The "Empire Builder", whose full name was James Jerome Hill, was born in
Rockwood, Ontario, Canada in 1838. He only had formal schooling for
nine years, until 1852 when he was about 14. However, by that point he
had already achieved several skills, particularly in math, English, and
even land surveying which would serve him quite well with his future career
in the railroad industry. His work in the wholesale industry is where
Hill would first come to learn the finer intricacies of the
transportation industry. In 1873 by the age of 35 Hill had entered the
steamboat industry, which is reminiscent of the "Commodore" Cornelius
Vanderbilt who likewise started out there before transitioning to
Just like Vanderbilt, Hill became quite successful in the steamboat business amassing quite a fortune before the financial panic of 1873 gave him an opportunity to enter the railroad industry with several companies either in ruin or bankruptcy. One of these railroads was the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, which dated back to May 22, 1857 as the Minnesota & Pacific Railroad (a year before Minnesota was an official state). In the early 1860s it reorganized as the St. Paul & Pacific but the railroad was fraught with financial difficulty and its main line connected just St. Paul and St. Anthony (Minneapolis), a distance of just over 10 miles. After the panic Hill and a group of other businessmen including Norman Kittson, Donald Smith, and George Stephen collectively purchased the bankrupt StP&P believing with proper investment that the railroad could become quite profitable.
In 1879 they merged the small lines of the StP&P and the First
Division, St. Paul & Pacific to form the St. Paul, Minneapolis &
Manitoba Railway. After just six years under the direction of Hill and his counterparts the StPM&M through sound business
practices, management, and expansion was worth more than 34-times its
1873 value, at over $25 million. The Great Northern Railway was formed
in 1889 when Hill created the company to control or lease a number of
other railroads which included the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba
Railway and Montana Central Railroad.
Now that these railroads were all under one control Hill quickly set about building to the Pacific Coast and Seattle which was accomplished just four years later in 1893, doing so almost entirely without the use of land grants. The "Empire Builder" was often criticized for taking his time in building the line towards Seattle. He would construct a few hundred miles at a time, and work to have folks settle the areas before continuing westward. Throughout the rest of the early 20th century Hill worked to modernize his main line, especially through the Rockies by eliminating grades and curves. One of his well-known quotes is one perhaps we all could live by in the pursuit of achieving success in whatever we may do, "work, hard work, intelligent work, and then more work."
Unlike some of the railroad tycoons and presidents Hill regularly put massive amounts of the company's profits back into the physical plant, keeping his railroad well-maintained. Hill once controlled the GN and rival Northern Pacific, and along with ally J.P. Morgan looked to control the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy through the Northern Securities Company. However, this company was broken up as a result of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Despite this setback Hill gained control of the Colorado & Southern Railway which stretched from southern Wyoming through east Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. He also successfully completed the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway, connection Spokane, Washington with Portland, Oregon. For more reading about the life of James Hill please click here.
Interestingly, with Morgan controlling the CB&Q Hill was able to
indirectly complete his connection to Chicago. This setup lasted
through 1970 when his successors were finally able to created the
massive Burlington Northern system. Before his death in 1916 James J. Hill was able to achieve the
last of his great legacies, the completion of the Cascade Tunnel through
Washington's Cascade Range (a new tunnel was later bored and opened in
the 1920s, which is still used today by the BNSF Railway, and is some 8
miles in length!). Because of the money Hill regularly gave to
libraries and schools his heirs used part of his fortune to endow the Hill Reference Library in St. Paul, Minnesota.
For more information about this library please click here.
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James J. Hill