- Historic Sites
The Legend Of Jim Hill
The steamship clerk of Pig’s Eye, Minnesota, built a railroad empire from the Great Lakes to Puget Sound
June 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 4
Long before his death, more than forty years ago, Jim Hill had become a legend in the American West. Whether lie was hero or villain matters little. He died something of a giant in the vast region where many contemporaries came often to think him less a man than an elemental force. Time has not diminished his stature; neither has it quite managed to condemn him nor to put him safely on the side of the angels.
First of all came the blizzards. Then the droughts. Then the grasshoppers, and hard on the leaping legs of the parasites came fames Jerome Hill, Jim Hill, the Little Giant, the Empire Builder, the man who made the Northwest,or who wrecked it—Jim Hill, the barbed-wired, shaggy-headed, one-eyed old so-and-so of western railroading.
Lasting legends arc seldom ready-made. They arc built I’rom inconsequential stories laid end to end, or piled one upon the other. Ul two of the best rcmcmbered stories of fini Hill, one shows him as hero, the other as villain. Once, when a crew was trying to clear track for a Great Northern passenger train stalled in a blinding snowstorm, President Hill came out to snatch a shovel from a man and send that working stiff into the president’s business car for hot coffee, while Hill himself shoveled like a rotary plow. One after the other, the gandy-dancers were spelled off and drank fine Java in unaccustomed elegance while the Great Northern’s creator faced the storm. That was Jim Hill for you. Again, because the mayor of a small Minnesota town objected, mildly, to all-night switching in his village, Hill swore that its people should walk. Then he had the depot torn down and set up two miles away. That, too, was Jim Hill.
The legend carries on: Hill began life with nothing. He died lord of an empire that reached from the Great Lakes to Puget Sound, from the Canadian border to Missouri and Colorado. He had staked out provinces in China and Japan. He died worth $53,000,000, won in a region so sparsely settled that it was believed by most easterners to be an intact and worthless wilderness. There is more of substance to the Hill legend than shadow.
Born in 1838 in Ontario, Upper Canada, young Hill arrived at eighteen in the raw new settlement at the head of navigation on the Mississippi that was beginning to dislike its pioneer name of Pig’s Eye, and was calling itself St. Paul. The time was mid-1856. St. Paul was in its first notable boom. The prosperity was to last a little more than twelve months longer before the Panic of ’57 turned the city into what a local historian described as a place of “no business, … no banks, … no courage, no hope, … no foundation to build on.”
Twelve months, however, was all young Hill needed. Neither then nor later did panics hurt him. Like his contemporaries, Rockefeller and Carnegie, he welcomed them. Panics shook the stuffing out of insecure institutions, leaving useful fragments that able hands might pick up and make into something solid. One year in St. Paul before the debacle of 1857 was time enough. In that period young Hill’s energy put down such firm roots in the city that it was to remain his base of operations for the next six decades.
His first job was on the St. Paul water front, where he clerked and made himself useful for an outfit running a line of packet steamers. He saw the first shipments of Minnesota grains go down-river. With his own hands he cut the first stencil lor the first label ot the first Hour made in Minnesota. He noted the increasing number of immigrants, the steadily mounting tonnage of freight. By 1865 he had set up for himself as a forwarding agent. Within months a local daily paper observed that “J. J. Hill is now prepared to give shippers the lowest rates ever quoted from here to Eastern points. Mr. Hill has nearly all the important carriers of freight in his own hands.” When winter closed river navigation, his big warehouse was not idle; he converted it into a hay-pressing establishment, bringing the admiring editorial comment that “this remarkable young man evidently intends to keep abreast of the times.” This was not quite exact; young Hill was keeping ahead of the times. He presently organized what became the Northwestern Fuel Company—and virtually a monopoly—to supply wood for St. Paul’s stoves and furnaces; then, having first leased several thousand acres of Iowa coal lands, he introduced that fuel to the city and region. He also contracted to supply fuel to the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, Minnesota’s chief source of revenue for corruptionists, lobbyists, and legislators.
Among the older businessmen who had been observing young Hill’s career was Norman W. Kittson, Canadian-born in 1814, a fur trader from youth, who had arrived in Minnesota in the 1830’s, served in the territorial and state legislatures, done well in real estate, and was acting as agent in St. Paul for the venerable Hudson’s Hay Company. Before accepting this post, Kittson had acted for the independent trappers and traders. He continued to act for them. This odd arrangement satisfied nobody, and Kittson proposed to Hill that he might find it worthwhile if he could devise a way to transport the independents and their supplies from the United States to the fur and farming regions of the Canadian province soon to be called Manitoba.