Henry Villard was born on April 10, 1835 in Speyer, Bavaria and immigrated to the United States in 1853. After studying law, he began working as a newspaper reporter, covering the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858 for eastern newspapers and the Pikes Peak gold rush in 1859 for the Cincinnati Daily Commercial
. He reported on the Civil War for both The New York Herald
and the New York Tribune
In 1866 Villard married Fanny Garrison, daughter of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. He returned to Germany in 1870 for health reasons and while there he engaged in financing local railroads. As an agent for German bondholders, Villard became involved in railway organization in the United States. In 1875 he helped reorganize the Oregon and California Railroad and the Oregon Steamship Company and the following year became president of both companies.
In 1881 he secured direct control of the Northern Pacific Railroad and became its president. The railroad's transcontinental line was completed in 1883 under his management, but the costs so far exceeded the estimate that financial pressures forced him to resign from the presidency in 1884. He later recouped his losses, and from 1888 to 1893 he served as chairman of the board of directors of the Northern Pacific. Villard's eastern "immigration bureau" drew 30,000 settlers to Oregon in an effort that also benefited the railroad financially.
He bought the Edison Lamp Company, Newark, N.J., and the Edison Machine Works, Schenectady, N.Y., and formed them into the Edison General Electric Company in 1889, serving as president until its reorganization in 1893 as the General Electric Company.
In 1881 and 1883 Villard gave substantial support to the University of Oregon which subsequently named Villard Hall on its campus in his honor.
(Sources: Encyclopædia Britannica | Dictionary of Oregon History)