Hill, James Jerome

views updated May 18 2018


James J. Hill (18381916) rose above a childhood of poverty in Canada to become one of the great U.S. empire builders and one of the wealthiest men of the nineteenth century. Hill founded the Great Northern Railroad, which by 1893 connected St. Paul, Minnesota, to Washington's Puget Sound. Hill also acquired a reputation as a "robber baron," and the Supreme Court ruled in 1904 that his railroad system was an illegal monopoly.

Hill was born in 1838 and grew up in Ontario, Canada. His father, who had secured only occasional employment as a farmer, died when the boy was only
14. While his mother kept an inn, young Hill worked as an assistant to a grocer and studied with the Rev. William Wetherald, a schoolmaster who taught him algebra, geometry, literature, and grammar.

In 1856 Hill moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, and began work as a clerk for a firm of shipping agents who served a fleet of Mississippi steamboats. In addition to keeping the books, he handled freight and performed other manual tasks. Hill arrived in St. Paul around the same as the Old Northwest, including Minnesota and Wisconsin, was experiencing explosive growth. Over the next several years Hill worked for a succession of shipping firms. The ambitious young man had exceptional energy and drive, and he developed a reputation for hard work and shrewd judgement.

In partnership with two associates, Hill formed the James J. Hill Company in 1866. He soon negotiated an exclusive arrangement as a forwarding agent for the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, under which his firm would transfer produce from riverboats to the westward-oriented railroad. He built a large warehouse, and the business began to prosper. Simultaneously, Hill expanded his business to include fuel. With two other partners he formed Hill, Griggs and Co., which first concentrated on firewood but quickly shifted to coal. It was Hill's rise to the top of the local coal business that formed the cornerstone of his fortune.

By 1872 Hill, Griggs and Co. dominated the Twin Cities coal market, selling 5,000 tons of anthracite annually. Four years later, after organizing his company with its chief competitors in a market-sharing consortium, Hill left the independent coal business.

His attention began to focus on railroads. Together with three Canadian capitalists he purchased the financially troubled St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in 1878. The line was subsequently reorganized as the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway Company ("the Manitoba"). Hill became the railroad's president in 1882 and began to extend the line north to the Canadian border. After linking up with a Canadian railroad to Winnipeg, Hill expanded the Manitoba westward, reaching Great Falls, Montana, in 1887, and Everett, Washington, in 1893. The rail system was renamed the Great Northern Railway Company in 1890.

Hill was not content to simply construct a railroad. He recruited thousands of homesteaders to settle and establish small towns in the Dakotas and Montana. To develop markets for goods to be carried on his railroad, Hill found buyers in the Far East for U.S. cotton, flour, and metals; the Great Northern also carried Pacific timber and minerals east to the Midwest and the Mississippi.

Together with financier J.P. Morgan (18371913) of the Northern Pacific Railway Company, Hill acquired control of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Company in 1901. Hill's railroads now had complete access to cotton and other commodities grown in the South, as well as to the natural and manufactured products of the Northwest, the Plains, and the Midwest. In that same year Hill formed and became president of the Northern Securities Company, a holding company that consolidated the Great Northern, the Northern Pacific and the Burlington lines. In 1902 Northern Securities was sued at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt (19011909) as a violation of the federal Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The president's attack on the holding company won him popular acclaim as a "trustbuster." In 1904 the Supreme Court ordered that the company be dissolved. Nevertheless the three railroads involved remained under the control of the same group of investors.

According to biographer Michael P. Malone, Hill was "without peer, the preeminent builder of the frontier economy of the Northwest. By controlling the transportation structure of the region. . . he exercised more sweeping economic power than did any other industrialist, even the lumbermen and mining barons." James Hill died in 1916.

See also: Northern Securities Case, Railroad Industry, Robber Baron


Bruchey, Stuart, ed. Memoirs of Three Railroad Pioneers. New York: Arno, 1981.

Holbrook, Stewart H. James J. Hill: A Great Life In Brief. New York: Knopf, 1955.

Kerr, Duncan J. The Story of the Great Northern Railway Company and James J. Hill. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1939.

Malone, Michael P. James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, 1996.

Martin, Albro. James J. Hill and the Opening of the Northwest. Minnesota Historical Society, 1991.

