In addition to trying to show how everything’s connected (does that sound a tad ambitious, hehe) I’ve also come to see these writings as a kind of incidental catalog – a tiny way to make some order out of the endless and overlapping stimulus and artifacts, people and history that make up New York; a way to keep it all straight. I often think that I should be a bit more systematic about it all: actually make lists and follow them; of neighborhoods for example, or skyscrapers or churches or certain types of buildings, certain architects or influential New York persona. But the whole point of life I think is that it isn’t systematic; that one can casually pick up some bits of knowledge as one goes along, to be returned to or forgotten as one needs – a catalog made on the run. That’s how it seems to really work in practice at least, and practice is reality, and reality is fun. Well is it fun? Most of the time.
Cornelius Vanderbilt is one of those New York persona I’ve had in mind, since touching upon him when writing on Grand Central Station. Following the path of his life would bring you in touch with a lot of the city. Vanderbilt’s life (as biographer T.J. Stiles notes) spanned “the presidency of George Washington through the days of John D. Rockefeller.” Born on Staten Island in 1794, the pugilistic capitalist made his fortune in steam boats during the laissez-faire days of Jacksonian Democracy, before making an even epically huger fortune in shipping (specifically to California during the gold-rush) and railroads. He stopped going to school at age 11, and though literate was never much of a speller. He married his first cousin and had 13 children with her. When she died late in his life he apparently married another cousin, 43 years his junior. He was worth over $100 million upon his death in 1877, a record amount at the time, and left almost all of it to just one son. (Daniel Day Lewis would probably love to play this guy…and he’d only have to shave off his Lincoln beard and keep the muttonchops).
Vanderbilt’s wealth (if not his cultured respectability) allowed him to become an early member of the New York Yacht Club – founded in 1844 by John Cox Stevens. Stevens was the eldest son of Revolutionary War colonel John Stevens, the one-time owner of almost all of present day Hoboken. Colonel Stevens and his second son Robert Livingston Stevens where sometime allies, sometime rivals of Vanderbilt – running steamship lines out of New Jersey and up the Hudson. Robert L. Stevens was also president of one of the earliest railroads in the country: the New Jersey based Camden & Amboy Railroad, which began running in 1833. That same year saw the Hightstown rail accident: the earliest recorded train accident involving the death of passengers (2 killed when the train de-railed). Vanderbilt himself was on board and almost lost his life when his lung was punctured in the crash. It didn’t stop him from riding railroads though, or buying railroads, or racing his steamboats against his rivals.
The New York Yacht Club was founded with racing in mind too, though specifically the more patrician-worthy sail-boat type of racing (their schooner America won the first America‘s Cup in 1851, for which the trophy was then named). The Yacht Club’s first home was in Hoboken, on land donated by Stevens, changing locations through the years (Staten Island, Mystic Connecticut) as their membership grew. They didn’t build their current clubhouse on West 44th Street until 1899. The Beaux-Arts building, replete with some pretty impressive nautical decorations, was the first building designed by Warren & Wetmore (responsible for Chelsea Piers and the Con Edison tower by Union Square), the same firm that would go on design the exterior of the current Grand Central Station. Grand Central Station: the depot for the various rail-lines Vanderbilt himself owned. So there you go, right back to old Cornelius again….that same reminder that maybe anyone’s personal history can be a proxy for the greater history around them, although it probably helps if you were the richest person in the country. But who knows, maybe I’ll stick with this awhile and see where Vanderbilt’s tangents take me. Yeah, let’s get all systematical!