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.