The Story of the Vanderbilts
The “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt started the Vanderbilt railroading empire. Born in 1794, he came from a lower income family in Staten Island.
Cornelius worked on his dad’s ferry starting at age 11. His ambition soon became apparent after he began his own ferry business at 16. He later ran a steamboat company that expanded to ocean vessels during the California Gold Rush. After the American Civil War, he turned his eye towards railroading and bought up several lines.
When he was 19, Cornelius wed his cousin Sophia Johnson. Together they had 13 children! Sophia was also savvy in business and ran a successful inn. When Sophia died, he married another cousin who was a woman named Frank.
Cornelius made several enemies in his career but would only publicly humiliate one of them. That man was Jay Gould who ran the Erie Railroad and proved too clever for Vanderbilt to overtake.
When Cornelius died in 1877, his oldest son William was accused of swindling his 10 living siblings out of their inheritance. William reportedly brought in a spiritualist to influence his father in to giving him the majority of his estate. The spiritualist would supposedly conjure up Cornelius’s deceased wife Sophia who would give messages to the spiritualist. These messages advised Cornelius to leave everything to William. Subsequently, Cornelius left 95% of his 105 million dollar estate to William. It was William’s son George that carried out the creation of the grand Biltmore.
Visiting the Biltmore wasn’t a lifelong dream of mine, more like a 5 year plan. I had seen a Sherwin Williams advertisement featuring the Biltmore which sparked my interest. What is this place that looks like a European fairy tale? Could it really exist in America?
Naturally I wished to visit this grand estate at the best time of year so I set my sights on visiting during the dead of winter. It was supposed to be a four day drive from our home so we set off with cautious optimism. A few days in to the trip and it became painfully apparent that we didn’t have the time to visit the East Coast. We then set our sights on Mt Rushmore. Lucky for us we didn’t make it that far either as Rushmore is closed for the winter So these great planners settled on visiting the Northern portion of Yellowstone which has an access road open all year round. It would be three more years until I could realize my goal of seeing the Biltmore in person.
Finally I got my chance when I was laid off work for a whole month. We knew just what we wanted to do with our time and that is take a road trip all the way across the US!
The Biltmore was at the back of my mind but we didn’t have a set plan to visit until we stayed over at my cousin’s house in Tennessee. Without knowing that I had wanted to see it for some time, she mentioned the tour of the large home as one of her favorite Christmas past times. We changed course to traverse through Asheville, NC, the location of the Biltmore.
We arrived too late for that day as we often like to do. Craig insisted that we stay the night and see this place I had been talking about for too long. Asheville was a charming town so I was happy we got to stay overnight. Even the McDonalds in Asheville is over the top! It contains an automated grand piano, a fireplace, and stamped ceilings with chandeliers.To bring it all home, the golden arches outside are gilded, of course!
The next day we arrived at the Biltmore. You can’t just drive up to the front door. Parking is located quite a ways away and involves a nature hike that older people might find insurmountable. We also weren’t able to just walk in to the building as they were running health precautions and would let in groups of 10 at a time. I didn’t let Craig know that it costs us about $70 a piece either until he asked me how much to see the mansion.
Looking back, it was money well spent. This is something I wanted to cross off my bucket list. I think the part I enjoyed the most was the grand spiral staircase that featured a single ginormous chandelier that lighted the way from the first to the 5th floor. Another feature of the Biltmore that I found breathtaking was the view from the back balcony overlooking a forest completely devoid of another building. I felt like I was a queen back in Medieval times seeing my vast kingdom stretch out for miles and miles.
The mansion boasts 30 guest rooms with their own attached bathrooms. Even with the best opulence the past could offer, I couldn’t help but think the modern hotels we were staying at offered so much more in comfort. The thought that this home was somehow subpar never entered my brain when viewing the dining hall. The ceilings stretched to the sky and the room had not one but two of the largest fireplaces I have ever seen.
It was quite a workout climbing the numerous staircases and roaming the sitting rooms, bedrooms, offices, and even a bowling alley. A guide told us that on average 4000 people visit the Biltmore every day. By our estimation the Cecil family that owns the Biltmore nets 23 million per year from visitation alone.
The Biltmore was indeed an incredible sight to behold. However, Asheville holds a special place in my heart for something with no monetary value but just as mesmerizing. After 40 years of living, Asheville was the first place I have ever seen a firefly in real life. Spectacular.