JAMES J. HILL
Note: This James J. Hill biography was written in 1996
as a 9th grade research paper. Since it was published online,
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By Christopher Muller
James J. Hill was the Empire Builder who started with nothing
but a vision of the future. It was the vision that made him
special and different from others involved in business. He saw
what he was working toward and used his business strategies to
always plan for the future. Unlike other railroad builders such
as Cornelius Vanderbilt who built their railroads around a
population, Hill built a population around his railroad. This
technique was unsuccessful for others but Hill's business skill,
experience, and planning made his railroad progress rapidly. The
land he built on was considered a wasteland, unsuitable for
population. Hill was not a selfish man but instead one who used
his business skills to develop the best railroad network
possible. His railroads went from the Great Lakes to the Puget
Sound and from Canada to the South. As his railroads grew, he
extended his empire across the Pacific to the Orient. Hill's
railroads were impressive in length, growth rate, and revenue.
James J. Hill was born on September 16, 1838 in the small town
of Rockwood, Ontario. His father's death interrupted his early
education and Hill had to help with the family finances. He
showed a lot of academic growth and the head of the Rockwood
Academy gave Hill free tuition.(1)
His loss of one eye by an accidental arrow shot prevented him
from the career in medicine that his parents wished him to have.
By age 18, Hill was enthusiastic about the Far East and
determined to be a trader in the Orient like Marco Polo. He was
unable to leave from the east coast, so he headed west in hope of
joining a team of trappers.(2)
Hill arrived in St. Paul on July 21, 1856 by steamboat.(3) St. Paul was a popular town for
trappers. However, Hill missed the last brigade of the year by a
few days and would have to wait a full year for another one.
During his wait in St. Paul, he became attached to the town and
decided that it would be his business base.(4)
Hill's first job in St. Paul was as a forwarding agent for the
Mississippi River Steamboat Company. He set fixed freight and
passenger rates there and learned steamboat operation.(5) Hill then enlisted for the Civil
War but was rejected because he had lost one eye. He organized
the First Minnesota Volunteers. Hill saw the demands of war and
learned the important skills needed. During the war, Hill pressed
and sold hay, learned to buy and sell goods at a profit, chose
the least expensive method to move products, and served as a
After the war, in 1866, Hill became an agent for the First
Division of the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad.(7)
The St. Paul & Pacific currently used wood for fuel. Hill
thought that coal would be better fuel so he made a contract with
the railroad to supply it with coal. Hill soon formed a business
with Chauncey W. Griggs, a Connecticut man in the wholesale
grocery business. Together they made Hill, Griggs & Company,
a fuel, freighting, merchandising, and warehouse company. They
had a monopoly on the fuel business in the city and nearby
Hill was closely watching the Red River of the North that
flowed north to Lake Winnipeg. Fort Garry (presently Winnipeg)
was an important Hudson Bay Company post. It was trying to keep
control over Canadian fur trade but did not serve independent
traders. Hill transported the freight of individuals and the
Hudson Bay Company found this competition dangerous. Norman
Kittson of the Hudson Bay Company joined with Hill to form the
Red River Transportation Company. Hill traveled up Red River in
1870 to investigate the cause of a French and Indian mob who
captured the Hudson's Bay Company post in Fort Garry. During that
trip and others, Hill saw the rich soil of the region and watched
the St. Paul & Pacific's steady decline. Grasshoppers
devoured everything in the area making it impossible to farm and
even made it difficult for locomotives to get traction on the
rails.(9) Hill thought that if he
could buy the railroad line then he could make a profit from it
by extending it to Fort Garry. The St. Paul & Pacific was
already in bad physical and financial condition but the panic of
1873 made it even worse. The Northern Pacific Railroad had
planned to buy the railroad but the Panic of 1873 put it under
receivership. Hill saw his chance to acquire the St. Paul &
Pacific and other lines in similar crises.(10)
Hill first went to Norman Kittson, who had previously worked
with him on the steamship line. Kittson and Hill both had a
little money but needed much more. Together they went to Donald
Smith of the Hudson's Bay Company and told him their plan for
making the St. Paul & Pacific a profitable line. Smith
offered money and talked with George Stephen, president of the
Bank of Montreal.(11) The four of
them bought the St. Paul & Pacific for $280,000 which Hill
estimated as 20% of the railroad's value.(12)
Hill's next mission was to make it a productive route.
