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Golf in the Gilded Age:
Robber Barons, Railroads, and Resort Hotels
3: Robber Barons

A. The Gilded Age Tycoons
B. Astors
C. Vanderbilts
D. Carnegie
E. Morgan
F. Rockefeller

American golf had its birth in the Gilded Age (1870s-1890s), and by the close of the 19th century the United States had more golf courses than Britain. This start is inextricably intertwined with the dominant Tycoons of the day, and this in turn entangles the foundation of golf in America with the expansion of their railroads and their associated Grand Hotels in exclusive resort locations.

From 1900 to the advent of WWII, golf in America added sinew and muscle on this underlying frame to make the Resort golf experience truly spectacular and widely accessible outside the echelons of elite society. The enduring legacy has been that the popularization of golf in America is indelibly stamped with the watermark of excellence set by these fabulous early Resorts.

Robber Barons

A. The Gilded Age Tycoons

The Richest Americans Ever - a comparative assessment of wealth

Dollar figures below are in terms of today's money (e.g., John D. Rockefeller $192 Billion, Bill Gates $82 Billion, Sam Walton $53 Billion, Warren Buffet $46 Billion).

John Jacob Astor
Fur trader

$116 Billion (2007 $)

Made his fortune in the fur trade business of the American midwest. Second richest man in American history after John D. Rockefeller.

Robber Barons - John Jacob Astor

John Jacob Astor - Wikipedia

John Jacob Astor III
NYC Real Estate based upon Grandfather's fur trading, slum lord, Waldorf-Astoria Hotel

The Astor family ruled New York social life and defended against the "new money" of the Vanderbilts, maintaining an elite social register of 400 families that excluded the Vanderbilts for years. In response to exclusion from the NY Music Society, the Vanderbilts constructed their own Metropolitan Opera House.

When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age, by Justin Kaplan (Plume Books 2007).

First Four Hundred : New York and the Gilded Age, by Jerry E. Patterson

Mrs. Astor's New York: Money and Social Power in a Gilded Age, by Eric Homberger

Four Very Rich Men - Rockefeller, Astor, Vanderbilt, Gould, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 27, 1890

Jay Gould
Railroads and Stock Scandals

Erie RR (for which he battled and won against Cornelius Vanderbilt), American Telegraph Co. (which he forced son William H. Vanderbilt to buy), involved with Boss Tweed / Tammany hall scandal by making Tweed director of Erie RR in exchange for legislative favors. Lost control of Erie RR when he tried to boost price of gold (buying it up) to induce higher prices for wheat farmers who would then ship on his Erie RR but instead started a panic that threatened the whole economy. The scheme depended upon the US Government NOT selling its gold, which Gould sought to insure by associating President Grant's brother-in-law and his Assistant Treasury Secretary in the plot. Gold prices soarde, stocks plummeted, many were runied, Grant found out and sold US gold to stave off further harm, and Gould was foiled but suffered little damage except to his reputation. Then went after midwestern RRs and the Uniuon Pacific, as well as NYC Elevated Trains.

Jay Gould

Jay Gould

Sam Sloan 1817-1907
Citibank, US Trust, Western Union,
Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Company

Samuel Sloan Biography

JP Morgan

$38 Billion (2007 $)

Banker who specialized in business reorganization financing and management, particularly railroads. Fought for Erie against Gould, consolidated many railroads. Help President Cleveland restore gold reserves with huge loan, then backed McKinley against William jennings Bryan to support gold standard. later acquired transaltantic steamships that became the White Star Line, owner of the HMS Titanic. Bought Carnegie's steel company for $480 Million to found US Steel.

At the time of his death, he had an estate worth $68.3 million ($1.39 billion in today's dollars), of which about $30 million represented his share in the New York and Philadelphia banks. The value of his art collection was estimated at $50 million.

The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance

Morgan: American Financier, by Jean Strouse, Random House Inc.

J. P. Morgan - Wikipedia

The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy, by Charles R. Morris

JP Morgan obit

Collis Huntington
Big Four in Central Pacific RR

$33 Billion (2007 $)

Collis Huntington obit

Charles Croker
Big Four in Central Pacific RR

In 1861, after hearing a very intriguing presentation by Theodore Judah, he was one of the four principal investors along with Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington and Leland Stanford who formed the Central Pacific Railroad, which became the western portion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in North America.

