head of more than a dozen other major railway companies upon his death in the same year. Inheriting also one hundred million dollars from his father’s estate, William set about investing in an effort to surpass his father’s exorbitant peak wealth.
In this pursuit, William became the center of a noteworthy controversy in 1883. Asked whether he ran trains as a public service or a profit-making venture, William replied angrily: “the public be damned!” Clarifying his comments at a later date, William more calmly contended “railroads are not run for the public benefit, but to pay. Incidentally, we may benefit humanity, but the aim is to earn a dividend.” Dying only eight years after his father in 1885, in that time William had succeeded in doubling his father’s inheritance, with the projected value of his estate at this time to be roughly $52,000,000,000 today.