Once, in a Dakota blizzard, when a section crew was trying to clear track for a Great Northern passenger train, President Hill of the railroad came out to snatch the shovel from one man and send that bemused working stiff into the president's private car for hot coffee, while he himself shoveled snow as though driven by steam. One after the other, the workers were spelled off and drank fine java in unaccustomed elegance while the Great Northern's creator and boss wielded a shovel.
James J. Hill
was born in a log cabin to a working class family in Ontario, Canada. He had an interest in the Far East and at 17 he set out for the Orient. He made it as far as Minneapolis, Minnesota
- not quite China. There he took a job as a railroad clerk and within a few decades became one of the leading industrialists in the world - building a profitable transcontinental railroad
without any government money. The railroad would become known as the Great Northern
Hill's plan to build a transcontinental railroad at the very northern border of America was labelled "Hill's folly." The lands up north were all unsettled wilderness. From where would his business come? Besides, there were already three transcontinental railroads to the south: the Northern Pacific, the Union Pacific, and the Santa Fe. They were receiving government subsidies to keep them in business - how could a private railroad be built and then compete with railroads that had their expenses paid by the government?
But James J. Hill had a vision and a plan. He saw potential cities and farms where others saw wilderness. He travelled into the Red River valley and saw some of the country's most fertile soils - begging to be farmed. Along the route he envisaged, there were deposits of coal and iron ore. The Pacific Northwest would provide lumber. All of these products would need to be transported to markets. And he intended them to be on his trains. So Hill not only had to build a railroad, he had to create the customers too.
In the depression of 1878 he purchased the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. It was nothing but a small, unprofitable Minnesota railway. He personally went over every mile of track. He replaced the cheap iron rails with steel. He had sections regraded so that as much of the route as possible was level or under a 1% grade. And he began slowly expanding, building his railroad one extension at a time westward into the wilderness.
As Hill would build an extension westward a few hundred miles, he would then move in farmers from the East, free of charge, in order to settle the land along his railroad. Those farmers would then start using Hill's railroad to ship their crops back East to market. Hill built grain elevators and granaries. Hill became an advocate of scientific farming methods. He discouraged single-crop farming and even bought 550 head of pedigreed cattle so the farmers might have a steady supply of fertilizer.
Because Hill received no government subsidies, each extension constructed westward would have to profit before another westward extension could be built. Still, in just ten years, Hill completed his transcontinental railroad, the Great Northern, without receiving one cent of government money.
His secret was detailed planning to achieve maximum efficiency at minimum operating costs. He personally mapped out the shortest, most direct routes. He carefully surveyed land to find routes containing the lowest grades of hills over which to build. And, with his customary long-term vision, he insisted on the highest quality workmanship and materials.
When his railroad crossed to the other side of the Rockies, he made the small towns of Spokane, Tacoma, Seattle, and Portland into major cities. When his eastbound trains were running nearly empty, he sold hundreds of thousands of acres of prime Washington timberland to Frederick Weyerhauser - so that lumber and paper could fill his eastbound trains. And to clinch the deal he provided rail rates 50% below that of competitors - opening up eastcoast markets to Pacific Northwest lumber.
The three government-financed transcontinental railroads south of Hill's Great Northern were in the heart of the country and none of them could earn a profit. Once Hill's Great Northern reached the Pacific Ocean all three of the government-financed transcontinentals went bankrupt and required more government money to continue running. But Hill's railroad flourished from the very start. The Great Northern produced a profit, even during recession years.
James J. Hill was also a noted conservationist and philanthropist. He endowed the Hill Reference Library which still operates in St. Paul. In 1915, just a year before his death, he was proclaimed Minnesota's greatest living citizen.
In 1970 Hill's Great Northern railroad merged with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Co.; Northern Pacific Railway Co.; and the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway Co. to form the Burlington Northern. Hill had tried to merge with the Northen Pacific in 1893 but was denied the opportunity by government regulators.
There is a large bust of James J. Hill
in front of my old junior H.S. in Superior, Wisconsin. At the same time my family lived in a house on Hill Avenue - named after him. Still, his story was never taught in history books and it is only 30 years later that I've really learned who he was.