Mark Hopkins
Big Four in Central Pacific RR

Leland Standford
Big Four in Central Pacific RR

TC Durant, 1820-1885
Union Pacific RR

Durant was the principal UP officer behind the infamous Crédit Mobilier scandal, by which the UP used false accounting, shell companies, and fraudulent billing to bilk the taxpayers and enrich themselves. See the PBS story and profile of Durant comparing this watershed episode with today's Enron fiasco, mild by comparison and not involving direct defrauding of the taxpayers or the government. Durant was the "Darth Vader" of UP chicanery and avarice. David Bain, Empire Express (Viking Press). See also Crédit Mobilier of America scandal, Wikipedia; Thomas C. Durant, Wikipedia.

Credit Mobilier expose 1873, by Martin

Durant used his ill-gotten gains to build the Adirondack Railroad (later part of the Delaware and Hudson RR), but he was wiped out by the Great Panic of 1873 and died broke.

The Adirondack Railroad was an important part of the social and industrial history of the Adirondacks. The line was built from Saratoga Springs to North Creek just after the Civil War. They started building out of Saratoga in 1865 and reached North Creek in 1871. The tracks were built by Dr. Thomas Durant, who was the General Manager of the Union Pacific Railroad, the eastern branch of the Transcontinental Railroad. After this railroad was built, Dr. Durant made North Creek his home and he later died there. Dr. Durant and Leland Stanford, who later became Governor of California and for whom Stanford University is named, drove the golden spike at Promintory Point, Utah that linked the Nations railroads together.

In return for building 60 miles of track, Dr. Durant and Mr. Stanford received 6 or 7 hundred thousand acres of land in the Central Adirondacks. They owned all of Blue Mt. Lake and Eagle and Utowana Lakes, south of the Blue Mt. Lake, and a significant portion of land on the North Shore of Raquette Lake. Pioneers of today’s Tourism Industry.

Dr. Durant and his son, William West Durant, were among the first people to successfully bring tourists and travelers into the Adirondacks. By building a reliable transportation system and building hotels and camps on the lakes, they were able to entice travelers into the mountains at a time when the cities were without air-conditioning, and there was still a lot of disease, smoke and filth in the cities during the summer.

They owned the railroad that brought people to North Creek, they owned the stagecoach that took you to Blue Mt. Lake, they owned the boats on the lake and the hotels on the lake. In 1889, they built the Prospect Mountain House, which was the first hotel in the world with an electric light in every room.

Tracks Through Time, Upper Hudson Valley

TC Durant, the Union Pacific, and the Credit Mobilier scandal

James J. Hill, 1838-1916
Burlington Northern Railroad
The "Empire Builder"

Born in Rockwood, Ontario, Hill first entered the railroad business from St Paul MN, when he was able to structure the purchase of the St Paul & Pacific RR, then distressed by the Great Pnaic of 1873, for about 20% of its worth. Hill extended the line north to Fort Garry (now Winnipeg) to connect with the Canadian Pacific and showed great skill in surveying and track building. He received 2,000,000 acres in land grants for the development and was able to promote the sale of this land to Scandinavian immigrants.

Hill next extended his railway from St Paul to the west coast to Seattle, running his line north of the Northern Pacific and constructing his track without benefit of government subsidy. He completed his line to Seattle, making Seattlle an important shipping port between the cotton merchants of America and China and Japan, returning to the developing midwest and east with western lumber and minerals, building towna and states along the route. Hill was especially skillful at attracting and assisting Scotsmen, Englishmen, Norwegians, and Swedes to settle in the Pacific Northwest. This railroad became the Great Northern Railway.

In the Panic of 1893 when most railroads had their economic weaknesses exposed and thus became vulnerable to takeover, Hill's Great Northern Railway withstood takeover challenges and he eventually acquired the Northern Pacific. His efforts to extend operations in Oregon came into conflict with EH Harriman and his Southern Pacific. The battle was often violent and litigious and ended in a stalemate. Hill again battled Harriman for control of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, which he won, forming the Burlington Northern.

James J. Hill - Wikipedia

James J Hill and the Building of His Railroad Empire -

J. J. Hill Dead In St. Paul Home At The Age of 77

Cornelius Vanderbilt
Steamships, Railroads


Started out with ferries, then steamships, then railroads.

