James Jerome Hill

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James Jerome Hill

Birthplace: Eramosa Township, Ontario, Canada
Death: May 29, 1916 (77)
Saint Paul, Ramsey, Minnesota, United States
Place of Burial: Saint Paul, Ramsey, Minnesota, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of James Hill and Anne Hill
Husband of Mary T Hill and Mary Theresa Hill
Father of Marie Francis Hill; James Norman Hill; Louis Warren Hill; Clara Anne Lindley; Charlotte Elizabeth Slade and 5 others
Brother of Mary Elizabeth Hill
Half brother of James Jerome Hill

Occupation: Railroad executive
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About James Jerome Hill

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James Jerome Hill (September 16, 1838 – May 29, 1916), was a Canadian-American railroad executive. He was the chief executive officer of a family of lines headed by the Great Northern Railway, which served a substantial area of the Upper Midwest, the northern Great Plains, and Pacific Northwest. Because of the size of this region and the economic dominance exerted by the Hill lines, Hill became known during his lifetime as The Empire Builder.

Hill was born in Eramosa Township, Wellington County, Upper Canada (now Ontario). A childhood accident with a bow and arrow blinded him in the right eye. He had nine years of formal schooling. He attended the Rockwood Academy for a short while, where the head gave him free tuition. He was forced to leave school in 1852 due to the death of his father. By the time he had finished, he was adept at algebra, geometry, land surveying, and English. His particular talents for English and mathematics would be critical later in his life.

After working as a clerk in Kentucky (during which he learned bookkeeping), Hill decided to permanently move to the United States and settled in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the age of 18. His first job in St. Paul was with a steamboat company, where he worked as a bookkeeper. By 1860, he was working for wholesale grocers, for whom he handled freight transfers, especially dealing with railroads and steamboats. Through this work, he learned all aspects of the freight and transportation business. During this period, Hill began to work for himself for the first time. During the winter months when the Mississippi River was frozen and steamboats could not run, Hill started bidding on other contracts and won quite a few.

Because of his previous experiences in shipping and fuel supply, Hill was able to enter both the coal and steamboat businesses. In 1873, he entered the steamboat business and by 1879 he had a local monopoly by merging (with Norman Kittson). In 1867, Hill entered the coal business, and by 1879 it had expanded five times over, giving Hill a local monopoly in the anthracite coal business. During this same period, Hill also entered into banking and quickly managed to become member of several major banks' boards of directors. He also bought out bankrupt businesses, built them up again, and then resold them—often gaining a substantial profit.

Hill undertook to establish a monopoly of the steamboat business; he was monopolizing coal, socializing with bankers, and buying other businesses at the same time. Hill noted that the secret to success was, "Work, hard work, intelligent work, and then more work."

During the Panic of 1873, a number of railroads, including the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (StP&P), had gone bankrupt. The StP&P in particular was caught in an almost hopeless legal muddle. For James Hill it was a golden opportunity. For three years, Hill researched the StP&P and finally concluded that it would be possible to make a good deal of money off of the StP&P, provided that the initial capital could be found. Hill teamed up with Norman Kittson (the man he had merged steamboat businesses with), Donald Smith, George Stephen and John Stewart Kennedy. Together they not only bought the railroad, they also vastly expanded it by bargaining for trackage rights with Northern Pacific Railway. In May 1879, the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway Co. (StPM&M) formed—with James J. Hill as general manager. His first goal was to expand and upgrade even more.

By all accounts, Hill was a hands-on, detail-obsessed manager. He wanted people settling along his rail lines, so he sold homesteads to immigrants and then imported them to their new homes (on his rail lines, of course). He imported grains from Russia and sold this to farmers. He even sold wood to farmers in order to encourage them to buy his wheat. When he was looking for the best path for one of his tracks to take, he went on horseback and scouted it personally. Under his management, StPM&M prospered. In 1880, its net worth was $728,000; in 1885 it was $25,000,000.

One of his challenges at this point was the avoidance of federal action against railroads. If the federal government believed that the railroads were making too much profit, they might see this as an opportunity to force lowering of the railway tariff rates. Hill avoided this by investing a large portion of the railroad's profit back into the railroad itself—and charged those investments to operating expense. It was at this point that Hill became the official president of StPM&M (not that he hadn't been the man behind the curtain before), and decided to expand the rail lines.

