James J. Hill (1838–1916) was a Canadian-American railroad entrepreneur in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His Great Northern Railroad helped foster the economic development of the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest, earning Hill the nickname “The Empire Builder.”
Hill was born September 16, 1838, in Wellington County, Upper Canada (now Ontario). At the age of eighteen, he moved to the United States, settling in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Early employment with a steamboat company and a wholesale grocer convinced Hill that control of transportation was essential to business success. By the late 1870s, the rising entrepreneur established local monopolies in the steamboat industry, with the Red River Transportation Company. He also became involved in the mining of anthracite coal.
In 1878, Hill began his career in the railroad industry by acquiring the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. He reorganized it as the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway, until the line was leased by the Great Northern Railroad, which Hill created in 1880. Efforts by Hill to have the Canadian Pacific Railroad funnel traffic from the Canadian prairies to eastern Canada through his Great Northern were thwarted by the desire of Canadians to have a transcontinental railroad constructed entirely within their own country. Nevertheless, by 1893, the Great Northern Railroad stretched from Saint Paul to Seattle, Washington. The Great Northern was also able to avoid bankruptcy during the Panic of 1893, as Hill cut shipping rates and reduced the salaries of his railroad workers. In his book Railroaded, Richard White suggested that the building of the transcontinental railroads was premature, as there was insufficient population in the West to justify their construction. Recognizing this fact, Hill sought to provide business for the Great Northern by encouraging the agricultural development of the Pacific Northwest. Carefully surveying routes, Hill was able to reach Seattle ahead of the rival Northern Pacific line, which was constructed over considerably more difficult terrain.
Continuing his railroad expansion into the twentieth century, by 1901, Hill was president of the Northern
Securities Company, which included the Great Northern; Northern Pacific; and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroads. This provided Hill with a rail monopoly in the Pacific Northwest and Upper Midwest. In 1904, the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt sued to break up the monopoly under the Sherman Antitrust Act. Although the Supreme Court ordered in Northern Securities Company v. United States, 193 U.S. 197 (1904), that the Northern Securities Company be dissolved, Hill was able to retain control of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific. Hill remained chair of the board of directors of the Great Northern until his retirement in 1912. During his later years, Hill cultivated his patronage of the arts. He died on May 29, 1916.
Although Hill was a businessperson with considerable knowledge of all aspects of the railroad industry, his monopolistic practices have led some historians to brand him as a “robber baron.” On the other hand, his railroad construction, encouragement of migrant farmers from Russia and Scandinavia to relocate to the Upper Midwest, and experiments with scientific agriculture to increase wheat cultivation have convinced other scholars to perceive the legacy of Hill as truly that of an “empire builder.”
See also Railroads; Roosevelt, Theodore
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