$143 Billion (2007 $)($100 Million in 1877)

Ferry worker who captained steamboats, challenged a NY-granted monopoly on steamboat traffic by undercutting their prices and when they sued, he took the case to the US Supreme Court and had the monopoly declared invalid. Then started steamboat business along Hudson River valley, with 100 steamboats and more workers than any business in the USA. Joined LIRR in 1844 due to its steamboat shortcut linking NYC and Boston via Long Island. Started investing in NY-CT railroads in 1860s, consolidated circa 1871 in his new Grand Central Station. Fought battle over Erie RR with Jay Gould and lost. Disinherited all sons and gave pittances to wife and 12 daughters, leaving 95% to eldest son William Henry.

Commodore Vanderbilt: Cornelius Vanderbilt 1794-1877

William Henry Vanderbilt
"Billy" the "blockhead" and "blatherskite"
(so Cornelius on his eldest son)

Though he lacked the enthusiasm for the business wars his father thrived on, William Henry Vanderbilt died in 1885 with twice what he had inherited. In his will, he explained that $200 million was too much for any individual. "There is no pleasure to be got out of it as an offset - no good of any kind." He was generous to all eight children, with the larger shares going to his two oldest sons who now managed the railroads. It was this generation who would elevate spending money to an art and who, with the exception of Frederick, would dissipate most of it in the process. The Commodore's dream of keeping the fortune intact died with the century. The House of Vanderbilt, National Park Service

8 children: 4 sons

Inherited $100 million, left $200 million (1880s values)

Vanderbilt: The Contest over the Dead Commodore's Millions, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 13, 1877

Four Very Rich Men - Rockefeller, Astor, Vanderbilt, Gould, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 27, 1890

"I have been insane on the subject of moneymaking all my life," Cornelius Vanderbilt once admitted. He was born on Staten Island in 1794 into a family rich in the Dutch heritage of colonial New York but modest in means. His entrepreneurial talent emerged at age 16 when he began a ferry service to Manhattan. By the 1840s his steamship lines to ports all along the Atlantic coast placed him on a par with the most successful industrialists and earned him the name Commodore.

Vanderbilt began buying up struggling railroads in the 1860s and making them profitable. His trains ran on schedule and the service was good. His New York Central Railroad grew into the nation's biggest business by the 1870s. The hub of this network, which he expanded throughout the Northeast and to Chicago, was Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.

Long after his death, the Commodore was described thus: "The largest employer of labor in the United States, he despised all routine office work; kept his figures in a vest-pocket book; ate sparingly; never speculated in stocks; never refused to see a caller; rose early; read Pilgrim's Progress every year, and, for diversion, played whist and drove his trotters whenever he could." At his death in 1877 he had $100 million. By leaving the bulk of his fortune to one heir, his son William Henry, he established a dynasty that promised to take the name and fortune to still greater heights. The House of Vanderbilt, National Park Service

Frederick William Vanderbilt

Frederick William Vanderbilt was the grandson of Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt and the son of William Henry Vanderbilt - both the richest men in America in their time. The Vanderbilts redefined what it meant to be wealthy.

Besides a Fifth Avenue townhouse, the Vanderbilts owned a private railroad car, yachts, automobiles, and homes in Bar Harbor, Newport, and the Adirondacks, as well as in Hyde Park. The Hyde Park property was, by all accounts, their favorite.

He was the first in his family to graduate from college. He sat on the boards of 22 railroads - he was a director of the New York Central for 61 years. Unlike any of his brothers or their children, he managed to increase the $10 million inheritance he received at age 29 to $70 million by the time he died. Hyde Park,, Family History, NPS

William K. Vanderbilt I

Inherited $55 Million (1885 $)
2nd son of William H. Vanderbilt
brother to Frederick William Vanderbilt
father of William K. Vanderbilt II and Harold Vanderbilt

Ran the railroad for awhile, his wife divorced him for neighbor and friend Oliver Belmont, and he moved to Deauville France where he raised and raced thoroughbred horses.

How did the richest family in America spend money? Yachting, horse breeding, and racing automobiles became family avocations. They attended opera, attired in top hats and tiaras, and collected art. They gave to worthy causes, married European titles. Every one of William Henry's eight children eventually owned a mansion on Fifth Avenue as well as several "cottages" in the country or by the sea. With their grandfather's millions, the younger Vanderbilts gained admission to drawing rooms and ballrooms where the Commodore himself would have been unwelcome.
Hyde Park,, Family History, NPS

Where is the money today? All gone.

