James J. Hill

 

James J. Hill was born in 1838 in Rockwood, Ontario, to a farming family. He experienced a tumultuous childhood in which he lost the sight in one eye and his father died. In 1856, with his dreams of becoming a physician fading, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he worked in various stores and warehouses. After a decade of bouncing from job to job he founded a business that housed and transported freight, then created a steamboat company. His interest in transportation was piqued by his early recognition of the need for an efficient system for moving goods and people in the upper Mississippi River valley. This interest broadened after he won a contract to supply coal to the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, leading to the creation of the Northwestern Fuel Company in 1875.

 

In 1878, Hill entered the railroad business directly when he established a partnership to purchase the now-bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific. As general manager, Hill pursued an expansionist policy, extending the mainline to Manitoba and building branches to feed traffic to the growing system. A hands-on administrator, Hill regularly traveled on his line, gaining a reputation for understanding every aspect of railroad operations. Altering the name of his growing company to the Great Northern Railway, Hill believed the time was ripe for a transcontinental across the northern tier of the United States. In 1893, the Great Northern completed its expansion to Seattle and began financing agricultural improvements along the upper plains to attract settlers.

Hill was not alone in believing the time had arrived for more transcontinentals, and his rival Henry Villard built the Northern Pacific Railroad to compete with Hill’s Great Northern. The ensuing competition between the parallel lines caused profits to fall and, in 1896, persuaded Hill to cooperate with railroad financier J. P. Morgan in purchasing the nearly bankrupt Northern Pacific. Five years later they bought a controlling interest in the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, giving Hill’s roads direct access to Chicago. Morgan and Hill established a holding company called Northern Securities to defeat an attempt by their great rival Edward Harriman to purchase the Burlington line himself.

The Northern Securities Company controlled the three principal transcontinentals across the northern United States, establishing a virtual monopoly between Chicago and the Pacific. In 1902 the federal government filed suit against Northern Securities and two years later the Supreme Court ruled the corporation violated Sherman Anti-Trust legislation and dissolved it. Hill maintained control of the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific, however, becoming chairman in 1907. He retired in 1912, devoting his time to building up the Hill Reference Library in St. Paul and to collecting art. Hill’s determination to integrate the northernmost states into the national economy earned him the affectionate nickname of “Empire Builder.”

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