Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Empire Builder


The Great Northern Railroad was the dream of James J. Hill, a man known as the “Empire Builder.” Hill considered the Great Northern his greatest achievement. When he retired he said, “Most men who have really lived have had, in some shape, their great adventure. This railroad is mine.”

Hill did not plan on becoming a railroad baron. In 1856, when he was eighteen, he headed west where he planned to sign on with a sailing ship. He arrived in St. Paul as winter set in. He found a job with a steamboat company to tide him over until he could leave in the spring. He watched the birth of the railroad with great interest. His original dream of becoming a sea captain gave way to dreams of the railroad. In 1878, Hill and three others acquired the St. Paul and Pacific, which they organized into the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railroad with 695 miles of track. In 1889 they changed the name to the Great Northern Railroad, and it had grown to over 3,000 miles of track. Hill was determined to push the railroad west. The final spike of the Pacific Coast extension was driven on January 6, 1893.

Dakotans were very aware of the importance of the Great Northern to the territory. They knew the railroad would help the area to grow, and Hill knew the territory had to be a success in order for his railroad to thrive. He became an enthusiastic cheerleader for the frontier. He was a great supporter of farmers. He advocated crop diversification. He imported purebred cattle and sold them to farmers at reasonable prices.

The city of St. Paul planned to celebrate the completion of the railroad’s link to the coast. On this date in 1893, the Fargo City Council announced that the city would accept an invitation to participate. The mayor appointed a twenty-five member delegation to represent the city, and Secretary McGinnis and George B. Clifford would arrange for a float to take part in the parade. A committee organized a fundraiser to cover the cost. Colonel John D. Benton was chosen to speak for Fargo at the St. Paul banquet. Fargo was determined to say thank you to empire builder James J. Hill for his support of Dakota Territory.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Great Northern Railroad Historical Society. “What Was the Great Northern Railway?” "" Accessed 3 April, 2016.

Grand Forks Herald. “Fargo Will Be Represented.” “The City Fathers Will Attend.” 20 May, 1893