As a young boy, Vanderbilt worked on ferries in New York City, quitting school at age 11. By age 16, he was operating his own business, ferrying freight and passengers. By 1830, his business had expanded to the Hudson River. Soon he controlled coastal trade along the entire coast of New England. During the California Gold Rush, he ran a steamship line from New York to California via Nicaragua.
In the early 1860s, Vanderbilt started withdrawing capital from steamships and investing in railroads. By 1867, he owned the New York Central and Harlem railroads. By 1873, he had connected Chicago to New York City.
He founded Vanderbilt University with a grant of $1 million.
At the time of his death, Vanderbilt, at a net worth of over $100 million, was the richest man in the world. He left $95 million of this fortune to his eldest son, William Henry Vanderbilt.