A Letter from James J. Hill | Prairie Public Broadcasting

A Letter from James J. Hill

Jan 15, 2018


James J. Hill is a big name in the railroading history of the Great Plains, earning his nickname “The Empire Builder.”  In 1878, Hill teamed up with several other investors to purchase the financially ailing St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, which was renamed the Great Northern Railway.


Hill spent two decades pushing the railroad across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. He called the railroad the great adventure of his life. He was justifiably proud of it. He said, "When we are all dead and gone, the sun will still shine, the rain will fall, and this railroad will run as usual."

On this date in 1907, the Bismarck Daily Tribune reported on a coal shortage in North Dakota. C.F. Larrabee, the acting commissioner of Indian Affairs, had received a telegram from superintendent Charles Ziebach of the Fort Totten Indian School regarding a clogged railroad line. Ziebach pleaded with Larrabee to contact Hill and ask him to do whatever he could to get coal to the school. Ziebach said there was less than a week’s worth of coal left, and the 3,000 students would be very cold if more fuel did not arrive quickly.

In a letter to Governor John Johnson of Minnesota, Hill explained that the roadblock was caused by increased rail traffic and not enough track. He said another 75,000 miles should be built in the next five years. Hill acknowledged that this would be an enormous task. At 140 tons of iron per mile, it would require two-thirds of the country’s annual steel production, and place a demand on labor for grading the rail beds, laying the track, and building bridges.

James S. Harlan, the Interstate Commerce Commissioner, contacted North Dakota Senator Henry Hansbrough with assurances that the Great Northern Railway was doing everything possible to ease the coal shortage. Hill reported that five trainloads had been sent out. He had instructed his superintendents to use coal from the company’s locomotive supply to prevent actual suffering.

Fortunately, the coal arrived at Fort Totten before the last of the supply ran out.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Bismarck Daily Tribune. “Hill Writes Interestingly to Johnson.” “Poor Lo is Liable to Have Cold Feet at Fort Totten.” 15 January 1907. Page 1.

James J. Hill House. “James J. Hill.” http://www.mnhs.org/hillhouse/learn/james-j-hill Accessed 16 December 2017.