Between 1883 and 1889, Hill built his railroads across Minnesota, into Wisconsin, and across North Dakota to Montana. Hill and his men worked in spite of all obstacles—including a presidential veto of a bill that would have allowed Hill legally to build through American Indian territory (the law preventing Hill from laying track across Indian territories was later repealed under President Grover Cleveland, who like Hill was a Bourbon Democrat).

When there was not enough industry in the areas Hill was building, Hill brought the industry in, often by buying out a company and placing plants along his railroad lines. By 1889, Hill decided that his future lay in expanding into a transcontinental railroad.

"What we want," Hill is quoted as saying, "is the best possible line, shortest distance, lowest grades, and least curvature we can build. We do not care enough for Rocky Mountains scenery to spend a large sum of money developing it." Hill got what he wanted, and in January 1893 his Great Northern Railway, running from St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington — a distance of more than 1,700 miles (2,700 km) — was completed. The Great Northern was the first transcontinental built without public money and just a few land grants and was one of the few transcontinental railroads not to go bankrupt.

Hill chose to build his railroad north of the competing Northern Pacific line, which had reached the Pacific Northwest over much more difficult terrain with more bridges, steeper grades, and tunneling. Hill did much of the route planning himself, traveling over proposed routes on horseback. The key to the Great Northern line was Hill's use of the previously unmapped Marias Pass first discovered by Santiago Jameson. The pass had been discovered by John Frank Stevens, principal engineer of the Great Northern Railway, in December 1889, and offered an easier route across the Rockies than that taken by the Northern Pacific.

Six months after the railroad reached Seattle came the depression called the Panic of 1893. Hill's leadership became a case study in the successful management of a capital-intensive business during the economic downturn. In order to ensure that he did not lose his patronage during the crisis, Hill lowered rail tariff shipping rates for farmers and gave credit to many of the businesses he owned so they could continue paying their workers. He also took strong measures to economize—in just one year, Hill cut the railway's expense of carrying a ton of freight by thirteen percent. Because of these measures, Hill not only stayed in business, but also increased the net worth of his railroad by nearly $10 million. Meanwhile, nearly every other transcontinental railroad went bankrupt. His ability to ride out the depression garnered him fame and admiration.

Part of Hill's success during the depression also was due to repeatedly cutting his employees' wages, although this was during a time of deflation when prices were falling generally. That, and his hard micromanaging practices, eventually led to a railway-wide strike and the workers' unionization under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs. Hill and Debs agreed to arbitration by other business owners led by Charles Alfred Pillsbury. The result was restoration of the workers' wages to pre-depression levels.

With 1901 and the start of the new century, James Hill now had control of both the Great Northern Railway, and the Northern Pacific (which he had obtained with the help of his friend J. P. Morgan, when that railroad went bankrupt in the depression of the mid-1890s). Hill also wanted control of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad because of its Midwestern lines and access to Chicago. The Union Pacific Railroad was the biggest competitor of Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railroads. Although Great Northern and Northern Pacific were backed by J. P. Morgan and James J. Hill, the Union Pacific was backed not only by its president, Edward H. Harriman, but by the extremely powerful William Rockefeller and Jacob Schiff.

Quietly, Harriman began buying stock in Northern Pacific with the intention of gaining control of Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy. He was within 40,000 shares of control when Hill learned of Harriman's activities and quickly contacted J. P. Morgan, who was on vacation in Europe at the time. Morgan, acting on behalf of his friend, ordered his men to buy everything they could get their hands on.

The result was chaos on Wall Street. Northern Pacific stock was forced up to $1,000 per share. Many speculators, who had sold Northern Pacific "short" in the anticipation of a drop in the railroad's price, faced ruin. The threat of a real economic panic loomed. Neither side could win a distinct advantage, and the parties soon realized that a truce would have to be called. The winners of that truce were Hill and Morgan, who immediately formed the Northern Securities Company with the aim of tying together their three major rail lines (Ironically, the Burlington Route, Northern Pacific, and Great Northern would later merge in 1970 to form the Burlington Northern Railroad). Unfortunately for the Hill-Morgan alliance, on the same day they formed the Northern Securities Company, President William McKinley was assassinated, placing Theodore Roosevelt—the "trust-buster"—in the office of President.

Roosevelt wasted little time in breaking apart the trust. On March 14, the Northern Securities Company was ordered to be dissolved under the Sherman Antitrust Act. However, Hill, without the benefit of a central company, managed to acquire the Colorado and Southern Railway lines into Texas, and to build the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway. By the time of his death in 1916, James J. Hill was worth more than $53 million[ (almost $2.5 billion (2007) dollars).

