He saw things in their largest aspects and in his big transactions he seemed to act almost on impulse and intuition. He could never explain the mental processes by which he arrived at important decisions, though these decisions themselves were invariably sound. He seems to have had, as he himself frequently said, almost a seer-like faculty. He saw visions, and he believed in dreams and in signs. The greatest practical genius of his time was a frequent attendant at spiritualistic seances; he cultivated personally the society of mediums, and in sickness he usually resorted to mental healers, mesmerists, and clairvoyants. Before making investments or embarking in his great railroad ventures, Vanderbilt visited spiritualists; we have one circumstantial account of his summoning the wraith of Jim Fiske to advise him in stock operations. His excessive vanity led him to print his picture on all the Lake Shore bonds; he proposed to New York City the construction in Central Park of a large monument that would commemorate, side by side, the names of Vanderbilt and Washington; and he actually erected a large statue to himself in his new Hudson River station in St. John's Park. His attitude towards the public was shown in his remark when one of his associates told him that "each and every one" of certain transactions which he had just forced through "is absolutely forbidden by the statutes of the State of New York." "My God, John!" said the Commodore, "you don't suppose you can run a railroad in accordance with the statutes of the State of New York, do you?" "Law!" he once roared on a similar occasion, "What do I care about law? Hain't I got the power?"
These things of course were the excrescences of an extremely vital, overflowing, imaginative, energetic human being; they are traits that not infrequently accompany genius. And the work which Vanderbilt did remains an essential part of our economic organization today. Before his time a trip to Chicago meant that the passenger changed trains seventeen times, and that all freight had to be unloaded at a similar number of places, carted across towns, and reloaded into other trains. The magnificent railroad highway that extends up the banks of the Hudson, through the Mohawk Valley, and alongside the borders of Lake Erie--a water line route nearly the entire distance--was all but useless. It is true that not all the consolidation of these lines was Vanderbilt's work. In 1853 certain millionaires and politicians had linked together the several separate lines extending from Albany to Buffalo, but they had managed the new road so wretchedly that the largest stockholders in 1867 begged Vanderbilt to take over the control. By 1873 the Commodore had acquired the Hudson River, extending from New York to Albany, the New York Central extending from Albany to Buffalo, and the Lake Shore which ran from Buffalo to Chicago. In a few years these roads had been consolidated into a smoothly operating system. If, in transforming these discordant railroads into one, Vanderbilt bribed legislatures and corrupted courts, if he engaged in the largest stock-watering operations on record up to that time, and took advantage of inside information to make huge winnings on the stock exchange, he also ripped up the old iron rails and relaid them with steel, put down four tracks where formerly there had been two, replaced wooden bridges with steel, discarded the old locomotives for new and more powerful ones, built splendid new terminals, introduced economies in a hundred directions, cut down the hours required in a New York-Chicago trip from fifty to twenty-four, made his highway an expeditious line for transporting freight, and transformed railroads that had formerly been the playthings of Wall Street and that frequently could not meet their pay-rolls into exceedingly profitable, high dividend paying properties. In this operation Vanderbilt typified the era that was dawning--an era of ruthlessness, of personal selfishness, of corruption, of disregard of private rights, of contempt for law and legislatures, and yet of vast and beneficial achievement.