The Legend Of Jim Hill


In the narrow Deschutes Canyon, little more than a cleft in high, craggy cliffs of rock, the opposing crews used dynamite on each other. For close fighting the weapons were shovels, crowbars, and pick handles. In more open spaces, the factions harassed one another’s right of way with fences, barricades of rock, and court orders. Armed guards occasionally lay flat on the rimrock to shoot at any mysterious movements below.

The campaign came to a head at the ranch of a man named Smith, who sold his property to Harriman. There was no other route to Bend except through this ranch. Hill decided to arbitrate. HarrimaH was willing. A truce was signed by which Hill agreed to build no farther south than Bend. But west of the Cascade Range the war continued, no longer with violence but with electric lines and coastwise steamships.

This struggle was still going on when Harriman died in 1909. It was not finished in 1916, when Hill died. Only by the mid-1920’s, when the Great Northern at last gained entry to San Francisco, over the tracks of the Western Pacific, could the Hill-Harriman wars be said to be over. By then it was something of a hollow victory anyhow; in the very year Harriman died, Henry Ford had announced his Model T. One era was ending, a new one dawning.

What might be called Hill’s private life presented no difficulties to his official biographer. There were no family skeletons to be concealed. No de-spicing was necessary. Seemingly his private affairs were as placid as his business career was stormy. His marriage, in 1867, to Mary Theresa Mehegan, daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants, was “one of those perfect unions of which the world hears little because of their completeness.” Three sons and seven daughters were born to the Hills. Of her husband Mrs. Hill remarked that “he never brought his business home.”

Though Hill seems never to have embraced the Catholic Church as a communicant, he first and last made it gifts of something more than one million dollars. His will also set aside a million dollars to establish the James Jerome Hill Reference Library in St. Paul, opened in 1917. His hobbies, such as raising fine cattle and swine and experimenting in the growing of grain, were closely related to his railroad interests. Yet he took no little satisfaction from his collection of paintings. He began it with a Corot, a good Millet, then added works by Daubigny, Dupré, Deschamps, T. Rousseau, and one of Delacroix’s better pictures. All these artists were much admired at the time. Yet, early in the eighties, Hill was purchasing paintings by younger men like Monet and Renoir.

Thus there is little in James J. Hill at home on which to build a legend. It was Jim Hill in action who went into legendry. One of his appealing qualities was that he was not an absentee-emperor whose knowledge of his realm came solely from his agents and captains. In person he had walked on snowshoes across Minnesota in the days when the Sioux were on the warpath. He had camped on the banks of the Red River when Manitoba was still Prince Rupert’s Land. By foot, horse, or rail he had been to all the limits reached by the Hill lines. When the Great Northern’s Number One train, the Empire Builder , whistles for Sauk Centre or Fargo or Whitefish or Spokane on its way two thousand miles across the top of the United States, the echoes find scarcely a stark butte or valley that Jim Hill himself had not seen at first hand.

One who has been riding the Hill lines for many years is likely to fancy that in them he finds certain qualities of Jim Hill the man. By this I mean the land, the climate, and the very towns and flag stops of this now spectacular, now monotonous, but often handsome, harsh, desolate, wild, and bitter region. Take little Malta, Montana, an angry sun beating down, baking the false fronts, roasting the soil … or Havre, Montana, at night, snapping from cold, coyotes yelping within sound of the roundhouse … or the glittering hill that is Butte at twilight—Butte twinkling with astonishing brilliance in this thin air, seen from the Northern Pacific’s limited as she comes suddenly out of the high pass of the Rockies, while away to the south stands the enormous stack marking Anaconda, spewing yellow fumes and death to vegetation.… The Kootenai, a tumult of white water boiling over rocks, sea green in the pools … then the immense lushness of the Wenatchee orchards … and at last the long thundering bore straight through the Cascade Range and emergence into the fog-ridden silence of the towering firs, the most somber and melancholy forest on earth; then the lights of Puget Sound and the hoarse calls of ships bound for the Orient.

Jim Hill hitched these places and things together, then went on to tie them to Chicago, to Omaha, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Denver. They comprised the Hill lines. The Hill lines comprised an empire. I can think of few other Americans who had quite so much direct influence on quite so large a region.