Attributed remark to a reporter during a visit to Chicago, promptly denied by Vanderbilt. Descriptions of the context and circumstances vary widely, although most accounts agree that he was asked whether he ran an unprofitable train for the public's benefit. See Dow, Andrew (2006) Dow's Dictionary of Railway Quotations.
The earliest version appears in Chicago Herald (October 9, 1882): "The public be damned. I take no stock in that twaddle about working for the good of anybody but ourselves. I continue to run the limited express — well, because I want to."
In the report published the same day in the Chicago Tribune, apparently written by Clarence P. Dresser, Vanderbilt dismissed as "nonsense" the idea of running a train for public accommodation, but without vulgarity.
The report the same day in The New York Times roughly followed the sense of the Herald report with variations in wording and length: "The public be damned. What does the public care for railroads except to get as much out of them for as small a consideration as possible? I don't take any stock in this silly nonsense about working for anybody's good but our own, because we are not. When we make a move, we do it because it is in our interest to do so, and not because we expect to do somebody else good. Of course, we like to do everything possible for the benefit of humanity in general, but when we do, we first see that we are benefiting ourselves. Railroads are not run on sentiment, but on business principles and to pay, and I don't mean to be egotistic when I say that the roads which I have had anything to do with have generally paid pretty well."
William A. Croffut, writing in 1886, quoted Vanderbilt: "The public be damned. I am working for my stockholders! If the public wants the train, why don't they support it?"
Later retellings have Vanderbilt making the remark in good humor, or losing his temper at a reporter who interrupted his dinner.
[Anti-monopoly] is a movement inspired by a set of fools and black-mailers. To be sure, there are some men in it whose motives are good, if their sense is not. When I want to buy up any politician, I always find the Anti-Monopolists the most purchasable. They don't come so high.
Quoted in Clarence P. Dresser, "Vanderbilt in the West" New York Times (October 9, 1882).