James Jerome Hill

views updated Jun 11 2018

James Jerome Hill

James Jerome Hill (1838-1916), American railroad builder, was the major force in the construction and management of the Great Northern Railway and is often referred to as the "Empire Builder of the Northwest."

James J. Hill was born on Sept. 16, 1838, near Rockwood, Ontario, Canada, of parents of Irish background. His formal education ended with his father's death in 1852, and he began clerking in the local general store. At the age of 18 he left Canada for St. Paul, Minn., at that time a small frontier trading post at the head of the navigable portion of the Mississippi River. During his first years there Hill worked as agent and clerk for various packet companies, meanwhile making valuable contacts and establishing a reputation for integrity. When the Civil War started in 1861, Hill's attempt to enlist was rejected because of the sightless eye that was the result of a childhood accident.

Hill ventured into an independent forwarding business in 1865 and a year later agreed to provide fuel for the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. This experience, together with his involvement in companies transporting goods and passengers between St. Paul and Winnipeg, provided Hill with a thorough grasp of the area's transportation opportunities. He also entered into a partnership in the Red River Transportation Company. However, his major interest remained the fuel business, which provided him with an increased standing in the community and some much-needed capital.

In 1878 Hill and his associates purchased enough securities in the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (which extended into the region northwest of St. Paul) to control it. Hill's brilliant management not only resurrected the road but extended it to the Canadian border and westward through the Dakotas to Great Falls, Mont. (1887), and on, finally, to Seattle, Wash. During construction the company was reorganized as the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway. It now occupied all of Hill's time.

Hill's expansion policy required using steel rails instead of iron ones and called for connecting all the region's important towns. The expanded railroad encouraged settlement in the region and corresponding improvements in agricultural methods, as well as improvement of terminal facilities. Unlike many railroad men, Hill preferred financing through stocks rather than bonds; this led him to reorganize the railroad in 1890 as the Great Northern Railway Company. (No basic changes in corporate organization occurred after 1890 until the 1970 merger of the Great Northern with the Northern Pacific and the Burlington lines.)

Competition from the rival Northern Pacific Railroad led Hill to attempt to get control of that line during the 1890s, after the Northern Pacific had fallen into receivership. However, his effort to merge the two lines failed when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an injunction stating that the action would create a monopoly. Hill personally still owned a large block of Northern Pacific stock, and in 1901 the two companies purchased 97 percent of the Burlington Railroad's outstanding stock. This gave Hill's roads entrance into Chicago and access to new markets in the Midwest and South and checked E. H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad, who also had wanted the Burlington.

Harriman's group then bought control of the Northern Pacific, an action which precipitated a stock war. The issue was resolved in 1901 with the creation of the Northern Securities Company, a holding company which included the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and Burlington lines. This new organization was immediately attacked as monopolistic, a view which the Supreme Court sustained in 1904. Three years later Hill resigned as president of the Great Northern and turned his attention to public interests.

Hill also had been a member of the original syndicate that financed the Canadian Pacific Railway and formed the Great Northern Steamship Company. He collected art and endowed the Hill Reference Library in St. Paul. In 1867 he had married Mary Theresa Mehegan, who bore him 10 children.

Further Reading

Hill's Highways of Progress (1910) presents his ideas on railroad building and management. The most complete work on Hill is Joseph Gilpin Pyle's authorized study, The Life of James J. Hill (2 vols., 1917). Stewart Holbrook, James J. Hill: A Great Life in Brief (1955), is a sympathetic account. See also Frank L. Eversull, Empire Builder: And a Part of His Empire (1945).

Additional Sources

Comfort, Mildred Houghton, James Jerome Hill, railroad pioneer, Minneapolis, Denison 1973.

Malone, Michael P., James J. Hill: empire builder of the Northwest, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

Martin, Albro, James J. Hill and the opening of the Northwest, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976; St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1991.

Memoirs of three railroad pioneers, New York: Arno Press, 1981. □

Hill, James Jerome

views updated May 21 2018

Hill, James Jerome (1838–1916) US railroad magnate, b. Canada. Seeing the importance of transportation to the West, Hill put together the Great Northern Railroad Company and gained control of its rival, the Northern Pacific.

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