During what became known as the Gilded Age in United States history, extending roughly from 1870 to 1900, the economy grew so rapidly that the wages of Americans, especially in the Northern and Western United States actually surpassed the wages in Europe, especially for skilled workers. Still, increased industrialization demanded an increased unskilled labor force too, so the there was an influx of millions of European immigrants looking for a better life, to fill the need for workers. Basically, the Gilded years were years of overwhelming extravagance.
While many of the estates of the Gilded Age were in the Eastern United States, not all the great estates were in places like New York City or Newport, Rhode Island. Some of the very wealthy apparently didn’t really like the Northern winter climates, so they chose to build their estates in areas of the South. One of the greatest of these southern estates was the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina, The estate was built by George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1896, and it is enormous!! The estate covers nearly 11 miles. Of course, the real difference between what we would consider a mansion, and the Gilded Era estates is the fact that the grounds are as extravagant as the homes. The main house of the Biltmore Estate has nearly 200,000 square feet!! Most of us consider a nice sized house to be 2,000 to 3,000 square feet, so 200,000 square feet, for me at least, is beyond what I can even imagine in a house. The construction was a huge undertaking, that literally took building an entire working village near the site to house the workers, manufacturers, and supplies. A three-mile railroad spur was even built just to transport building supplies to the construction site. More than 1,000 workers were hired to build the huge house.
The Biltmore remains in the ownership of the Vanderbilt family, with at least one member of the family living there until 1956, at which point it was operated as a historic museum. It is the largest privately owned home in the United States. To help with the high cost of modern maintenance and expenses, the house and grounds are open to the public, for a price, and a number of ticketed events are held on the site throughout the year. At the request of the City of Asheville, which hoped to revitalize the area with tourism, and in an attempt to bolster the estate’s finances during the Great Depression, Cornelia and her husband opened Biltmore to the public in March 1930 at the request of the City of Asheville.
During World War I, the Germans had taken a hard line concerning the waters around England. It was called unrestricted submarine warfare, and it meant that German submarines would attack any ship found in the war zone, which, in this case, was the area around the British Isles…no matter what kind of ship it was, and even if it was from a neutral country. Of course, this was not going to fly, and since Germany was afraid of the United States, they finally agreed to only go after military ships. Nevertheless, mistakes can be made, and that is what happened on May 7, 1915, when a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner en route from New York to Liverpool, England. Of the more than 1,900 passengers and crew members on board, more than 1,100 perished, including more than 120 Americans. A warning had been placed in several New York newspapers in early May 1915, by the German Embassy in Washington, DC, stating that Americans traveling on British or Allied ships in war zones did so at their own risk. The announcement was placed on the same page as an advertisement of the imminent sailing of the Lusitania liner from New York back to Liverpool. Still this did not stop the sailing of the Lusitania, because the captain of the Lusitania ignored the British Admiralty’s recommendations, and at 2:12 pm on May 7 the 32,000-ton ship was hit by an exploding torpedo on its starboard side. The torpedo blast was followed by a larger explosion, probably of the ship’s boilers, and the ship sank off the south coast of Ireland in less than 20 minutes.
While the sinking of the Lusitania was a horrible tragedy, there were heroics too. One such hero was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Sr. Vanderbilt was an extremely wealthy American businessman and sportsman, and a member of the famous Vanderbilt family, but on this trip, he was so much more than that. On May 1, 1915, Alfred Vanderbilt boarded the RMS Lusitania bound for Liverpool as a first class passenger. Vanderbilt was on a business trip. He was traveling with only his valet, Ronald Denyer. His family stayed at home in New York. On May 7, off the coast of County Cork, Ireland, German U-boat, U-20 torpedoed the ship, triggering a secondary explosion that sank the giant ocean liner within 18 minutes. Vanderbilt and Denyer immediately went into action, helping others into lifeboats, and then Vanderbilt gave his lifejacket to save a female passenger. Vanderbilt had promised the young mother of a small baby that he would locate an extra life vest for her. Failing to do so, he offered her his own life vest, which he proceeded to tie on to her himself, because she was holding her infant child in her arms at the time.
Vanderbilt had to know he was sealing his own fate, since he could not swim and he knew there were no other life vests or lifeboats available. They were in waters where no outside help was likely to be coming. Still, he gave his life for hers and that of her child. Because of his fame, several people on the Lusitania who survived the tragedy were observing him while events unfolded at the time, and so they took note of his actions. I suppose that had he not been famous, people would not have known who he was to tell the story. Vanderbilt and Denyer were among the 1198 passengers who did not survive the incident. His body was never recovered. Probably the most ironic fact is that three years earlier Vanderbilt had made a last-minute decision not to return to the US on RMS Titanic. In fact, his decision not to travel was made so late that some newspaper accounts listed him as a casualty after that sinking too. He would not be so fortunate when he chose to travel on Lusitania.
As I contemplated today’s story, I thought about one of my biggest fans…my mom, Collene Spencer, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I was researching a part of our family tree, after a conversation with a co-worker, Carrie Beauchamp, who had the opportunity, while living back east to visit one of the Vanderbilt mansions. I knew that my 2nd great uncle was named Cornealius Vanderbilt Spencer, but I didn’t know if there was any real connection, or rather maybe his mother just wished there had been a connection. So, I set out to look. I was pretty sure I had seen the Vanderbilt name somewhere else in my tree. My research brought me to Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married Charles Richard Spencer Churchill, who is my 15th cousin once removed.
I knew that I was related to Winston Spencer Churchill, who is also my 15th cousin once removed, and I knew how his name had been changed from what should have been Spencer, when his 4th great grandfather, Charles Spencer married one Anne Churchill, in a merger that was mutually beneficial to both families, and changed the name to Spencer-Churchill. Through the years some of that branch of the family went on to stay Spencer-Churchill, eventually dropping the hyphen, making the Spencer name appear to be a middle name. Others dropped the Churchill name, going back to Spencer, and still others dropped the Spencer name, deciding to stick with Churchill. Nevertheless, they are all my cousins at some level. In my search, I found where Consuelo Vanderbilt was indeed my 15th cousin once removed, and so my 2nd great grandparents, Allen and Lydia Spencer did have the actual connection to the Vanderbilt name, and were justified in naming their son Cornealius Vanderbilt Spencer. And since there was an actual Cornealius Vanderbilt, who built the Vanderbilt mansion in New York City, I guess the first name was after an ancestor too.
As I thought about that connection, my mind instinctively thought of how much my biggest fan…my mom would have loved that story. Of course, when those thoughts of my parents, and my desire to tell them something surface, my mind, in its ability to fool itself, thinks that I really can’t wait to tell my parents what I have found, or to have my mom read this story. She would have been so excited to hear that new information. It wasn’t that she ever wanted to be snobby, or even that she would have cared about being related to the Vanderbilt family, but rather that she would have found the information very interesting, and in fact, as amazing as I did, because it really is a small world, when you think about it. I’m sure there are many other famous, rich, or even infamous people that our family is related to, because there are so many branches that split off of the originals, that it’s bound to connect us to someone famous at some point. I just always find it rather surprising every time it happens, and I think my mom did too. I wish I could have told her about it…but then I suppose she already knows.