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Empire Builder

Empire Builder

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Friday, June 26, 2009 10:20 PM CDTUSA's Yesterdays: James J.

Hill: Building an empire upon railroad tracksBy Hal MalehornWhen snowdrifts blocked the tracks of a Great Northern passenger train crossing the Dakotas, a man emerged from his private railroad car, grabbed a shovel and pitched in.The section crew, thus spelled, warmed themselves in the heated coach.

The man with the shovel was James J.

Hill.Another time, because townspeople objected to all-night switching in a village rail yard, a man vowed those residents would thereafter have to walk farther to the station, and he moved it two miles down the line.

That, too, was James J.

Hill.Upon other occasions, simply to improve the region's agriculture, a man donated improved seeds and prize livestock to farmers and ranchers along the railway.

Again, that donor was James J.


And then, when a western community demanded of him an exorbitant sum to grant a right-of-way through their town, a man decided the town did not deserve to be on the line, and so he shifted the route, leaving the town to die on the vine.

That, also, was James J.

Hill.In short, residents of America's upper Great Plains in the late 19th century considered James J.

Hill as either a demon or a demigod.

But, whatever they thought of him, they could not ignore him.

Like him or not, James J.

Hill constructed an 1800-mile railroad connecting America's upper Midwest to the Pacific Coast.Moreover, Hill personally rode horseback cross-country to discern the best rail routes west.

He "imported" thousands of Scandinavian immigrants to farm that somewhat forbidding North Plains landscape.His Great Northern tracks were the first transcontinental railway emplaced without government support.

And his was one of only a handful of American railroads that never went broke.Hill eventually owned several railroads, along with companies involving steamboats, timber, flour and coal.

He personally showed farmers how to farm semi-arid prairies.

In sum, whether called by some the "Little Giant" or by others the "Oregon Bandit," all rightly called him the "Empire Builder."Born on Sept.

16, 1838, in rural Wellington County, Ontario, James Jerome Hill grew up surrounded by books.At age 10, the lad was enrolled in a small neighborhood academy; but during his fourth year there, his father died.Now head of the family, James began working in a grocery store.

A childhood accident cost him the sight of his right eye; thereafter his eye-patch, barrel chest and thick limbs prompted some to call him the "Red River Pirate."Not yet 18, young Hill set out on a trip to the Orient, but his money got him only to Syracuse, N.Y.

There he learned of trappers' brigades that each spring left from St.

Paul, bound for the Rocky Mountains.

Hill promptly headed for Minnesota.In 1856, St.

Paul was a boomtown at the navigable head of the Mississippi River.

Wharves along the waterfront were crowded with steamboats bringing goods for trans-shipment by oxcart to Canada and Dakota Territory.Within just a few hours of his arrival, Hill had landed a job as a clerk for a steamboat company.

It was a temporary position (he thought); but he was to remain in St.

Paul for many years.Hill rose rapidly, and soon was in charge of the outfit.

Along the way he became agent for a local short-line railroad.

Convinced that coal was a better fuel for locomotives and steamboats than wood, he soon had a monopoly on coal sales.Other Hill enterprises included a steamboat line plying the Red River of the North, which rises in northwest Minnesota and flows through Winnipeg, Canada.

And to supplement the conveying of freight and settlers into Manitoba, Hill bought controlling shares in yet another railroad.As railroads proved to be a much quicker and safer means of transport than steamboats or oxcarts, Canadian entrepreneurs began soliciting their government and investors for their own westbound rail line.

This effort created what became the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railroad.

And it also persuaded Hill to build his own cross-country tracks on the American side of the border.For Hill, that decision presented only one problem: a rival American company was planning to do the very same thing.

Hill had to act fast.Hill first had to persuade recalcitrant judges to allow the project to proceed.

Then he had to borrow huge sums of cashSomehow he laid his hands on rails, rolling stock and engines.

He rounded up gangs of workers.

Directing the job in person, he drove his workers to near-exhaustion.Ignoring pesky mosquitoes and a blazing summer sun, and persevering through bitter, windy winters, the ties and iron were laid down, a mile a day.In their tents, some men cursed their boss.

But others liked him.

After all, he called them by their first names, and he sometimes helped shovel snow.

Either way, when some men quit, others soon filled their spots.As the trackage approached the Cascades, Hill saw the value in exploiting the region all along the main right-of-way.

And so, he laid spur lines to access agricultural products; he erected grain elevators and built trackside stockyards.

And he hauled in timber from Minnesota for settlers to build homes and stores.Meanwhile, Hill discovered coal fields and copper deposits in Montana, and learned of iron ore in Minnesota's fabled Mesabi Range; he set about developing these resources.

He built a Great Northern terminus in Everett, Wash.

By 1893 train service connected St.

Paul with Puget Sound.That very year saw a nationwide depression.

The Santa Fe Railroad fell into receivership, as did the Union Pacific.

And the Northern Pacific failed — again.

But Hill's diversified Great Northern rode out the financial storm.And, by buying into the failed Northern Pacific, Hill controlled two railways to the West Coast.

Finally, success in an armed "railroad war" with rival Edward Harriman gave Hill access to Oregon.For a man whose health had always been robust, death came unexpectedly to Hill, on May 29, 1916.While many Americans had admired him and others had despised him, all agreed: While his trains may have gone over the mountain, his achievements had never been "over the Hill."Share: Add your comments *Member ID:*Password:Remember login?(requires cookies) Forgot Your Password? Not already registered?Then click Here.Comment encourages readers to engage in civil conversation with their neighbors.

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