Hill, James Jerome


James Jerome Hill (1838-1916) is best known as the “Empire Builder” who masterminded construction of the Great Northern Railroad and created a corporation controlling major lines in the northern tier of the United States. This latter development brought him into contact with Theodore Roosevelt when the federal government sued the Northern Securities Corporation—the holding company Hill had created—to break up the monopoly it held on railroading in the northwest.

Born in 1838 in rural Ontario, as a youth he lost the sight in one eye and his father died. These two misfortunes ended his dream of entering the medical profession. After a spell as a bookkeeper in Kentucky, he moved in 1856 to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he took a number of jobs in stores and warehouses. By 1866 he had founded a small freight business and later, interested in transportation, he created a steamboat company. Realizing that carrying anthracite coal from the eastern United States would benefit the Old Northwest, he was instrumental in establishing the highly successful Northwestern Fuel Company in 1875.

Hill’s career as a railroad magnate began in earnest in 1878 when he entered into a partnership to purchase the bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. Becoming the line’s general manager, Hill quickly extended it into Manitoba and built branches to feed traffic to the growing system. Hill was often seen out on the line and became familiar with all aspects of railroad operations. Beginning in 1883 he set out to traverse the continent, changing the name of the company to the Great Northern Railway and reaching Seattle in 1893.

The Great Northern paralleled Henry Villard’s Northern Pacific Railroad, completed in 1883. The Panic of 1893 led to several years of falling profits and Hill joined with railroad financier J. P. Morgan to purchase the nearly bankrupt Northern Pacific in 1896. Five years later they bought a controlling interest in the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, giving Hill’s roads direct access to Chicago and denying rival railroader Edward H. Harriman access to the Northwest. Morgan and Hill established a holding company called Northern Securities to defeat an attempt by their great rival Edward H. Harriman to purchase the Burlington line himself.

The Northern Securities Company controlled the lion’s share of railroads in the northern United States, establishing a virtual monopoly in the region. At the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt, the federal government filed suit against Northern Securities in 1902 and two years later the Supreme Court ruled the corporation violated Sherman Anti-Trust legislation and dissolved it. This was President Roosevelt’s first important act of trust busting. Despite the ruling, Hill maintained control of the three railroads through a series of interlocking trustees. He became chairman of the Great Northern in 1907 and then, following retirement in 1912, he devoted his time to building up the Hill Reference Library in St. Paul and to collecting art. He died of an infection at home on May 29, 1916, and was buried on his farm in Minnesota, though the grave was later moved to St. Paul to protect it from vandalism. He was survived by his widow, Mary Theresa Megehan, whom he wed in 1867. 

Another air-ship failure 

Another air-ship failure, Puck magazine, April 20, 1904