A nephew of Collis P. Huntington, one of California's Big Four in the 19th century, Henry Edwards Huntington was born in Oneonta, New York, in 1850. Between 1900 and 1910, he built the Pacific Electric Railroad that linked hundreds of towns in Southern California. It operated more than 900 "big red cars" on more than 1100 miles of track. In 1910, Huntington sold his railroad holdings and devoted himself to the development of electric power.
Huntington accumulated a private library collection that has been described as, "the largest collection of incunabula in America." The Huntington Library began as a hobby for the railroad executive and real estate investor. In 1903, he began collecting rare books but he did not start seriously collecting until 1910.