FREDERICK BILLINGS by Robin W. Winks

FREDERICK BILLINGS

A Life
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 The well-told life and times of Frederick Billings (1823- 1890): Forty-Niner, attorney, railroad entrepreneur, philanthropist, and conservationist. Yale history professor Winks (Cloak and Gown, 1987, etc.) has drawn on a wealth of resources, including Billings's own extensive family archive, to flesh out the story of this multifaceted figure. After journeying across the Panama isthmus in the wake of the discovery of gold in California (a trip during which he lost his beloved sister), the 26-year-old attorney made his mark by starting a land-claims practice, investing in San Francisco real estate, and becoming California's first attorney general. Winks skillfully explains the colorful, boom-and-bust atmosphere that enabled Billings to make his fortune after only 18 months in the state. In middle age, after unsuccessfully angling for statewide offices in the Republican party, Billings masterminded the reorganization of the first northern transcontinental line, the Northern Pacific, only to lose the presidency of the company when Henry Villard engineered the first hostile takeover in American business history. In his final years, back in his native Vermont, Billings acted on his belief in the compatibility of business and the environment by establishing an experimental model-farm and by helping to reforest the landscape. However, as talented as Billings was, Winks implies that he lacked the flamboyance that could have distinguished him from his Gilded Age contemporaries. A balanced treatment, well researched, of a representative 19th-century figure caught up in the forces and movements of his time. (Sixteen b&w illustrations; five maps.)

Pub Date: July 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-19-506814-9
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1991