James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest (The Oklahoma Western Biographies)

James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest (The Oklahoma Western Biographies)

by Michael P. Malone

ISBN: 9780806128603

Publisher University of Oklahoma Press

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Regional Canada, Biographies & Memoirs/Memoirs

Are you an AUTHOR? Click here to include your books on

Sample Chapter


The Road to Saint Paul

PERHAPS no other generation in all of American history played so fascinating or central a role in national development as the one that, born in the 1830s and 1840s, came to maturity in the Civil War crisis of 1857–67. For this was the generation that not only forged the modern American nation but also worked the industrial-commercial-transportation revolution that formed its modern economy and society. Most of the men involved in this revolution—whether they are called "industrial statesmen" or "robber barons," each title simplistic and misleading—did not fight in the war, choosing instead to pursue their own acquisitive interests. But all of them seized the sudden and unprecedented opportunities the new age presented to them. Some left little behind besides personal and family fortunes and sullied reputations. Others built commercial empires and philanthropies that long outlived them.

One of the latter was James Jerome Hill. As the following pages will reveal, Hill was indeed a speculator, sometimes a predatory one; and many, in his own time and later, considered him an exploiter and a villain. Still growing in eastern Washington wheat fields is a nuisance variety of mustard that old-time farmers call "Jim Hill," after the man their ancestors considered an overlord and a rate-gouger. As a boy, I worked that region many years ago, and I remember one farmer who, in moments of exceptional rage, would proclaim: "By Jesus H. Chee-rist and James J. Hill!"

But there is no denying Hill's remarkable abilities and accomplishments in the "opening" of the Northwest, and the shadow of his historical presence looms heavily even into our own time, eighty years after his death. At the close of his novel The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald had his narrator deliver the following benediction for Gatsby: "If he'd of lived, he'd of been a great man. A man like James J. Hill. He'd of helped build up the country." To this day, a crack Amtrak passenger train that runs in part over former Great Northern Railway tracks from Seattle to Chicago bears his title: the "Empire Builder." And tourists daily marvel at the grandeur of Hill's restored mansion on Summit Avenue and the beauty of the James J. Hill Reference Library, both in Saint Paul. On the other hand, most beneficiaries of grants and donations from the Northwest Area Foundation, formerly the Hill Family Foundation, do not even realize that his wealth and foresight made such philanthropy possible in the first place.

Hill was born on September 16, 1838, in the small town of Wellington, near Guelph, in the Canadian province of Ontario. He was named simply James Hill, like the many James Hills who had preceded him in the family. Although rocky and forested, his homeland provided good crops and lay poised in Canada's southernmost extension, between Lake Huron on the west, Lake Erie on the south, and Lake Ontario on the east. Toronto was fifty miles east, but Buffalo, New York, was only slightly farther away to the southeast. And in fact, although his Scots-Canadian roots would always figure largely in his makeup, Hill's later move to the nearby United States would prove easy and natural.

Looking back on his life, Hill once recalled his father's boasting that the Hill family tree could be traced back sixteen generations through Scotland and Ireland. The Hills offered a classic instance of how the Anglo-Scots-Irish hegira contributed to the making of both the United States and Canada. His mother, Ann Dunbar Hill, was born in 1805 in County Tipperary, Ireland, the daughter of Scots Presbyterians who had joined the flight of their brethren from religious persecution in their homeland. Her granddaughter Clara Hill, Jim's daughter, remembered Ann for her "quick wit," her strong will, and her energy and concluded that her son, Clara's father, strongly "resembled her." In 1832, Ann Dunbar moved with her family from Ireland to Ontario.

Clara, the chronicler of the Hill family, passed on the group memory of her grandfather James as a man of "strong physique and iron will," in other words, a typical Scots-Irishman. He died before any of his grandchildren could know him. A descendent of Anglican missionaries who intermarried with the Irish and Scots-Irish, James Hill was born in Armagh, Ireland, in 1811. The earliest of his English ancestors, James Rogers, had been burned at the stake in the mid-seventeenth century. In 1829, this James Hill traveled with his parents to join an uncle who, as a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, had acquired a land grant in Ontario.

Here he met Ann Dunbar, and in 1833 the two married, settling on a hardscrabble, fifty-acre tract four miles south of Rockwood, a one-street village of several hundred people. Typical frontiersmen, they produced four children in quick succession. A son, inevitably named James, died in infancy. A daughter, Mary Elizabeth, arrived in 1835. A second son, again named James and the subject of this study, came in 1838; and the youngest, Alexander Samuel, was born in 1839.

The growing family led a characteristic frontier existence. James Jr. later recalled that his father "was not very prosperous," and he remembered lying awake nights staring at the moonlight beaming through holes in the roof. Only a year apart in age, Jim and his brother, Alexander, were inseparable and spent much of their time hunting and fishing, which remained favorite hobbies of James's throughout his life.

