- 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
Hill went to the House of Morgan with the bad news that they had been caught napping in the Old Man’s absence. The Morgan partners cabled to Aix-les-Bains, asking Morgan for permission to buy 150,000 shares of NP Common. This happened on a Friday. Next day, while the Morgan partners awaited a reply, Harriman thought to play safe by purchasing another 40,000 shares. He called Schiffs office and gave the order. It was never executed. The devout Schiff was at the synagogue.
By Monday it was too late. Trading on the Exchange had barely begun when the House of Morgan poured buying orders into the market. On Monday alone brokers bought some 127,500 shares of NP Common for the Morgan account. The price climbed from 114 to 127½. And the buying continued. On Tuesday the price hit 149. On Thursday it rose to 1,000.
A sudden if brief panic followed the boom, and many stocks went tumbling. But Hill-Morgan reached an understanding with Harriman. In what was really no more than a partial and temporary armistice, it was agreed Harriman should have representation on the Northern Pacific board. Control of the three railroads, however, remained with the Hill-Morgan people. Hill continued to run the Northern Pacific, the Great Northern, and the Burlington as he thought best.
A business commentator once observed that “Mr. Hill’s judgment has never been seriously at fault in any of his undertakings.” He had noted that Hill’s plans for the three Hill lines became apparent at once. Hill’s agents in the Orient prevailed on Japanese industrialists to try a shipment of American cotton to mix with the short-staple article from India they were using. It proved successful; from then on the Hill lines carried an increasing tonnage of American cotton for shipment at Seattle. Minnesota flour began crossing the Pacific in huge volume. Jim Hill liked to say that if each inhabitant of a single province in China could be induced to eat an ounce of flour daily, it would require some fifty million bushels of midwest wheat annually. Hill carried the flour dirt-cheap to Seattle. In fact, his over-all policy was not to charge rates as high as the traffic would stand, but as low as the Hill lines could stand.
Hill’s campaign to populate the socalled wastelands between Minnesota and the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and Washington was only too successful. The end result was bad. In the twelve years after 1910, 42 per cent of Montana’s great 3.rea was tentatively settled by homesteaders, a majority of them induced thither by Hill’s agents and his continuous publicity efforts. They plowed this short-grass country deep; erosion followed, and Montana’s topsoil was blown away. By 1919 the average yield of wheat had fallen to 2.4 bushels per acre. Abandoned homesteads became a characteristic scene in Montana. Hill’s judgment, at least on this occasion, was seriously at fault.
Four years after the armistice of 1901, the HiIlHarriman wars broke out anew. Hill was nettled because Harriman, through his Union Pacific and his large interest in the Northern Pacific, considered Oregon to be his domain and may well have believed his position impregnable. Hill, however, thought differently. Before Harriman got wind of it, Hill had completed surveys down the north bank of the Columbia River to occupy a water-level route through the Cascade Mountains, which the Northern Pacific had originally planned to use but which for some reason or other it had deflected to the south bank.
No sooner had Hill’s gangs started grading and laying track down the north bank than they were met with injunctions and other legal harassments conjured up by a couple of paper-railroads hastily incorporated by Harriman. Although most of this engagement was fought in the courts, violence broke out in the field. Some of Hill’s equipment was dynamited in night raids by unknown parties. Harriman’s surveyors were shot at and driven off.
Hill won the north bank fight; and his new line, the Portland & Seattle, went into joint operation by the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific, with headquarters in Portland. Yet he still was not content. He had a foothold in the extreme northwest corner of Oregon. He wanted more. The outcome went into history as the last of the classic railroad battles that had shaken and often entertained the United States periodically for half a century.
Under an assumed name and posing as a wealthy sportsman, John F. Stevens, Hill’s incomparable chief engineer, went into central Oregon to buy options on ranches and other property along the Deschutes River. He also purchased the charter for a nonexistent railroad, the Oregon Trunk, which had never laid a rail. Only then did Jim Hill announce he planned to “open up” central Oregon by building 165 miles of railroad up the river to a place named Bend.
The news of Hill’s plan to “develop” a region given over largely to sagebrush, extinct volcanoes, and lava beds, yet hedged with a vast stand of virgin ponderosa pine, gave Harriman a start. Almost nobody lived in the region, even in Bend, its metropolis. Harriman rightly comprehended that Hill planned to build not only to Bend but right on through that town in a direct line to San Francisco, and California was a Harriman province.
To parallel Hill’s Oregon Trunk, Harriman hastily moved surveyors and huge gangs of laborers into the neighborhood, and they went to work making grade and laying track up the east bank of the Deschutes River. All Oregon, and much of the Far West, watched with interest while the armies of the two railroad generals massed for an old-fashioned construction war.