Hill purchased rails, rolling stock, locomotives, and
laborers. He pushed the workers hard and they laid more than one
mile of track daily.(13) It
connected with a Canadian Pacific branch from Fort Garry at St.
Vincent, Minnesota in 1879. Canadian Pacific's transcontinental
route was not completed yet so all traffic through Fort Garry had
to use Hill's route. Hill received two million acres of land in
the Minnesota Land Grant for completing the rail line on time.(14) He rearranged his railroad into
the St. Paul, Minneapolis, & Manitoba. Hill had perfect
timing in buying the St. Paul & Pacific. Two great harvest
seasons followed his purchase which brought more business to the
railroad. A great increase in immigrants from Norway and Sweden
enabled Hill to sell homesteads from the Minnesota Land Grant for
$2.50 to $5 an acre.(15)
Hill's success came from planning for the future, which other
builders of that time did not do. He looked toward the future to
achieve his goals and overcame the doubts of others.(16) He studied areas in close
detail and planned exactly where the track would be best laid by
locomotive, handcar, passenger coach, caboose, and horseback.
Hill did all the analysis of grades and curves himself and often
argued with his engineers and track foremen demanding changes
when he felt them necessary. Hill insisted on having the best in
everything he did. He wanted huge bridges made with thick
granite. He wanted the biggest locomotives and the best steel,
too. He was a great financier, even against J.P. Morgan.
During his planning of his St. Paul, Minneapolis, &
Manitoba route, Hill got involved in the construction of the
Canadian Pacific Railway. Donald Smith and George Stephen who had
worked with him on the purchase of the St. Paul & Pacific
were leaders behind the Canadian transcontinental route. They
invited Hill to join them on the Canadian Pacific Railway and
Hill accepted. He gave advice about selected routes and
construction policies.(17) The
greatest contribution Hill made was his recommendation of William
Cornelius Van Horne to be construction manager. Van Horne drove
his construction crews hard and got the Canadian Pacific Railway
to the Pacific quickly.(18)
Because the Canadian Pacific would soon become a competitor to
his own transcontinental route, Hill resigned from the Canadian
Pacific and sold all of his stock in 1882.(19)
Only one year after the purchase of the St. Paul & Pacific
Railroad, Hill had already planned to build his railroad to the
Pacific. Many people thought Hill could never accomplish such a
goal. Never before had someone tried building such a railroad
without government land and loans. Railroads like the Union
Pacific, Central Pacific, and Northern Pacific were each given
millions of acres of public land to build their transcontinental
routes. People thought that even if Hill could construct his
dream, how could he possibly compete with government-funded
lines? Hill's idea to build a railroad to the Pacific became
known as Hill's Folly.(20)
Planning for the westward expansion of the St. Paul,
Minneapolis, & Manitoba went well.(21)
Construction started quickly and reached Minot, North Dakota in
1886.(22) The route ran north of
the Northern Pacific Railway. The Northern Pacific was poorly
built through worthless land. It had steep grades, high interest
charges, and high property taxes. Hill's planning resulted in a
much better route. A railroad line would help any town during
that era and Hill was able to get a good right-of-way for the
railroad. However, the town of Fort Benton, Montana rejected
Hill's request for a track through town. Hill decided that if the
town wanted to be difficult about construction, than he would cut
them off from the world and build his railroad around it. He left
the town one mile from any location on the railroad. This shows
Hill's attitude toward those who tried to slow his construction.(23)
They reached Great Falls in October of 1887 through
surprisingly quick construction. Hill was employing 8000 men and
3300 horse teams when building his transcontinental route.(24) Hill connected his line with
the Montana Central Railroad at Great Falls which went to Helena,
Montana and brought a lot of business. (25)
Hill encouraged settlement by letting immigrants travel
halfway across the country on his railroad for $10 if they would
settle along the route. He rented entire families freight cars
for little more money. These were strategies that other railroads
rarely used during this era and encouraged a lot of business.(26)
Hill created the Great Northern Railway Company and the St.
Paul, Minneapolis, & Manitoba became a part of it. In 1893 it
reached the Puget Sound at Everett, Washington. During that same
year, a panic put the Santa Fe and Union Pacific in receivership.