When he was nine, his hunting avocation led to a tragic accident. A bow that he had made snapped, lashing the cocked arrow sharply back into his right eye and prying it from its socket. The family doctor, with classic backwoods ingenuity, managed to return the agonized boy's eye to its socket and restore its muscular control so that the damage would not be evident. But the eye was rendered almost entirely dysfunctional, evidently envisaging nothing more than dark shades. In a counterstroke of good fortune, however, the left eye proved over the ensuing years to be very strong and would serve James faithfully through a long lifetime of intensively close reading and reckoning.

The Hills adhered closely to the Anglo-Scottish culture they had inherited. Their religious affiliations were surprisingly ecumenical, with the father preferring the Baptists, the mother favoring the Methodists, and a number of Quaker neighbors in Rockwood also having a lasting influence on the children. But for all that, they took their religion as seriously as the next family; and the children could never head out to play on Sundays until the biblical recitations had been finished. Interestingly, however, even though young James carried from his youth a strong appreciation for religion and its value to individuals and society, he did not mature to become a devout or even a routine churchgoer.

James Sr. fervently hoped that his namesake would become a physician, and both parents instilled a love of reading and tradition in their children. The children would sing Scottish ballads to the tune of their father's flute, and all through Hill's years, one of his favorite times would be singing around the campfire or roaring out one of his favorite numbers solo while one of his daughters played the piano. He became a voracious reader even before school days, dwelling on the staples of the nineteenth century and the British tradition: the Bible, Shakespeare, Plutarch, Byron, the poems of Robert Burns, and the chivalrous novels of Sir Walter Scott. He remembered that one of his best escapes occurred when he borrowed a copy of Ivanhoe and devoured it in one sitting.

The children's schooling was rudimentary but typical of the time and place. For the first grades, the two boys hiked the several miles back and forth to Rockwood, sometimes seeing wolves en route. In 1849, when James was eleven, his father enrolled him at the Quaker academy in Rockwood; and here he attended classes, sporadically, for the next three years, sometimes boarding and doing chores for reimbursement.

The master of the academy, William Weatherald, had a major impact on the boy, implanting in him a love of literature and the essentials of mathematics and other practical sciences and fostering more than a little of the gentle religiosity of Quakerism. Hill's fondness for and indebtedness to Weatherald formed one of his few lasting bonds to his homeland. Years later, James would introduce the schoolmaster to the Canadian Pacific board of directors by stating, "It is to him I owe what little scholarship I possess." After becoming wealthy and successful, Hill took the old man on train trips and gave him gifts and endowments for his expanded academy. In letters, James unfailingly addressed Weatherald as "My Dear Old Master," and when the schoolmaster died, Hill took a special train to his funeral.

Although Hill often told listeners about the inadequacies of his education—"I never went to school a day after I was fourteen years and three months old," as he told journalist Annabel Lee in 1915—the fact is that he had quite a good education by the minimal standards of that time. He could deftly read, write, and reckon; and more important, from an innate intelligence and the fostering of family and teacher, he loved to learn.

To many, Hill always seemed the embodiment of cold and analytical practicality; but even as a boy, he revealed how realism and romanticism can coexist in the same mind, how in fact the interaction between the two can form the personality. History offers other such cases, like that of Robert Goddard, who was not only a great "rocket scientist" but also an avid reader of science fiction. Like so many other nineteenth-century youths, young Jim Hill fell under the spell of Bonapartism—the fetish of strength of will, the power of one dynamic individual to change the world, the conquering hero. He became so enamored that, no doubt avoiding the name Napoleon as being too pretentious, he gave himself instead the middle name of Jerome, Napoleon's brother. His sister shared these ideas, eventually giving five of her children Bonaparte family names.

For years, well into his maturity, he shared with others another manifestation of his robust romanticism, namely his dream of an imperial career in the Orient. He talked all his life of his youthful idea of building a fleet of steamboats on the Ganges and other legendary rivers; like Alexander the Great or Charles "Chinese" Gordon, he hoped to find his destiny in the fabled lands of the East. As time would prove, this was more than mere pipe-dreaming. His eventual move to Saint Paul was initially intended as the first leg of a journey much farther westward. As Henry Nash Smith demonstrated in his classic Virgin Land, Jim Hill—in his vision of creating a destiny reaching across the Pacific to Asia, of carrying a newer and better rendering of civilization around the world to its initial birthplace—shared a dream with many Americans of his time. All through his years, he would quite literally be a dreamer as well as a doer.

In 1848, James Hill, Sr., quit his hardscrabble farm and moved his family into Rockwood, where he bought and managed a roadside inn. Suddenly, his children found themselves in a populous, gregarious, and sometimes raucous environment; it may be that James Jr.'s lifelong moderation in drinking, smoking, and other forms of relaxation and socializing stemmed from what he saw and learned during the next four years. In any event, on Christmas Day of 1852, his childhood, which had been relatively secure and uneventful previously, suddenly ended with the death of his father, after an illness so brief that James Sr. barely had time to have Weatherald draw up a will. This will deeded the farm to his sons, but in fact, the days of family togetherness now came abruptly and tragically to an end.