The Great Northern Railway and the Northern Pacific tried to merge four times, in 1896, 1901, 1927, and 1955. This last attempt lasted from 1955 until final United States Supreme Court approval and merger in March, 1970, which created the Burlington Northern Railroad. In 1995, Burlington Northern merged with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to become the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway.

In 1867, James J. Hill married Mary Theresa Mehegan, born in 1846 in New York City. They had ten children:

  • Katherine (died in infancy)
  • Mary Hill Hill, who married Samuel Hill of Washington D.C. & Seattle. Samuel Hill was an executive at the Great Northern Railway when he married Mary Hill.
*James N. Hill of New York City
*Louis W. Hill of St. Paul, Minnesota, who was named president of the GN in 1907 and board chairman in 1912.
*Ruth Hill Beard, who married Anson McCook Beard of New York City).
*Clara Hill Lindley, who married E. C Lindley of St. Paul, Minnesota who was Vice President, Counsel General, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Great Northern Railway.
*Charlotte Hill Slade, who married George T. Slade of New York City and St. Paul, Minnesota. George T. Slade was an executive at The Great Northern Railway and Yale classmate of Louis W. Hill.
*Rachel Hill Boeckmann, who married Egil Boeckmann of St. Paul, Minnesota
*Gertrude Hill Gavin, who married Michael Gavin of New York City
*Walter Jerome Hill of St. Paul, Minnesota

He died in his home in St. Paul, Minnesota on May 29, 1916. Mary Hill died in 1922 and was buried next to her husband by the shore of Pleasant Lake (North Oaks, Minnesota) on their North Oaks farm. Because of vandals or curious admirers both graves were later moved to Resurrection Cemetery in St. Paul for safer keeping.

Hill was an avid collector and patron of the arts. The New York Times described Mr. Hill, in his obituary, as "gifted with fine tastes and a keen artistic sense of beauty of form and color, and his collections of art and jewels were among the finest in the country."

Much of his collection is hanging in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the majority of pieces having been donated by his heirs. (Peter Hill Beard is his great-grandson.) A portrait of James J. Hill is now hung in the library in his home.

Politically, Hill was a Bourbon Democrat. The Democratic Party's continued enchantment with the populist William Jennings Bryan led Hill to support Republican presidential candidates William McKinley (1896 and 1900), Theodore Roosevelt (1904), William Howard Taft (1908 and 1912).

Hill was a supporter of free trade and was one of the few supporters of free trade with Canada. In St. Paul, the city's main library building and the adjoining Hill Business Library were funded by him. In addition, he donated to numerous schools, including the Saint Paul Seminary.

In 1891, after three years of building, construction was completed on a new Hill family home on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. Over 400 workers labored on the project. Built at a cost of $930,000 and with 36,000 square feet (3,300 m2), the James J. Hill House was among the city's largest. As with his business dealings, Hill supervised the construction and design himself, hiring and firing several architects in the process. The house has many early electrical and mechanical systems that predate widespread adoption in modern domestic structures. After the death of Hill's wife in 1921, the house was donated to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. It was obtained by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1978 and today is operated as a museum and gallery. Upon completion of the Summit Avenue residence, Hill had the family's old house, which he had constructed in 1878, razed.

Though a Protestant, Hill maintained a strong philanthropic relationship with the Catholic Church in St. Paul and through the northwest. Hill's historic home is located next to the Cathedral, largely due to the special relationship Hill's wife, a practicing Catholic, had with the Diocese. The Hills maintained close ties with Archbishop John Ireland and Hill was a major contributor to the Saint Paul Seminary, Macalester College, Hamline University, the University of St. Thomas, Carleton College, and other educational, religious and charitable organizations.

In order to generate business for his railroad, Hill encouraged European immigrants to settle along his line, often paying for Russian and Scandinavian settlers to travel from Europe. To promote settlement and revenue for his rail business, Hill experimented with agriculture and worked to hybridize Russian wheat for Dakota soil and weather conditions. He also ran model experimental farms in Minnesota such as North Oaks to develop superior livestock and crop yields for the settlers locating near his railroads.

An enthusiastic conservationist, Hill was invited by President Theodore Roosevelt to a governor's conference on conservation of natural resources, and later appointed to a lands commission.

Drawing on his experience in the development of Minnesota's Iron Range, Hill was, during 1911–1912, in close contact with Gaspard Farrer of Baring Brothers & Company of London regarding the formation of the Brazilian Iron Ore Company to tap that nation's rich mineral deposits.