The Northern Pacific was put into a worse situation. Hill's Great
Northern was the only railroad in the Pacific to remain in good
condition through the panic. Hill made an agreement to take over
the Northern Pacific Railroad with Edward Tuck and Bank of
Montreal associate Lord Mount Stephen. A Great Northern
stockholder objected using the Minnesota law prohibiting the
combining of parallel and competing railroads. The agreement was
stopped. Hill soon got around it though by having his associates
help in buying Northern Pacific stock as individuals instead of
as a company.(27) The plan
succeeded and the Northern Pacific became part of the Great
Northern in 1896.(28) The Great
Northern now became known as the Hill Lines by most people living
in the West.(29)
Hill knew that the only eastbound traffic for the first few
years would be lumber until the region got developed. Hill was
interested in acquiring a line to Chicago and St. Louis where he
could ship the lumber. However, shipping lumber east would
require empty freight cars returning west if he could not find
anything else to ship back west. Hill sent men to Japan and China
to study all of their imports and exports. He also sent men to
New England, the Atlantic states, and the South searching for
things that could be made or grown and exported to the Orient.(30)
Hill researched the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy that
stretched from the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains. It was
very strong around Mississippi and Missouri. If Hill could get
the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, he would have a direct
cotton-hauling route to St. Louis and Kansas City, and a route to
the smelters of Denver and the Black Hills. Most importantly,
Hill could have a direct line into the lumber-consuming region of
the prairie states. Hill worked with J.P. Morgan and successfully
purchased the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy.
Edward Henry Harriman, head of the Union Pacific, was also
trying to buy the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. Harriman
first attempted to buy the Burlington from Hill by purchasing
their stock. This didn't work so Harriman ordered all of his men
to purchase a total of 40,000 shares of stock. Again he failed so
Hill and Morgan kept control.
Hill's agents were productive in finding products to ship to
the Orient. Now that Hill had the Chicago, Burlington &
Quincy, he arranged to ship products to the Orient via Seattle.
He supplied Japan with cotton from the South and shipped New
England cotton goods to China. Northern goods such as Minnesota
flour and Colorado metals also made Hill a profit when shipped to
Hill kept prices low and sold products just above cost. He
sold lumber along many rail routes in the Northwest to encourage
the construction of towns. Hill's dream was to build a
civilization that used all of the "wasteland" between
the Great Lakes and the Puget Sound so there would be little open
land remaining. He even imported cattle and gave them to farmers
along his railroads for free to encourage growth. Hill began
sending agents to Europe to show slides of Western farming to
urge Scotsmen, Englishmen, Norwegians, and Swedes to settle in
the Pacific Northwest. As a result of Hill's strategies, more
than 6,000,000 acres of Montana land was settled in two years.(32)
This rapid growth did cause some problems for the region after
Hill's death. Between the years of 1910 and 1922, homesteaders
settled 42% of Montana. More than 80% of this settled area was
not ready for agriculture which was the main use of it. Deep
plowing caused heavy erosion and the consistent strong winds of
Montana and the Dakotas blew away much of the soil. Wheat
production dropped from 25 bushels an acre in 1916 to 2.4 bushels
an acre in 1919. Many homesteaders left and this became one of
Hill's few failures.(33)
In 1905, the battle between Hill and Harriman began again over
Oregon land. Harriman considered Oregon his own territory because
of his successful Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads in
the region. Harriman became worried in 1905 when Hill announced
his plans for development in Oregon. Hill had already surveyed
the land and began grading and laying track. Harriman set up fake
railroad companies as a trick to conflict with Hill's
construction. This battle was fought mostly in the court but fist
fights, night raids, and the dynamiting of equipment was common.
During this struggle, Harriman got appendicitis and had to go to
the hospital. As soon as he could sit up in bed, he called Hill
to say that he would soon be back in the fight. Hill won the
battle though and took control of the Spokane, Portland, &
Hill saw an opportunity in Central Oregon and took quick
action. He built a 165-mile line from Columbia along the
Deschutes River to the unknown town of Bend. Very few people
populated the entire region around that line and Harriman knew
that Hill would not end the line at Bend. Harriman thought Hill
was building a direct line to San Francisco and wanted to stop
him. Harriman sent a huge construction crew to start laying track
on the opposite side of the Deschutes River and called the route
the Deschutes Railroad. This quickly became a news story
throughout the West as the two railroads battled through the
canyon. The railroad crews set off dynamite to interfere with the
construction of the other railroad and sent boulders down the
canyon walls at the other work crews.(35)
They reached a location in the canyon with only one way through.
