James J. Hill

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Winning Nomination

James J. Hill was the builder and manager of the railway that, in 1890, was renamed the Great Northern. In 1893 the railroad’s main line was competed to Seattle. By 1900 Hill and J. P. Morgan had gained control of the Northern Pacific and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railways. St. Paul became the headquarters for a rail empire that dominated transportation in the northwestern quarter of the entire nation. These lines, along with the Great Northern, were the components of the 1970s merger that formed the Burlington Northern Railway. Hill’s railroads made settlement and economic viability a reality in our region in a relatively short span of time. The Great Northern used not only rail lines but water transportation on the Great Lakes to connect Minnesota with the east for delivery of resources from the northwest and the return of products to the northwest.
~Eileen McCormack, St. Paul, MN

Runner-up Nominations

Created the Hill Bonanza ranch in Kittson County, with his mansion still standing today in Northcote, MN. Responsible for construction of the railroad connecting Winnipeg to the Twin Cities.
~Dan Money, Hallock, MN

Please! Great Northern Railway is listed on the web form but Hill should be included as well for all his other accomplishments: banking, milling, mining, river/Great Lakes/Pacific shipping, philanthropy, etc.
~Craig Johnson, St. Paul, MN

Hill held a pivitol role in America's growth to the west. His role in building the railroad allowed the commerce of America to travel between the east and west coast thus allowing the country to grow dramatically.
~David Lombardo, Eau Claire, WI

Founder and first president of the Great Northern Railway. A true rara avis, a tycoon with a heart and a conscience, he really believed that, in the long run, what was good for his workers and customers was good for him. He is the Empire Builder honored in the name of the famous train.
~Thomas Lee Boles, Maplewood, MN

I nominate James J. Hill. A person who came from basically nothing to create a massive wealth that made his family one of the wealthiest in the world at that time. What makes JJ Hill worthy of this award is the legacy he put in place that remains today. From the James J. Hill library to the historic home on Summit Avenue, and the infamous bridge spanning the Minneapolis river banks. When James's son took over the Great Northern Railroad, which helped industrialize Minneapolis and St. Paul, he built all of those beautiful chalets that are scattered around through the National Park system. If it wasn't for the vision and determination of Mr. Hill, Minneapolis and St. Paul would not be the cities they are today. It's a shame that most people in Minnesota don't know the significance of James J. Hill and what he created for Minnesota and our Country.
~Dale J. Hlavka, Minneapolis, MN

James J. Hill was a driving force behind the creation of most of the railroad infastructure in Minnesota and the United States. Therefore, the 'Empire Builder' should live on as one of the most important figures in Minnesota History.
~Nathan Ashley, Burnsville, MN

J. J. Hill's decision not to return to Toronto, but to come to St. Paul. As a 17-year-old young man, James J. Hill left his home in Rockwood, Ontario and travelled to the east coast via Toronto. After his trip he returned to Toronto, only 50 miles from his home. He was homesick and tempted to return home. Instead he took a notion to go to St. Paul, which he did in July, 1856. It changed everything from here to Seattle.
~Kenneth j. Pierre, St. Paul, MN

His railroad still survives today as the BNSF and is the 2nd largest rail transportation in the country. If I said Empire Builder you would think of trains and James J. Hill.
~Philip Pornvazik, New Prague, MN

He helped shape St. Paul.
~Sami Anderson, Minneapolis, MN

James J. Hill not only acquired the land to build the Great Northern Railroad without federal funding, the only magnate to do so but was the most instrumental figure to acquire statehood for North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Wahington states. He left truly giant footprints.
~John Quernemoen, Minneapolis, MN

He made our state famous in some sort. He really helped us out.
~Allison Steen, Eden Prairie, MN

JJ Hill's line to Manitoba was the impetus for settling the NW corner of the state.
~Betty Swan, Elk River, MN




Building a fortune while connecting the nation

On May 30, 1916, the New York Times announced that on the previous day James J. Hill had died at his St. Paul home. "Leaving as a monument of his life's work more than 6,000 miles of railroad, with gross earnings of $66,000,000 from carrying 15,000,000 tons of freight annually, along whose line in six different States of the great Northwest are scattered 400,000 farms, with 65,000 acres of improved land worth $5,000,000,000, James Jerome Hill was called the greatest empire builder of the new world."

The Times is not given to hyperbole, of course, and though the figures cited in Hill's obituary seem staggeringly large, their real impact lies in their accuracy. James J. Hill was Minnesota's answer to the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, and other Gilded Age magnates--a hard-working, driven, fiercely competitive businessman whose great wealth was matched only by the impact its accumulation and dispersal made on Minnesota and the upper Midwest.

Hill was born on what one of his biographers called "a stingy farm in the backwoods of Ontario" in 1838. After only nine years of formal education, he went to work, first as a bookkeeper in Canada and then, at age seventeen, as a bookkeeper for a steamboat company on the St. Paul levee. In 1878, after twenty years spent working in shipping on the Mississippi and Red rivers, Hill turned his attention away from water transport and toward the land, when he and several partners bought the nearly bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. Renamed the Great Northern Railway in 1890, Hill's railroad eventually extended north to Canada and west across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. It was the only transcontinental line built with neither public money nor land grant--and it was the only transcontinental that avoided bankruptcy.

Not content simply to run one of the nation's largest transportation companies, Hill also sold homesteads along his rail lines to immigrants, developed businesses in railroad towns, and had financial interests in mining, shipping, banking, milling, and farming. He was an avid art collector--in 1892, the New York Journal called the collection of paintings and sculpture installed in his Summit Avenue mansion "a model art gallery of an American private palace"--and he also funded community projects, including the St. Paul Public Library, the James J. Hill Reference Library, and the St. Paul Seminary. His wife, Mary, a devout Roman Catholic, made significant contributions to the construction of the St. Paul Cathedral. Hill was a self-made man who was justly proud of the mark he made on his city and on the United States. "When we are all dead and gone," he said to his employees in 1880, "the sun will still shine, the rain will fall, and this railroad will run as usual."

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