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The Legend Of Jim Hill

May 2024
17min read

The steamship clerk of Pig’s Eye, Minnesota, built a railroad empire from the Great Lakes to Puget Sound

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 are built from 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.

The Hudson’s Bay Company was operating what it considered a monopoly steamboat line on the Red River, which flowed north out of Dakota to the Bay Company’s post at Fort Carry (Winnipeg). Hill put a boat of his own on the Red. He added another. He had taken care to bond his steamers, thus complying with a United States customs law which, until then, had been a dead letter. The Bay Company’s vessels were suddenly barred from carrying freight; and until the Canadian firm could comply with the forgotten law, the Hill boats enjoyed a lucrative monopoly. When Donald A. Smith, governor of the Bay Company, learned of the coup, he remarked of Hill that “he must be a very able man.”

Hill promptly began a rate war against the Bay Company boats so effective as to cause Donald Smith to visit St. Paul. The outcome was a coalition. What the public saw was that Norman Kittson, the Hudson’s Bay agent at St. Paul, organized the Red River Transportation Company, in which Hill was a secret partner. Shipping rates on the Red went high and stayed high. It is of interest to know what “high” means during its first season the Kittson-Hill combine returned a net profit of 80 per cent.

Yet Hill was not content. While engaged in his now numerous activities he watched the steady decay of the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. If they could lay hands on that streak of rust and corruption, lie told Kittson, it could be made into a profitable enterprise. Soon came the Panic of 1873 to add the ripening touch. The railroad promptly went into receivership.

Hill and Kittson together could muster a few thousand dollars. To get a firm hold on the St. Paul & Pacific called for infinitely more money. Through Donald Smith and Smith’s cousin, George Stephen, head of the Bank of Montreal, $6,000,000 was raised. Hill and Kittson then borrowed and mortgaged and added $780,000 to the syndicate. The four men took over the bankrupt company and reorganized it as the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railroad.

To get it so cheaply, Hill had guided a bondholders’ committee over the road—or, as legend has it, over the most worthless stretches of it and in the most decrepit rolling stock Hill could find. While so engaged, he gently admonished them to behold their folly.


Even at $6,780,000, the bondholders’ folly was something oi a bargain. The new owners promptly sold the major part of the company’s land grant for $ 13,068,887. They still owned the railroad, such as it was. Of the !bur partners, Smith was soon to become Lord Strathcona, Stephen was to be made Lord Mount Stephen. The others were to remain Kittson and Hill. Hill took charge of building the Manitoba, as the line was commonly known, into a railroad that would pay its way wherever it went.

Hill was just forty when he set out to make something from the dismal remains of the bankrupt line. Directing the job in person, lie drove his construction crews at a furious rate. Across Minnesota went the rails, then north to the border to meet the Canadian Pacific, which built a line south from Winnipeg, a “happy conjunction” made |X)ssiblc by the fact that Hill’s Canadian partners were heavy stockholders and leading spirits in Canada s first transcontinental line.

Two thumping wheat harvests followed completion of the first Hill railroad; the freight traffic grew immense. What had been a trickle of immigrants from Norway and Sweden turned to flood, and not without reason: Hill’s agents had been in Scandinavia singing the glories of the Red River of the North. Homesteads could be had free, or Hill would sell them some of the land still in possession of the Manitoba railroad at $2.50 an acre.

Jim Hill’s idea of a railroad was not a piece of track to connect the Twin Cities and Winnipeg. As early as 1879 he told his directors he meant to push the line across the continent to Puget Sound. Some of his colleagues were alarmed. No other concern had attempted to build a transcontinental railroad without a subsidy from the government in lands and often in loans. Hill could get no land grant other than the one the road already had in Minnesota, and that would be of no aid in building across Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. Even if by some quirk he did manage to lay rails to Puget Sound, how then could he hope to compete with the old subsidized lines, the Northern Pacific and the Union Pacific? When Hill’s presumptuous plan became public, his railway inevitably was labeled “Hill’s Folly.”

Hill’s Folly moved westward with speed, though not so fast as to preclude short feeder lines being built as the main rails went forward, heading for the northwest shore. Hill seemed to know just where a branch would become a profitable feeder almost as soon as it was laid. Soon the main line started the long haul across Montana, running well north of the Northern Pacific, which Hill pretended to ignore, except to set his freight and passenger rates very low in territory where he could compete with the older road.

Hill was ruthless. Near Great Falls, Montana, which Hill’s Folly reached in 1887, he showed what he could do to a stubborn community. He laid his rails in a graceful arc clean around Fort Benton, whose shortsighted townsmen had rejected his demand for a right of way free of charge, and left the settlement a good mile from the tracks. Great Falls had been debating how much to charge Hill for a strip through the city, but observing what had occurred at Fort Benton, it decided to be openhanded, and presented him with a dandy right of way through the center of its city park.

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.)


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.

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.

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