The rancher who owned the land sold a right-of-way to Harriman.
Hill had no other route through and had to make a deal with
Harriman. Hill agreed that he would not build past Bend and in
return he could use that section of Harriman's track that was
Hill had no interest in creating a truce with Harriman and
just used it for the Deschutes River line. Harriman's Southern
Pacific Railroad still dominated Western Oregon. Hill bought
several electric rail lines to operate as competition with the
Southern Pacific. Hill also bought an ocean terminal at the mouth
of the Columbia River near Astoria. He put two large steamships
to operate from this ocean terminal to San Francisco. This proved
to be good competition with Harriman's Southern Pacific.(37)
In 1907 at age 69, Hill gave the leadership of the Great
Northern to his son Louis W. Hill. James Hill stayed active in
his railroad empire and came to office every day in St. Paul. In
May 1916, he became ill with an infection that spread quickly.
Doctors were unable to save him and Hill went into a coma and
died on May 29 at age 77.(38)
Hill's funeral was at 2:00 p.m. on May 31 and every train and
steamship on the Great Northern came to a five minute stop in
honor of the builder of the Great Northern Empire.(39)
James J. Hill truly did build the Pacific Northwest
with his railroads. He started with a huge region that people
thought could never be developed. Hill saw the struggling St.
Paul & Pacific Railroad and had a vision of expanding it to
the Pacific. The states of Minnesota and the Dakotas became
popular states for immigration because of Hill. The small town of
Seattle, Washington became an international shipping port.
America was linked with an excellent railroad network which
encouraged rapid growth. Where other railroad builders were
searching for ways to get every cent possible, Hill was surveying
the land himself, looking to create the most efficient railroad
network. Hill had a successful railroad because of the long
length of track, wide region it covered, high profits it made,
and the expansion it brought to America. He became known as the
Empire Builder because of his involvement with the stock market,
banking, international trade, and mining. In 1915 at the
Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, Hill was named State
of Minnesota's "greatest living citizen."(40)
There is no doubt from Hill's accomplishments that he was very
successful in his business. He was a self-made man who started
from nothing and built one of the most successful railroad
networks in America. Hill had a critical effect on the
development of our country through his railroad empire. His
involvement in many parts of business made James Jerome Hill
deserving of his title, The Empire Builder, a legend of success
that remains today.
1. Aaron E. Klein, Encyclopedia of North American Railroads (New York: Bison Book Corporation, 1985) 90.
2. Stewart H. Holbrook, The Story of American Railroads (New York: Crown Publishers, 1947) 174.
3. Steve Glischinski, Burlington Northern and Its Heritage (Osceola, Wisconsin: Motorbooks International Publishers and Wholesalers, 1996) 22.
4. Holbrook 174.
5. Klein 90.
6. Holbrook 175.
7. Glischinski 22.
8. Holbrook 175.
9. Thomas York, North America's Great Railroads (Greenwich, Connecticut: Brompton Books Corporation, 1987) 107.
10. Holbrook 175-176.
11. Holbrook 176.
12. York 109.
13. Holbrook 176.
14. Glischinski 22
15. Holbrook 176.
16. York 106.
17. Klein 93.
18. Holbrook 176-177.
19. Terry Pindell, Making Tracks: An American Rail Odyssey (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990) 334.
20. Holbrook 177.
21. Holbrook 178.
22. Glischinski 22
23. Holbrook 178.
24. York 111.
25. Glischinski 22
26. York 109.
27. Holbrook 178-179.
28. Fred Matthews, "The World of Sagebrush Annie," Trains November 1996: 52-57.
29. Holbrook 179.
30. Holbrook 181.
31. Holbrook 181-182.
32. Holbrook 183.
33. Holbrook 183.
34. Holbrook 183-184.
35. Holbrook 184-185
36. Holbrook 185-186.
37. Holbrook 186.
38. Glischinski 25.
39. York 112.
40. Klein 93.