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James J. Hill
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James J. Hill

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James J. Hill was a railroad magnate responsible for greatly expanding railways into the U.S. Northwest during the late 19th century.

Who Was James J. Hill?

James J. Hill was a railroad executive who came from an impoverished childhood to found his own company in 1866. He would eventually helm the Great Northern Railway Company, which was responsible for huge railroad expansions in the U.S. Northwest. Hill would acquire other companies, though he faced legal action as the result of violating antitrust laws.

Early Life

Hill was born on September 16, 1838, near what is now Guelph, Ontario. His father was sporadically employed as a hired hand on farms but Hill was able to get good schooling in his youth at Rockwood Academy, where the headmaster waived the tuition. The death of his father when he was 14 meant Hill had to leave school to work while his mother ran an inn. He secured work with a grocer while studying with the Rev. William Wetherald, who taught Hill mathematics and English. His aptitude for algebra and geometry would serve him well in his later career.

Determined to be an animal trapper and fur trader, Hill moved to the United States when he was 17. After a brief stint as a clerk in Kentucky, where he learned bookkeeping, he settled in St. Paul, Minnesota, working for a steamboat company.

Since he'd lost sight in his right eye from a childhood archery accident, he was rejected from service in the Civil War, so he helped form the volunteer corps in Minnesota. This, coupled with bookkeeping and handling freight for his various employers, including the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, gave him experience selling, trading and shipping.

He had married Mary Theresa Mehegan in 1867 and they had had 10 children.

Becoming a Mogul

Hill knew how to take advantage of opportunities and apply the knowledge he'd gleaned from his various employers. When fuel was in short supply during the war, he offered coal instead of wood. When the Mississippi River froze, he was able to secure contracts with grocers to ship by rail instead of steamship.

After the war, Hill realized the Northwest was ripe for expansion by rail, and he was eager to supply its needs for the economic advantage of the whole community and surrounding areas.

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In 1879, Hill and partners formed a company that transformed the bankrupt St. Paul & Pacific Railroad into the highly successful St. Paul, Minnesota & Manitoba Railway Company. He was elevated to company president a few years later, and his farsighted management skills earned him a solid reputation.

Even so, when he decided to expand the railway all the way to the Pacific, the plan was deemed "Hill's Folly." But with an eye firmly focused on cost-effectiveness, Hill's land surveys located the Marias Pass, the lowest crossing of the Rockies in the area, and the railroad was constructed without building a tunnel. He managed a similar feat when expanding up through Washington, with the newly named Great Northern Railway Company.

When he encountered competition from E.H. Harriman's Union Pacific Railway, Hill allied with financier J.P. Morgan, adding the Northern Pacific and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroads to his empire. The rivalry ultimately caused a stock market panic in 1901, and the two joined forces, but the alliance was dissolved a few years later, prompted by President Theodore Roosevelt and the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Hill passed the business on to his son in 1907, but reported to work every day until a week before he died.

Death and Legacy

He had also populated the region of the Pacific Northwest with thriving communities, many of them Scandinavian immigrants who had availed themselves of Hill's $10 transportation policy, to help settle the area and expand the region's economic development. His reputation for high standards and hard work had earned him the moniker "The Empire Builder," with the governor of Minnesota dubbing him "the greatest constructive genius of the Northwest."

Hill's discerning taste in art can be sampled at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. His business acumen is manifested at the James J. Hill Reference Library, an idea he nursed back in 1887, which has been helping aspiring entrepreneurs form a practical "business strategy" since 1921.

Hill died at his home in St. Paul, Minnesota, on May 29, 1916. 

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