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Still, months of increasing silence fell over the once lively household. Nurses arrived. Adults demanded quiet. Mourners and friends came and went. Edith went with Mrs. Still mourning her mother, Edith was faced with losing her father as well. George begged his sister-in-law to keep the children together once he was gone, and Aunty King was soon called upon to keep her word. His funeral was held on a day best befitting his honorable career in the military—Decoration Day. Edith was not yet ten years old. Shortly after, Edith and her siblings went to Newport for what would turn out to be a lengthy stay.

The following year, , he built a two-story addition onto the old red house at Bellevue Avenue in Newport to accommodate his younger family members. Now, in , Grandmother was bringing the Dresser brood back to New York. As another winter in the city ended, spring brought the emergence of shoots from age-old trunks, no one knowing which branches might cross and when, bending to the will of the wind.

In , George Washington Vanderbilt was twenty-five years old. Quite the contrary. To be a son of the Vanderbilt dynasty was to have your every move, dalliance, chance encounter, and passing venture watched and analyzed, whether via opera glasses across the expanse of the Metropolitan Opera or by eager eyes scanning the society pages of the newspapers.

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His grandfather Cornelius Vanderbilt had known much simpler times. Born in , Cornelius had grown up on a farm on Staten Island, where the Vanderbilt family—or van der Bilt or van Derbilt, depending on who was signing their name—had lived for more than a century. His ancestors had seen Dutch rule pass to the English and then, finally, the birth of the American colonies.

Though their farms expanded and the number of Vanderbilts multiplied, work remained arduous and compensation scant. Uneducated in the traditional sense, and lacking in the most common of courtesies, young Cornelius was a diligent worker. Whatever he lacked in finishing he made up for in grit and ambition. Once the task was completed, Cornelius used those earnings to buy what the Native Americans in the region called a piragua. As his business grew, so did rumors of his ruthless dealings. The Commodore outworked and undercut competitors, making no friends but scads of money along the way.

His ferries developed into steamship lines, which eventually gave way to railroad investments in the New York and Harlem, and New York and Hudson, lines. The Commodore possessed both a fondness and knack for manipulating railroad stocks, which helped him further stuff his rapidly expanding coffers.

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In , he began construction on St. In the midst of this sculptural scene was the man himself, regal and proud, a master of water and rail. The Commodore finally consolidated his accumulating rail lines and created the New York Central railroad which, by , would carry more than seven million passengers and a million tons of freight into the city.

Fronting East Forty-Second Street, the structure covered 5 acres and was disliked—and perhaps envied—by many who passed by or through its doors. The area around the mammoth structure was clogged with trains, and lives had been lost crossing the maze of tracks. But as with much of what the Commodore did, the depot was huge, unlike anything else that existed. The Vanderbilt name, once perhaps associated with farmers and river rats, was now synonymous with wealth and power. William soon increased his initial 70 acres to , and respectable earnings followed.

The Commodore took notice, giving William more attention and responsibility. William then took the Staten Island Railroad from insolvency to profitability. Every challenge the Commodore put to him, William met and then some. As the Commodore grew older and weaker, his respect for William deepened and strengthened. The so-called palace was actually two conjoined town houses comprising three distinct addresses and residences. George and his parents occupied the southern structure.

The west side of Fifth Avenue was dominated by the Vanderbilts. This encampment of Vanderbilt homes was located farther north than the homes of most moneyed New York families twenty blocks south. Before William Henry Vanderbilt broke ground on the Triple Palace, the lot was the domain of a vegetable gardener who occasionally dealt in ice and cattle. Willie K.

Louis lines.

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Frederick was director of the West Shore and Canada Southern lines. In contrast, George enjoyed other pursuits available to members of their class. While his father may have enjoyed spending leisure time driving his sleek, trotting mares Maud S. He had grown up devout in his faith and for a time thought he might pursue a calling in the Episcopal church.

A priest perhaps. I have trusted too much in my own ability and not enough in Jesus. He could often be found with his head of dark hair bowed over a tome penned in another language. He was said to be fluent in eight of them. In , three years after his father died, George, the youngest and only unmarried child of William and Maria, continued to live at with his mother.

Another son, Allen, had died at the age of twelve, four years before George was born. The remainder was divided between George, the youngest child, and his five older siblings: Frederick, Margaret, Emily, Florence, and Lila Eliza. There was more than enough wealth to go around.


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He could not access the capital. What to do with such a sum when one had not lifted a finger to earn it? During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the answer to that question was often presented in mortar and limestone, friezes and tapestries. That could have been how George decided to make his mark. A year earlier, he had purchased a property in Bar Harbor, but the Maine winter held little enticement. No, George craved something other. Few, frankly, would have anticipated that young George would eventually land so far, at the very least geographically speaking, from the fold.

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The station, post office, and handful of structures were named for W. Best, a Boston railroad magnate who had headed up the Western North Carolina Railroad in and was credited with bringing rail service to this mountain town in North Carolina. George, whose persistent bachelorhood and bursting bank accounts made him quite the New York society catch, was traveling with the most significant female in his life—his mother. No matter how luxurious, the walls of their city mansion were unable to keep the chill at bay.

George was slight and possessed a healthy fear of tuberculosis. He was viewed by members of the society press as weak, ill, or lacking that robust manner many men of means born to a family of industry might seem to possess. But then, George was no man of industry. He was a scholar. Mother and son stayed at the Battery Park Hotel, a grand, shingled structure perched high above Asheville, yet still dwarfed in turn by the imposing colossus of nature looming on the landscape beyond.

The peaks of the Blue Ridge and the Smoky Mountains adopted varying shades of that indigo hue, each ridge growing lighter as it receded behind its neighbors, until they faded into a wash of pale-gray azure grazing the sky, cloudy wisps clinging to their slopes. The beautiful and bewitching smokiness emanated from the trees themselves—the lungs of the slopes—exhaling emissions often in the form of a blue haze of isoprene. The Battery Park had views to spare, its own house orchestra, and wide, awning-topped verandas.

George was not the first person of means to consider a more permanent foothold in the Land of the Sky.


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  • Charlestonians had begun coming to Asheville and nearby Flat Rock from the Low Country of South Carolina at least a century earlier, building spectacular summer homes there. Milder, breezier summers lured the highest of the well born to abandon their palmettos, magnolias, and fashionable shops for a life 2, feet above their sweltering sea-level homes. They followed in the footsteps of decades of river explorers, holler settlers, game hunters, timber cutters, and French speakers. These aged mountains had seen more than a billion years of life in all its forms.

    Now many well-heeled visitors and the doctors who cared for them believed the mountain air could heal lungs ailing from tuberculosis or the suffocating by-products of the industrial age. In Asheville, she was cared for by Dr. Samuel Westray Battle, a physician well known to the area and its Northern visitors.

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    George left his mother to relax and breathe deep the curative atmosphere while he took in the exquisite vistas the hotel offered, or hired a horse to ride out for a closer look at lands farther afield.