Hill, James J. (1838–1916)

A railroad baron, philanthropist, and gentleman farmer, James J. Hill founded the Great Northern Railway, the first transcontinental line built with no public money or land grants. Known as the “Empire Builder,” Hill's self-made wealth facilitated the construction of the rail lines that linked St. Paul, Minnesota, with Seattle, Washington. Born in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada, in 1838, Hill migrated to the United States before the age of 20. He settled in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he soon found employment in the dynamic and ever-evolving transportation industry of the mid-nineteenth century. He initially found work as a bookkeeper for a steamboat company in St. Paul. In 1878, after 20 years of employment related to river shipping on the Red and Mississippi Rivers, Hill switched his entrepreneurial interests from water to land. Along with several partners, Hill invested in the nearly bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. Rechristened the Great Northern Railway in 1890, the line eventually extended north to Canada, across the Rocky Mountains, and onward to the Pacific Ocean. Hill's story of pluck, ambition, and luck shares multiple parallels with other Gilded Age captains of industry and transportation tycoons from Andrew Carnegie to E.H. Harriman.

Anna Thompson Hajdik

See also: Bourbon Democracy ; Donnelly, Ignatius (1831–1901) ; Gilded Age ; Plains and Midwest, Populism in the ; Railroads


The Agribusiness Council. “William Jennings Bryan Recognition Project.” http://www.agribusinesscouncil.org/bryan.htm . Accessed January 4, 2013.

Roberts, Kate. “James J. Hill: Building a Fortune While Connecting the Nation.” In Minnesota 150: The People, Places, and Things That Shape Our State (pp. 74–74). St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.

Strom, Claire. “James J. Hill: Empire Builder as Farmer.” Minnesota History 54 (6): 242–253.

Wingerd, Mary Lethert. Claiming the City: Politics, Faith, and the Power of Place in St. Paul. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.