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James Jerome Hill | 1937

Railroad executive called the "Empire Builder" who completed the first privately financed transcontinental railroad, the Great Northern Railway.

1838-1916 | Artist: Othmar J. Hoffler (1893-1954)



Impact & Accomplishments


Self-made man and railroad executive James Hill was born in Upper Canada (now Ontario). As a teenager, he held his first jobs in Kentucky and Minnesota, settling in St. Paul to handle freight transfers for a grocer. The entrepreneurial Hill then entered into the coal, steamboat, and banking industries, and began buying up bankrupt businesses, to rebuild and resell them.


In 1879, he partnered with several men to form the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway Company, serving as manager and later president. He purchased companies and located their plants along his railroad lines. In 1893, he completed the first privately financed transcontinental railroad, the Great Northern Railway, traveling on horseback to plan the route himself. During the Great Depression, he took over the Northern Pacific as well. As the great railroad empire builder, James Hill helped develop and finance agriculture in the Northwest.



Did You Know?


"What we want," Hill is quoted as saying, "is the best possible line, shortest distance, lowest grades, and least curvature we can build. We do not care enough for Rocky Mountains scenery to spend a large sum of money developing it." Hill got what he wanted, and in January 1893 his Great Northern Railway, running from St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington — a distance of more than 1,700 miles (2,700 km) — was completed. The Great Northern was the first transcontinental built without public money and just a few land grants, and was one of the few transcontinental railroads not to go bankrupt.

The Northern Pacific Railroad was the first railroad to enter North Dakota. This train is hauling farm machinery to early homesteaders. Photo credit: State Historical Society of North Dakota.



James J. Hill, the “Empire Builder.” Photo credit: State Historical Society of North Dakota.






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Larry R. Devine
Larry R. Devine
23 mai 2021

Where did you locate the info about his work experience in Kentucky? I am interested in learning. Where, in Kentucky, for who did he work in Kentucky, and for how long did he work there ? I believe that it may be related to the Riverboat trade.

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Larry - Thank you for the comment. The main bio is from the 2020 edition of the Saddle & Sirloin Club Portrait Collection Guidebook published by the Kentucky State Fair Board. Wesley Garrigus wrote new biographies of the inductees in 1978 and prepared the text for the 1981 collection guidebook. Dale F. Runnion, Harlan D. Ritchie, and Richard Willham collaborated to author the 1992–2009 editions. A new research and writing project was begun by Stephanie (Darst) Seber in 2010, to expand the historical essay and biographies and to add information about the artists—many of whom were among the most celebrated portraitists of their time. The results of that project were published in the 2013 edition, on the occasion o…

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