The Gilded Age was a time of great inequality, and we decided to investigate how bad things were during that period. We found that the level of inequality was higher than it is now and that many people were living in poverty.
In a time of great industrial monopolies and unprecedented wealth, those with power were called robber barons. These capitalists held great sway over many regions of the poverty-stricken country that was still reeling from the Civil War.. Children worked in their factories, toiling away under dangerous and often deadly conditions.
While many people associate the term “robber barons” with negative connotations, these individuals were actually some of the most successful and powerful businessmen of their time.
Charles Crocker (Railroads)
Crocker was born into humble circumstances on a farm in Indiana, but he soon made a name for himself as a rail magnate. He was an early investor in the transcontinental railroad and a major shareholder of Wells Fargo bank. Crocker’s success story is an inspiration to us all.
Jay Cooke (Finance)
Cooke was a man who believed in the cause of the Union during the Civil War. He provided financing for the war effort by selling government bonds through his bank, Cooke & Co. Though he lost everything in the collapse of the Northern Pacific Railroad, he is remembered as a patriot who helped keep the Union together during one of its darkest hours.
Andrew Carnegie (Steel)
Carnegie’s life was a true story of rags to riches. He was born in Scotland and his first job was working in a Pennsylvania cotton mill for $1.20 a week. He made his fortune by investing in ironworks that supplied Union soldiers during the Civil War. In 1901, he sold Carnegie Steel to J.P. Morgan for $487 million and retired from business. This made him the richest man in the world at that time.
Robber barons like Andrew Carnegie were also celebrated for their philanthropy
Andrew Carnegie is one of the great robber barons and philanthropists of our time. He believed in the idea of “the man of wealth” using his resources to help improve society, and donated millions of dollars to various causes throughout his lifetime.
Andrew Carnegie in his essay “The Gospel of Wealth,” described massive inequality “as the unavoidable consequence of a free-market system”. But the “Carnegie Inequality Doctrine” was quite wrong about inequality becoming “unavoidable.” Carnegie provided an implicit justification for a history of abuse, while ignoring the fact that inequality in America the inequality between racial groups–is a direct result of decisions.
James Fisk (Finance)
Jim Fisk was a ruthless businessman who will stop at nothing to get ahead. He was involved in the Erie War against Cornelius Vanderbilt, and allegedly had ties to Boss Tweed’s organization. Fisk was known for being one of the most aggressive traders on Wall Street. At the end of his life, he attempted to buy goodwill by providing aid to the victims of The Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
John Jacob Astor (Real Estate, Fur)
Johann Jakob Astor was one of the robber barons who came to America at the end of the Revolutionary War. He started a fur company in New York City, which became one of the leading exporters of furs to Europe and China.
He always had an eye for making a profit, and so when he turned his attention to New York real estate, he made a killing. He bought up as many acres of land as possible in Manhattan and its outer boroughs, and in just a few years his net worth ballooned to over $100 billion.
Daniel Drew (Finance)
Drew was a broker who made a fortune during the railroad bubble. He was one of the people involved in the Erie War, which was a battle for control over a very profitable rail line. Unfortunately, he lost everything he had during the Panic of 1873.
Henry Flagler (Oil, Railroads)
John D. Rockefeller is generally credited with being the mastermind behind the Standard Oil Company. However, it was actually Flagler who provided the initial investment for the company. He then used his profits from oil to develop Florida’s vacation industry, single-handedly transforming the state. He is known as the father of South Beach; Flagler Street is the main boulevard in Miami.
JB Duke (Tobacco)
In just a few short years, J.B. Duke’s American Tobacco Company rose to prominence, controlling 40% of the American cigarette market thanks to its cutting-edge automated cigarette-making machines. However, the company’s success was short-lived; in 1911, trustbusters broke up the monopolistic organization. Despite this setback, Durham, N.C.’s Trinity University was renamed in Duke’s father’s honor after he bequeathed the school millions of dollars.
Henry Clay Frick (Steel)
H. C. Frick & Company was a major supplier of refined coal materials to U.S. Steel Corp., founded by industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The company was also said to be responsible for the 1889 Johnstown Flood, one of the deadliest disasters in the U.S.
John Warne Gates (Barbed wire, Oil)
Gates created a steel wire monopoly at the turn of the 20th century, which he then sold to J.P. Morgan’s new U.S. Steel conglomerate. He also founded Texaco, one of the world’s leading oil companies.
Jay Gould (Railroads)
Gould was an unethical businessman who participated in the Erie War. He was a strikebreaker who allegedly once said, “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.” He later became involved in the kidnapping plot of a British man pretending to be a Canadian dignitary.
