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Billings, Frederickfree

(27 September 1823–30 September 1890)
  • Robin W. Winks

Billings, Frederick (27 September 1823–30 September 1890), lawyer and railroad president, was born in Royalton, Vermont, the son of Oel Billings, a farmer and later register of probate, and Sophia Wetherbee. In 1835 Billings’s father, a debtor, was instructed by the court to move to Woodstock, Vermont, as the law required that he live within a mile of a jail. Frederick Billings found schooling in Woodstock inadequate and persuaded his parents to send him to Kimball Union Academy. In 1840 he entered the University of Vermont, graduating in 1844. He studied law as an apprentice to Oliver Phelps Chandler in Woodstock and in 1846 became secretary of civil and military affairs to Horace Eaton, the Whig governor of the state. Eaton and Billings pressed in particular for school reform.

Restless and ambitious, Billings accompanied his sister Laura, to whom he was especially close, and her husband Bezer Simmons, who owned property in California, to the West Coast early in 1849. After a difficult journey via the Isthmus of Panama, the party reached San Francisco on 3 April. Laura had contracted fever aboard the Oregon and died three weeks after their arrival. In California, Billings made his first fortune. On his first day ashore he bought an old canal boat and sold its timbers at a profit; with this money he purchased real estate, especially “water lots.” He was the first lawyer in California to hang out his shingle, and John August Sutter, on whose estate the first gold strike had been made in 1848, was one of his earliest clients. Through a friend that Billings made aboard ship on the journey from the East, he met the military governor of California, Brigadier General Bennet Riley, who appointed him commissioner of deeds for San Francisco, chairman of the Board of Inspectors and Judges, and territorial legal adviser and attorney general, or procurador fiscal. As attorney general, Billings provided highly effective advice on how to maintain the public lands against squatters.

Though the junior partner, Billings was the driving force behind the law firm of Halleck, Peachy, and Billings, which opened its offices on 1 January 1850. The senior partner, Henry Wager Halleck, was intimately acquainted with Spanish land records and had written the leading treatise on Spanish and Mexican land law in California. The second partner, Archibald Cary Peachy, had been appointed professor of moral philosophy at the College of William and Mary; as a southerner, a Democrat, and an Episcopalian, he brought balance to the firm. Billings was a Yankee, a Whig, and a Presbyterian (the last only in California). (There was for a time a fourth partner, Trenor Park, a fellow Vermonter.) HPB, as the firm was known, specialized in litigating land claims at a time when this was the most complex and important legal endeavor in California, especially after the U.S. government established, early in 1852, a land commission to investigate and rule on conflicting claims.

HPB was centrally involved in two of California’s most important land cases. The most complicated involved the world’s second richest quicksilver mine, at New Almaden, which proved to be the single most valuable mine in California, producing more than $70 million in quicksilver. Seeking records and witnesses, Billings undertook a dangerous journey to Mexico City in 1859 at a time when that capital came under siege by the forces of Benito Juárez. HPB lost the case, despite Billings having completed what was regarded as possibly the most extensive research into a single land case anywhere in the nation up to that time. The second major controversy was over John C. Frémont’s Mariposa grant east of San Francisco. Here, too, HPB lost in the end, but the case (1857–1863) drew Billings into investment in mining and into a close working relationship with Frémont that extended through the Civil War. It was while at Bear Valley, Frémont’s Mariposa seat, that Billings became an early advocate of the protection of the nearby Yosemite Valley for the use of future generations.

By the time he was thirty Billings was a millionaire from substantial legal fees; profits from land holdings in San Francisco, Sacramento, and elsewhere in California; and joint ownership of the Montgomery Block, the largest office property west of St. Louis when it opened in 1853. He was also developing a reputation for philanthropy to church, school, public park, and university. It was he who suggested the name of Berkeley for the seat of the new university of California; Billings helped clear the way for it legally and served as the first president of its board of trustees. He also spoke tirelessly against California separatism in the months prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. He might have remained in California had he not embarked on a series of European journeys to sell shares in the Mariposa mines and to purchase arms for Frémont’s command. On his return from a European trip in 1861 Billings met Julia Parmly, daughter of Eleazar Parmly, a distinguished society dentist in New York City. They were married less than a month later, after which Billings returned to California just long enough to close down the law firm and to sell some of his properties before taking up residence in New York with his bride. The couple had seven children.

Billings made his second, and greater, fortune in railroads, in particular the Northern Pacific (NP), in which he purchased his first share in 1869. Ten years later he was president of the company and served it extraordinarily well. His first and most abiding contribution was as chairman of the land committee, on which he, with others, worked out plans for bringing settlers onto the land in Minnesota and the Dakota Territory. When Jay Cooke & Company, which was responsible for the sale of NP stocks, went under in the panic of 1873, it was Billings more than anyone else who fought off foreclosure, worked out a complex plan for reorganization, and began construction of the stalled rail line once again.

Elected president of the Northern Pacific in May 1879, Billings pressed ahead with construction. Under his leadership the NP became the largest single corporate enterprise in American history to that time. So intent was he on arranging for refinancing of the line, he did not see until too late the danger posed by Henry Villard, owner of the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company and proponent of a different route to the Pacific. In perhaps the first hostile takeover in corporate history, Villard acquired a controlling interest in the NP through the creation of a blind pool, and Billings resigned as president in June 1881. He remained on the board, however, and was present at the driving of the “last spike” in September 1883.

Despite his contributions to California, where he was seriously considered for a variety of high offices and pressed upon President Abraham Lincoln by the California delegation to be given a cabinet post, Billings is best remembered in Montana and Vermont. He was the largest individual landholder in the town that took his name, Billings, Montana; he played a significant role in promoting the concept of Yellowstone National Park, which was to be approached by the Northern Pacific; and he controlled banks, mines, ranches, and other railroads in the territory.

By 1869, however, his attention had turned back to Woodstock, Vermont, where he worked to put into effect the principles of George Perkins Marsh, author of Man and Nature, the “bible” of modern ecology first published in 1864. Billings purchased Marsh’s home in Woodstock, into which he moved his family. He developed an extensive scientific farm on the estate, purchased Marsh’s library for his alma mater, and became the driving force behind the state’s first commission of reforestation. In 1872 Billings ran for governor, missing election by five votes. His contributions to conservation, while inchoate, were substantial for the time, as were his many benefactions in Woodstock, in particular to the Congregational church. He died in Woodstock.

Frederick Billings was a successful and honest businessman, lawyer, and entrepreneur at a time when many did not value the proprieties he held dear. Guided, perhaps even driven, by a sense of duty, by great pride in Vermont, and by his determination to see the Northern Pacific to completion, he strove to lead a life that was, as his friend Alfred Barstow remarked, “clean and entirely free from scandal.” In the Gilded Age he demonstrated the possibility of being both financially successful and an honest man.


Billings’s papers are in the archives of the Billings/Rockefeller Farm and Estate in Woodstock. The records of Halleck, Peachy, and Billings are divided among the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley; the library of the University of California, Los Angeles; and the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif. Many fugitive items are to be found in numerous other collections set out in Robin W. Winks, Frederick Billings: A Life (1991). The records of the Northern Pacific Railroad are at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. In addition, see Jane Curtis et al., Frederick Billings: Vermonter, Pioneer Lawyer, Business Man, Conservationist (1986), and Eugene V. Smalley, History of the Northern Pacific Railroad (1883). An obituary is in the New York Times, 1 Oct. 1890.