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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
Hill always protected his rear. Grain elevators went up as the main line continued west. More immigrants came to settle on what by now had become the Great Northern Railway. Hill was ready to haul a good healthy peasant from Europe halfway across the United States for $25 if he would promise to drive his stakes along Great Northern rails.
At last the Great Northern reached Puget Sound at Everett, Washington, early in 1893. It was a bad year for railroads. The Santa Fe and the Union Pacific went into receivership. And, to the great delight of Hill, so did his major competitor, the Northern Pacific. Of all the rails that reached the West Coast, only the Great Northern remained intact.
Jim Hill himself was still intact. At 55 he had long since reminded many of a grim old lion—a thickset man with massive head, gray beard and gray hair shaggy as a shorthorn’s. He had immense shoulders and one good eye (he had lost the other in a childhood game of bow and arrow) which often seemed to glow in his dark, weathered countenance—said one who saw it—like a live coal at the bottom of a cinder pit.
Men often look the way they do because conditions and their own bent have forged their personality. Hill was one of these. He made people think of some craglike geologic outcropping, a neolithic fact, old Rock of Ages. Yet his was a volcanic base. His temper was such that once he tore a telephone from its moorings and heaved it the length of his office. Again, he fired an inoffensive Great Northern clerk who, when asked by Hill, replied that his name was Spittles. It was Spittles, too, and Hill fired him because of it.
Hill had studied the failing Northern Pacific closely; and now, with his old associate of the Bank of Montreal, Lord Mount Stephen, he made an offer to stockholders of the bankrupt line; he would take over and operate it. The deal was halted by an injunction in support of a Minnesota law prohibiting the merger of parallel and competing railroads. But there was nothing to stop Hill from buying Northern Pacific stock copiously. This Hill did. The road was reorganized with the help of J. Pierpont Morgan. Henceforth, for all practical purposes, the NP was a second track for the Great Northern. The two roads became known as the Hill lines, and for them Hill was planning further expansion; he wanted nothing less than the great midwestern property called the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.
Hill wanted the Burlington for several reasons, among them the fact that it would give him entry to Chicago and St. Louis. That road touched the Great Northern at St. Paul, and the Northern Pacific at Billings, Montana. It operated large mileages in Iowa and adjacent states, which together comprised America’s best domestic lumber market. (The far-western portions of Hill’s GN and NP relied heavily on lumber for eastbound freight.) Then, too, the Burlington would give Hill connection with the cotton-hauling roads entering St. Louis and Kansas City, and with the smelters of Colorado and South Dakota, and the packing houses of Omaha. Hill and J. P. Morgan bought the Burlington from under the nose of Edward H. Harriman, who also wanted it.
Ten years younger than Hill, Harriman “looked like a bookkeeper.” A rather frail man, he wore thick glasses, had a soft voice, and was both shy and silent. He was also one of the few men who did not fear Morgan. In fact, Harriman feared nobody. At 21 he had owned a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. He headed a syndicate to take over the foundering Union Pacific. (He was soon to get control of the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific as well.) Now he felt ready to begin what went into railroad history as the Hill-Harriman wars. Both men were ruthless enough. Both meant to dominate railroading in the northwestern United States from the Great Lakes to the Pacific.
The Hill-Morgan coup—getting the Burlington—occurred in March, 1901. At almost the same time Harriman, with the backing of Kuhn, Loeb & Company, New York bankers, started secretly to buy into the Northern Pacific. If he couldn’t get the Burlington, then he meant to buy control of Hill’s second road and be in a position to dictate to Hill. The stock buying was begun so astutely that neither Hill nor Morgan seemed to suspect what was going forward. In fact, everything looked so serene that in April Morgan sailed for Europe, where he planned to take the waters at Aix-les-Bains. That same month, Hill set out to roll westward across his own empire.
During the last week in April Hill, then in Seattle, was perturbed to note a sudden sharp rise in Northern Pacific shares. It troubled him because the HillMorgan crowd owned less than half of the NP stock. True, in most cases a strong minority interest was sufficient to hold control of a railroad. But not always. Hill acted promptly. In Seattle he had his car hitched to a locomotive, ordered the tracks cleared, and started a fast run to Chicago, and then on to New York. In New York he went immediately to the office of Tacob H. Schiff of Kuhn, Loeb and demanded to know if Schiff were buying NP shares for E. H. Harriman. Yes, said Schiff, he was. What was more, if the Hill-Morgan crowd would not let Harriman have the Burlington, then Harriman was going to buy the Northern Pacific from under their feet, which, said Schiff, were not planted firmly enough to hold it. Indeed, Harriman already had control. (Schiff was bragging a little; Harriman needed approximately 40,000 more shares.)