No longer able to stay in school, the fourteen-year-old James had to go to work. In the spring of 1853, he gained employment "in a general store at the crossroads" of Rockwood owned by Robert Passmore; he earned one to two dollars weekly plus board by performing clerical duties, keeping books, and also milking cows and cutting wood. Here began his first lessons in the knacks of dealing with customers, making ledgers, and handling merchandise; and he proved himself highly industrious and adept at them all. Through the mists of reverie he later wrote, "I was dissatisfied, and yet, when I look back to those days, it was very pleasant."

Also in 1853, eighteen-year-old Mary Elizabeth Hill married a Rockwood-area farmer and began raising a large brood of children; and in the following year Ann Hill, never an effective manager, gave up on the inn and moved with the two boys to the nearby, larger town of Guelph. Here James took up similar employment in a grocery store and then knocked around at various tasks as he approached maturity. Unlike his brother and sister, however, who were content to remain in the Rockwood-Guelph area the rest of their lives, farming their lands and raising a host of children, James dreamed of larger worlds beyond and became restless to leave. Clearly, a rich imagination and a driving ambition were fundamental parts of his nature.

One of Hill's favorite stories involved how, as he approached age eighteen in 1856, he decided to leave the nest. An itinerant trader from Saint Paul, Minnesota, took a liking to the lad after he had voluntarily watered the man's horse. Handing him a tattered copy of a New York newspaper captioned "Splendid Chances for Young Men in the West," the trader said, "Go out there, young man—that's the place for you." Jim carried the copy around, reading and rereading it, until it fell to pieces, and now he finally focused his dreams of adventure on a real decision.

The next day, he cut the last of the wood he had been chopping at the time. Years later, someone left a sign at the spot—"The last tree chopped by James J. Hill"—which remained there long afterward. His brother, Alex, could look after his mother, and thus he could leave. And once he did leave, he would seldom return or look back. He did provide for his mother until her death at age seventy-one in 1876, and later he generously helped his poor brother and sister raise their families over the years, at one point forwarding each of them fifteen thousand dollars to purchase farms. But otherwise, his break with Ontario, once it came, would prove to be definitive.

With the close of winter in 1856, seventeen-year-old James Hill left the known world behind and headed eastward by train to Toronto and then across upper New York State. He carefully planned his itinerary to look over the heartland of the Middle Atlantic states but probably had it in mind from the start to end up at Saint Paul, Minnesota, at the head of navigation on the mighty Mississippi. Saint Paul formed the natural point of embarkation northward to the Canadian prairie frontier for both Americans and Canadians, since the Canadian regions north of the Great Lakes were too rocky, rugged, and lake-strewn to afford easy transit from the east. A number of his friends and acquaintances from Ontario had gone there, some staying and others returning to sing its praises as a land of opportunity.

He left Guelph with six hundred dollars in cash, his life savings, and another ten dollars borrowed from a farmer friend, James Fairview—money he later handsomely repaid in the amount of five thousand dollars—but seemingly with little else. Alone in the world, he carried all his worldly goods in a simple valise. Actually, he took with him all the tools he would need to succeed in America: a quick intelligence, self-sufficiency, genuine courage, an engaging personality, a fierce ambition, and a remarkable work ethic.

His odyssey of a lifetime took him eastward to Syracuse, where he paused to work for several months on a farm and enhance his finances. Then, on July 4, he headed south to marvel at the wonders of New York City and also to get his pockets picked of some, but not all, of his money. In Philadelphia, he thrilled to the sights and sounds of the opera; and then he traveled on farther south to Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah. He may have been looking for opportunities, but more likely he was mainly sightseeing, sizing up a new nation that had grown mightily but was about to descend into recession—the Panic of 1857—and was about to fall into the maelstrom of the Civil War. Soon he was en route by rail back north to Pittsburgh, Chicago, Dubuque on the Mississippi, and then by steamboat upriver to Saint Paul. He arrived in midsummer 1856, still with most of the six hundred dollars in his pocket.

In selecting his new home, the young man chose wisely, for Saint Paul stood at the pivotal threshold of the dynamically expanding northwestern frontier, a new city barely fifteen years old and already boasting over ten thousand energetic inhabitants. A classically raw frontier city, with hastily built homes and businesses along rolling hills and bottomlands denuded of their natural timber, it occupied one of the most strategic locations in interior America—the head of navigation on the great Mississippi River. It lay on the east bank of the river, near Minnesota's east-central border with Wisconsin.

Excerpted from "James J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwest (The Oklahoma Western Biographies)" by Michael P. Malone. Copyright © 2013 by Michael P. Malone. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Thanks for reading!

Join BookDaily now and receive featured titles to sample for free by email.
Reading a book excerpt is the best way to evaluate it before you spend your time or money.

Just enter your email address and password below to get started:


Your email address is safe with us. Privacy policy
By clicking ”Get Started“ you agree to the Terms of Use. All fields are required

Instant Bonus: Get immediate access to a daily updated listing of free ebooks from Amazon when you confirm your account!

Author Profile

Amazon Reviews