Billings, Frederick

Frederick Billings (1823-1890) was born into a farming family on September 27, 1823, in the small Vermont town of Royalton. He grew up in Woodstock, attended prep school in Meriden, New Hampshire, and matriculated at the University of Vermont. Following graduation he read the law, but in 1848 turned down an opportunity to practice in New York City and instead accompanied his sister Laura to California, where she lived. She died of fever upon their arrival, but he stayed.

After moving to San Francisco and serving briefly as California’s attorney general, Billings created a legal firm specializing in contested land claims. For the next fifteen years he practiced law and purchased land, amassing a fortune before selling up and moving back to Vermont in 1865. In 1862 he married Julia Parmly of New York City. Her family was friendly with the Theodore Roosevelts.

Looking for investment opportunities, Billings worked with a group of Eastern investors to rescue the moribund Northern Pacific Railroad. He purchased a one-twelfth share when the railroad fell into bankruptcy after the failure of financier Jay Cooke. Under the guidance of the Billings group, construction recommenced from Bismarck, North Dakota, west and from Wallula Junction, Washington Territory, east. In 1879 Billings was elected president of the railroad, but resigned two years later after a hostile takeover by Henry Villard’s “blind trust.”

When Theodore Roosevelt traveled west to Medora, North Dakota, in 1883, he did so on the Northern Pacific. It is no exaggeration to say that, without Frederick Billings, North Dakota would not have hosted the young Roosevelt. The city of Billings, Montana, also on the Northern Pacific, was named in his honor in 1882. Billings died on September 30, 1890, of heart disease. He was survived by his wife and five children.