Arthur Vanderbilt, Fortune's Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt (Sphere Books Ltd., 1991)

It is the story of how the seemingly solid fortune of railroad mogul Commodore Vanderbilt was dissipated down to practically nothing in the space of a century. In this family history, Vanderbilt dramatizes both the successes and excesses of America's Gilded Age--the enormous new wealth, the lavish lifestyles, and, later, the desperate schemes to maintain social status and fortune (contesting wills, matchmaking with nobility, and, most notably, battling for custody of "Little Gloria"). But the story is not so much about people as the palaces they built--the Breakers, the Biltmore, and mansions which used to occupy blocks of now-prime Manhattan real estate--all of which became white elephants sold to preservation societies or Towers of Babels that fell under a wave of taxes and upkeep cost. An absorbing social history.

"The Commodore" (1794-1877) made $105 million by hook and by crook; Alva, wife of the founding father's son William, went on spending sprees that later heirs followed. Stories about the author's ancestors have been told before, but not so vividly as in his evocations of the snobbery, ostentation and profligacy that caused "the fall of the House of Vanderbilt." Today's Vanderbilts are not rich-rich; the money is gone with the clan's grand homes, felled by wrecking balls in New York and elsewhere, leaving only memories of a singular time in the American past.

William K. ("Willie Jr.") Vanderbilt II

Inhereited millions, loved auto racing, married hier to Comstock fortune, lived in parents' summer house on LI at Oakdale, built Deepdale at Great Neck LI, built Manhattan townhouse, dabbled at the NYCRR office, set land speed record of 92 mph at Ormond Beach in 1904, built Eagle's nest at Centerport LI, built winter residence on Fisher Island Florida (owned the whole island) with 11-hole golf course, owned farm in Tennessee and hunting lodge in British Columbia designed for his father by Stanford White, remarried to hier to Wannamakler fortune.

"At age 10, during a stay in the south of France he had ridden in a steam-powered tricycle from Beaulieu-sur-Mer the 7 kilometers to Monte Carlo." William K. Vanderbilt II, Wikipedia

Time for September 15, 1930

Harold ("Mike") Vanderbilt (brother of Willie K. Jr.)

Inherited father's Idle Hours mansion, Oakdale LI, along with millions, raced yachts, played bridge, put in some years at the NYCRR office, built El Solano mansion in Palm Beach, President of his great-grandfather's Vanderbilt University 1958-1966.

Henry Plant
Florida Gulf Coast

Henry Flagler
Standard Oil and East Coast Florida RR

Henry Flagler: Visionary of the Gilded Age, by Sidney Walter Martin

Edward H. Harriman

$39 Billion (2007 $)

Edward Harriman, ICRR History

EH Harriman obit

Henry Ford
Ford Motor Co.

$54 Billion (2007 $)

The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century, Steven Watts

• John Jacob Astor (real estate, fur) -- New York City
• Andrew Carnegie (railroads, steel) -- Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
• Jay Cooke (finance) -- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
• Charles Crocker (railroads) - California
• Daniel Drew (finance) -- New York state
• James Buchanan Duke (tobacco) -- near Durham, North Carolina
• James Fisk (finance) -- New York state
• Henry Flagler (railroads, oil, the Standard Oil company) -- New York City and Palm Beach, Florida
• Henry Ford (automobile) -- Dearborn, Michigan and metropolitan Detroit, Michigan
• Henry Clay Frick (steel) -- Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and New York City
• John Warne Gates (steel, oil) -- Chicago and Texas
• Jay Gould (finance, railroads) -- New York (both state and city)
• Edward Henry Harriman (railroads) -- New York state
• Collis P. Huntington (railroads) -- California, Virginia, and New York
• Mark Hopkins (railroads) - California
• JP Morgan (finance) - New York
• John D. Rockefeller (oil) - Cleveland, Ohio
• Leland Stanford (railroads) -- Sacramento, California and San Francisco, California

Robber Barons, Wikipedia

Robber Barons

The Age of the Moguls: The Story of the Robber Barons and the Great Tycoons, by Stewart H. Holbrook

Technological and industrial history of the United States - Wikipedia

Modern History Sourcebook: Henry Demarest Lloyd: The Lords of Industry, June 1884, NAm Rev 331

Industrialization and Labor in the Gilded Age

History of the Great American Fortunes, by Gustavus Myers

The Robber Barons, by Matthew Josephson

Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900, by Jack Beatty

The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (American Century), by Alan Trachtenberg

The Search for Order, 1877-1920, by Robert H. Wiebe

The Human Tradition in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (Human Tradition in America), by Ballard C. Campbell

The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861- 1901


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