The spectacular Grand Central Terminal owes its presence to Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of America’s first great tycoons and the patriarch of the Vanderbilt family, prominent during the Gilded Age.
Cornelius Vanderbilt started his business when he launched a ferryboat service from Staten Island to Manhattan using a $100 loan from his mother. Vanderbilt’s operation eventually grew to dominate the nation, earning him the nickname of “Commodore.” The initial $100 investment yielded a million-fold return—by the time of his death, his fortune had reached $100 million.
In mid-19th century—when Cornelius Vanderbilt was about 60 years old—he shifted his attention from the ships to the railroads. He went on to combine a multitude of local railroads into a vast transportation network connecting New York to the rest of the country.
To house the gateway to the city, he built the Grand Central Depot—a predecessor to the present day Grand Central Terminal. The original Depot was built in 1871 during Commodore’s lifetime, but proved insufficient by the 20th century, when the locomotive age was ending and electric trains were looming on the horizon.
The idea for a new, electrified terminal was conceived by the New York Central Railroad’s chief engineer William Wilgus while two of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s grandsons, Cornelius Vanderbilt II and William Kassam Vanderbilt, sat at the helm of the New York Central railroad. By the time the present-day Grand Central Terminal was built in 1913, Cornelius Vanderbilt was dead, along with his son and heir William H Vanderbilt as well as his favorite grandson Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the president of New York Central.
Nevertheless, the Vanderbilt presence can be felt all over the Terminal. The interior is adorned with sculpted oak leaves and acorns alluding to the family motto, “Great oaks from little acorns grow.” Acorns and oak leafs can be found under the Main Concourse’s west stairs; above the lunettes in the Main Concourse; in reliefs above the train gates; in decorative niches and on the electric chandeliers. A brass acorn adorns the top the information kiosk clock at the center of the Main Concourse.
The mighty oak is a symbol of strength, as it sprouts from a single acorn and grows into a colossal, powerful tree. It’s hardly surprising that Commodore chose this symbol to represent the Vanderbilt family.