Near the end of his life, Hill played what a recent biographer, Albro Martin, called his "last and greatest role." After the first punishing year of World War I, the Allied Powers desperately needed financial support to continue the war effort. To that end, Hill was a major figure in the effort launched by J.P. Morgan to float the Anglo-French Bond drive of 1915, which allowed the Allies to purchase much-needed foodstuffs and other supplies. In September 1915, the first public loan, the $500,000,000 Anglo-French loan, was floated. Concomitantly, the resulting trade in munitions with England and France carried the United States from a depression in 1914 to boom years in 1915 and 1916.

Hillsboro, North Dakota; Hill County, Montana; and Hillyard, Washington (now a neighborhood of Spokane) - are named for him. In 1929, the Great Northern Railway named its flagship passenger train the Empire Builder in his honor. The train continues as Amtrak's daily Empire Builder, which uses former Great Northern tracks west of St. Paul, Minnesota. The James J. Hill House in St. Paul, Minnesota is a National Historic Landmark.

In 1887, the Great Northern's first company headquarters building was constructed in St. Paul. It was designed by James Brodie, who also built the Hill's house on Summit Avenue. The 1887 building was converted between 2000 and 2004 to a 53 unit condo in the Historic Lowertown District of St. Paul. Hill had seen the devastation done to downtown Chicago by the great fire of 1871. As a result, one feature Hill integrated into the construction of the 1887 company headquarters (the Great Northern General Office Building) was barrel vaulted ceilings constructed of brick and railroad steel rails that held up a layer of sand several inches deep. The theory was that if a fire broke out and the ceiling caved in, the sand would drop and retard or suppress the fire.

Hill was intimately involved in the planning and construction (1914–1916) of a new company headquarters in St. Paul (to be known as the Great Northern Office Building), which was to house the corporate staffs of the Great Northern, the Northern Pacific and Hill's banking enterprises. The 14-story building cost $14 million to construct.

James Jerome Hill was born near Guelph, Ontario on September 16, 1838. He came to St. Paul in 1856, where he first worked as a shipping clerk for J. W. Bass and Company. Between 1856 and 1859 he prospered in a series of wood and coal merchandising partnerships. He was general manager (1879-1882) and president (1883-1890) of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway Company. In 1890 the railroad became the Great Northern Railway Company, with Hill as president (1890-1907) and later chairman of the board (1907-1912). Hill died in St. Paul on May 29, 1916.

Mary Theresa Mehegan was born in New York City on July 1, 1846. In 1850 she came with her family to St. Paul. She attended finishing school at St. Mary's Institute (Milwaukee, Wis., 1864-1867) and married James J. Hill on August 19, 1867. Mary Hill was long active in St. Paul's Catholic community. She died on November 22, 1921. The Hills' children included: Mary Francis, known as "Mamie" (Mrs. Samuel Hill, 1868-); James Norman Hill (1870-1932); Louis Warren Hill (1872-1948); Clara Anne, or Anna (Mrs. Erasmus C. Lindley, 1873-1947); Charlotte (Mrs. George T. Slade, [ca.1876]-1923); Ruth (Mrs. Anson Beard, 1879-); Rachel (Mrs. Egil Boeckmann, [ca.1882]-1967); Gertrude (Mrs. Michael Gavin, [ca.1884]-1961); and Walter J. Hill (1885-1944). A daughter, Katie, died in infancy (1876).

Rachel Hill married physician Egil Boeckmann in 1913 at the Hill House at 240 Summit. Boeckmann had been a football hero for the University of Minnesota. They lived at 366 Summit Avenue in a home that is still standing. They frequently entertained Rachel's parents at their home and Rachel and her daughters lived at 240 Summit for a few years ca 1918-1922. Egil and Rachel had two daughters, Mary and Gertrude. Gertrude married Peter Harvie Ffolliott in 1942.


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James Jerome Hill's Timeline

September 16, 1838
Eramosa Township, Ontario, Canada
August 13, 1868
Saint Paul, Ramsey County, Minnesota, United States
February 13, 1870
Saint Paul, Ramsey County, Minnesota, United States
May 19, 1872
St. Paul, Ramsey Co., Minnesota
December 4, 1873
Saint Paul, Ramsey County, Minnesota, United States
February 26, 1877
Saint Paul, Ramsey County, Minnesota, United States
May 21, 1881
Minnesota, United States
March 4, 1883
Saint Paul, Ramsey County, Minnesota, United States