Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

HILL, JAMES (1838-1916)

James J. Hill, known as the Empire Builder, was one of the most important railroad leaders of the nineteenth century. He was born September 16, 1838, in Eramosa Township, Ontario, and died in St. Paul, Minnesota, on May 29, 1916. Hill built the Great Northern Railway and merged it with the Northern Pacific and Burlington Railroads to form a transcontinental railroad that connected Puget Sound with the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. This railroad system later became the Burlington Northern Railroad.

Hill began his business career in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1856 as a bookkeeper for a steamboat company. By the 1860s he was a transportation agent handling freight transfers to and from wagons, railroads, and steamboats. This experience enabled him to enter the coal business in the late 1860s, the steamboat business on the Red River of the North in 1870, and the railroad business in 1878. During 1877 Hill formed a group–later dubbed "The Associates"–consisting of himself, Norman Kittson, Donald Smith, George Stephen, and John S. Kennedy to gain control of the bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. The Associates renamed the railroad the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba (SPM&M), and with Hill as president the railroad became a great success. Hill was a sophisticated manager who built his railroads to the highest standards.

Hill built the SPM&M north along the Red River to the Canadian border and received a Minnesota land grant for completing it on time. He transported immigrants (many from Norway and Sweden) north before the winter was over at low rates and sold them homesteads from the Minnesota land grant at $2.50 to $5.00 an acre. This allowed settlers to be on the land in time to plant a crop that spring, and it built up the population around the railroad.

Hill used this same technique when he expanded the SPM&M (later renamed the Great Northern) into Montana in the late 1880s and to Puget Sound in 1893. He charged a nominal fee to transport immigrants in return for their settling along the route. The Great Northern was the only transcontinental built without public subsidies and the only one that did not go bankrupt in the 1890s.

Hill was a strong supporter of soil conservation and scientific farming. He traveled extensively throughout the upper Midwest and Northwest making public speeches at county fairs, encouraging farmers to adopt more advanced methods of farming. He published numerous articles on his views of farming and the value of education. However, Hill's efforts were not always successful. Many of the farmers who were induced by Hill to settle the high plains of Montana failed.

In 1896 Hill established steamship service between Seattle and ports in Asia, making Seattle a world port. In 1901 Hill and Edward H. Harriman engaged in a titanic battle for control of the Burlington and Quincy Railroad. With the aid of J. P. Morgan, Hill eventually won control of the Burlington, enabling him to complete his vision of a transportation empire that linked Asia with the Great Lakes and the Gulf Coast. Hill was known as the Empire Builder largely because he built up population around his railroads rather than building his railroads around a population.

Keith T. Poole Carnegie Mellon University

Martin, Albro. James J. Hill and the Opening of the Northwest. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1976.

Stover, John F. American Railroads. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

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