Search billions of records on

James J. Hill: Empire Builder


Doris Giffen

When you hear of the Great Northern Railroad, you instantlythink of James J. Hill, because he was the man who brought the railroadto the Northwest. But James was not a genius at birth. He worked hardto achieve the recognition he got. And now all the people in Northern Minnesotaare very much indebted to him for the railroad.

James Jerome Hill was born in Rockwood, Ontario. As aschoolboy James was very much interested in steam engines and other vehiclesof travel. In 1856, young James came to Saint Paul, Minnesota, but he wasnot going to stop here. He was on his way to the Far Bast but this frontierrivertown caught his eye. He found work here as a shipping clerk for ariver steamboat company. And with his experiences of transporting fursand wheat by steamboat he thought there must be a faster way to ship thingsfrom one part of the country to another. And he expressed how he felt bysaying, "Nations are like men, they are both travellers. Each oneof them moves through history, toward what we call progress and a new lifeor toward decay and death." So he put all his energies to work andbegan to complete his dreams of making a railroad which would go from St.Paul to the Puget Sound. And this was the beginning of his career in transportation.

James realized that many companies had started short railroadlines and had faced bankruptcy. But by forming a company of wealthy menhe bought all the short lines. He combined them into a corporation calledthe "St. Paul, Minnesota and Manitoba Railroad Company." Altogetherthey formed about 560 miles of completed railroad. He was then managerof the company but by 1885 he was president. He rebuilt old lines, changedrails to steel and reduced the rates. All this time he kept thinking ofways to get his railroad used. He sent agents to Europe to persuade peopleto come to Minnesota and take up claims so the railroads could haul grain. James got his tracks to the Red River and Canadian Border. Here he madea beautiful house in the Red River Valley area and continued his work tilhe built the tracks to Seattle. And this railroad was called the GreatNorthern.

Not so many people today know too much about James J. Hill. They probably didn't think of the details like his marriage or his homelife. But when he came to St. Paul he met a girl named Mary Mehegan. Hefell in love with her but did not marry her right away because he wantedher to get a better education. So she attended a convent school. You maynot think of her as being too important but she must have helped him a greatdeal. She was with him through the good times and the hardships of buildinga better empire for his descendants. And one thing we remember about JamesJ. Hill is that he encouraged people to settle in this area and he wantedthem to have something to remember him by. People everywhere looked upto him as a mental giant even though he was a short man with wrinki ed skinand blind in one eye

One of his last remarks is often quoted. He said, "Therailroad is in partnership with the land. It will prosper only as the landprospers." (1) When he said this he was thinking that in generationsto come people will have to work to make the land give out what they wantit to give. And this is what he did. But only he did it with a business.

And in building up this business he has made it betterfor the people of this area to get from place to place faster. And we rememberhim for that great contribution to our area. And we would be lost in thewilderness once again if the railroad was ever stopped in our area.

(1) James J. Hill, HIGHWAYS OF PROGRESS, New York, 190?.

(1) James J. Hill, MINNESOTA PIONEERS, 1958.



James J. Hill, HIGHWAYS OF PROGRESS, New York, 1909.


IONEERS, 1958.