Villard, Henry

Henry Villard (1835-1900) was born Ferdinand Heinrich Gustav Hillgard in Bavaria, Germany, to a family of lawyers and judges. In 1853 he immigrated to the United States to escape political persecution and changed his name to Henry Villard to escape detection by his father. Settling in southern Illinois Villard learned English and worked as a journalist. After serving as a war correspondent for New York papers during the U.S. Civil War, he married Fanny Garrison (the daughter of famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison) and returned to Germany to sell bonds for the Oregon and California Railroad. When that railroad declared bankruptcy during the Panic of 1873, the bondholders sent Villard to Portland to protect their interests.

As a result of his efforts Villard gained financial control of the Oregon and California in 1879. He became directly involved in the construction of transcontinental railroads—and thereby indirectly entered the life of Theodore Roosevelt—when he purchased the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company. This act gave him a financial stake in the future of Portland, Oregon, and he tried to gain control of the Northern Pacific Railroad in order to protect his newly adopted home.Villard longed to see Portland become a west-coast hub of transcontinental railroads. 

He set out to purchase the Northern Pacific and divert it from the Puget Sound to Portland.  This he succeeded in doing, passing through Medora, North Dakota, and incidentally bringing Theodore Roosevelt to the area in the process. Unfortunately the costs plunged the company into financial problems and Villard left his post as president. But he regained his fortune and his reputation when he became chairman of the Northern Pacific in 1889 and president of Edison General Electric in 1890. His many philanthropic activities included assistance to the University of Oregon. Henry Villard died of a stroke in New York on November 12, 1900.