EH Harriman (Railroads)
At the time of his death, magnate status had been achieved by Harriman. His control over five railroads, a steamship company, and the Wells Fargo Express Company made him one of the most powerful men in America.
Andrew W. Mellon (Aluminum, finance, oil)
Andrew W. Melon was an American businessman and one of the robber barons who became one of the richest men in the world in the early 20th century. Born into a wealthy family, Melon quickly amassed a fortune through savvy investments and smart business ventures. During the 1920s, his wealth grew to an estimated $300-400 million, making him one of the top three income taxpayers in the United States behind only John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford.
John C. Osgood (Coal, iron)
Born into poverty, Osgood worked his way up to become one of the most successful businessmen of his time. He founded the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in 1887, and under his leadership, it quickly became one of the most successful businesses in the state.
J.P. Morgan (Finance)
Morgan created General Electric through a merger of Edison General Election and Thomson-Houston Electric Company. Then, he formed the United States Steel Corporation by purchasing Carnegie Steel from Andrew Carnegie. As a result, U.S. Steel became the first billion-dollar company with $1.4 billion authorized capital.
Henry Bradley Plant (Railroads)
In the aftermath of the Civil War, many of the South’s railroads were left in disrepair. But one man, Henry Plant, saw an opportunity to build a new transportation system that would connect the region to the rest of the country.
The plant began by constructing tracks along the Atlantic seaboard and establishing a network of 14 railway companies. By 1900, his system included 2,1000 miles of track, several steamship lines, and numerous hotels. Not only did this provide cheap access to the North for Florida orange growers, but it also spurred the growth of Tampa as a thriving town.
John D. Rockefeller (Oil)
Rockefeller was a pioneer in the oil industry, founding Standard Oil Company in 1870. He quickly rose to dominance and became the world’s richest man. He retired in 1897 and devoted the rest of his life to philanthropy, leaving a lasting legacy.
Joseph Seligman (Banking)
Nathan Seligman emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1846. He and his brothers founded the J. & W. Seligman & Co. banking company, which invested heavily in railway finance and public utilities. In 1870, the company helped to form Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, and in 1876 it established public utilities in New York with the Vanderbilt family.
Charles M. Schwab (Steel)
In 1897, at the age of 35, Charles Schwab became the president of Carnegie Steel. He left in 1903 to run Bethlehem Steel, which became the largest independent steel producer in the world and the main supplier of munitions for the Allies during World War I. Although he is not related to Charles R. Schwab of the brokerage firm Charles Schwab Corporation, they share a similar story of success.
Mark Hopkins (Railroads)
In 1861, Mark Hopkins founded the Central Pacific Railroad as part of The Big Four— a group of wealthy businessmen that included Leland Standford and Charles Crocker. The Central Pacific Railroad built the western portion of the First Transcontinental Railroad, which connected the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for the first time.
Cornelius Vanderbilt (Railroads)
“Commodore” Vanderbilt was one of the richest Americans in history. He made his fortune in shipping and railroads and was a dominant figure in both industries. In the 1840s, he invested in the first railroads being built connecting Boston to Long Island. Over the next couple of decades, Vanderbilt amassed a large empire by taking over numerous railroads around New York City. From 1869 to 1871, he oversaw the construction of the Grand Central Depot on 42nd street in Manhattan.
Vanderbilt also provided the initial $1 million endowment to found Vanderbilt University (established in 1873). Although he never visited the Southern States, his namesake university has become one of the most prestigious institutions in the country.
John D. Spreckels (Sugar)
J.D. Spreckels was a powerful businessman who had a major impact on the development of both Hawaii and San Diego. He established trade between the mainland United States and Hawaiian islands by refining sugar through his company, J.D. Spreckels and Brothers. The firm became agents for leading sugar plantations in Hawaii and helped create many of the commercial interests connecting Hawaii and the mainland U.S.
In 1908, Spreckels moved to San Diego and bought the city’s street railway system. He changed it from horsepower to electric power and also built multiple buildings downtown. At one point, Spreckels was paying 10 percent of all property taxes in San Diego County.
Leland Stanford (Railroads)
Leland Stanford was one of America’s most successful robber barons in the late 19th century. He made his fortune in a variety of industries, including shipping and railroads. In 1891, he and his wife founded Stanford University, which today is one of America’s leading educational institutions.
Charles Yerkes (Mass Transit)
Yerkes was a transportation tycoon who made his fortune by controlling a majority of the street railway systems on the north and west sides of Chicago. He built The Loop, a business district downtown, before selling his shares and moving to New York City. From there, he moved to London and worked on construction projects for the city’s railways.
To improve his public image, Yerkes donated nearly $300,000 to the University of Chicago to build an observatory. The crater Yerkes on the Moon is named after him.