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March 21: The Empire Builder

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Railroad executive James J. Hill is a giant of North Dakota history. Overcoming the disadvantages of an impoverished childhood, Hill took the helm of the Great Northern Railway and was responsible for the company’s huge expansion across the northwest that was in large part responsible for the settlement of the state.

Born to a poor Canadian family in 1838, Hill was able to get an early education when the headmaster of the Rockwood Academy saw promise in the boy and waived tuition, but Hill quit the school when his father died so he could help support the family. Even so, he was able to continue his education, studying mathematics and English with a local minister, demonstrating a talent for algebra and geometry.

Hill moved to the United States when he was seventeen. He settled in Minnesota where he found work with a series of companies, including a steamboat firm and the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. He gained experience in selling, trading, and shipping. He had a knack for turning obstacles into advantages. When fuel was short during the Civil War he started selling coal instead of wood. When the Mississippi River froze, he secured contracts to ship by rail instead of steamship. After the war he realized that the time was right for railroad expansion.

In 1879 Hill and his partners formed a company to take over the bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. They transformed it into the highly successful St. Paul, Minnesota and Manitoba Railway Company. In recognition of his leadership, Hill was elevated to company president.

His decision to expand the railway to the Pacific was called “Hill’s Folly” but he managed the feat with the newly named Great Northern Railway. Hill also added the Northern Pacific and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroads to his empire.

On this date in 1907, it was announced that James J. Hill would retire. His son L.W. Hill, who was serving as first vice president, was slated to take the top spot.

Although retired, Hill continued to work until a week before his death on May 29th, 1916. He was nicknamed “The Empire Builder,” and a train by that name still travels the state, continuing his legacy.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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