Famous in his time, Sam Hill of the Pacific Northwest is perhaps remarkably distinguished for his present-day obscurity. The Sam Hill in question is not the Sam Hill referenced in “What in the Sam Hill are you doing?” That honor has been attributed to a slate of Sam Hills, none of whom is this Sam Hill. The formerly notable Sam Hill was a visionary businessman, arguably manic, who over a 50-year career worked for gas and phone companies and coal mines and had a hand in the expansion of the Great Northern railroad into the West. Marrying the daughter of railroad boss J.J. Hill (no relation) in 1888 didn’t hurt Sam Hill’s prospects. But later in life Hill became more enamored of two things: the rugged splendor of the Pacific Northwest and the creation of paved roads that would allow travelers—and businesspeople—to enjoy and exploit that splendor. “Good roads are more than my hobby,” he said. “They are my religion.”
Born in 1857 into a prosperous Quaker family living near Henderson, North Carolina, Hill was the fourth child of a multifaceted business leader and Underground Railroad collaborator. The family moved to Minneapolis in 1865. Upon graduating from Haverford College in 1878, Hill spent time at Harvard collecting another B.A., a law degree, and more friends and connections than good grades. He didn’t need As. He had a bottomless interest in expanding his horizon—and others’ horizons, as well. Over his lifetime, he became fluent in four languages and traveled to Europe and Asia so often that in a single year he might make two trips to Japan, a journey then easier than one into the interior of the United States, which lacked a national road system. In fact, a 1907 road trip on Alpine highways and along Germany’s Rhine River provided Hill with a vision he wrestled into reality: the Columbia River Scenic Highway, which snaked along towering buttes and waterfalls, rising and falling in gentle loops that allowed vehicles of the day, which didn’t top 12 miles per hour, to navigate the inclines.
The highway, merely one of Hill’s Northwestern legacies, was by far the most impressive, stretching 74 miles at its completion in 1922. Traveling that part of the Columbia River’s bank had been so difficult that immigrants on the Oregon Trail often hopped into boats for the last leg down the Columbia. Leaving his father-in-law’s employ and moving to Seattle in 1902, Hill spent years promoting this area as a locale for roads and settlements. He first pitched the idea of establishing a farming community, Maryhill, named for his wife, on the northern side of the river in the state of Washington, building experimental roads along the bluffs as examples of paving and geometry.
Though a big wheel in Seattle Hill could not convince Washington bureaucrats that his road ideas were practical. He found allies among officials in Portland eager to counter the rising economic power of Seattle and San Francisco. They thought showcasing the magnificent Columbia Gorge could only be a good thing. After a lavish overture by Hill, the Oregonians left Maryhill in 1913 vowing to construct the highway. The next year, Hill began building a fortress-like three-story Beaux Arts concrete mansion at Maryhill. But farmers were wary. Good roads might as easily pass them by as offer a reliable route to market. They saw Hill as a city guy with suspect motives.
this article first appeared in American history magazine
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Despite the opposition, the business leaders had their way, particularly when local timber magnate Simon Benson offered $10,000 to back the project, softening the argument of wasted tax dollars. Over three years, workers—including Italian masons Hill hired away from a site in Massachusetts—excavated roadbeds and assembled guardrails, creating a texture to contrast with the somber evergreen backdrop. Key to the execution was road engineer Samuel Lancaster, who in 1904 had made his name on a much-acclaimed macadam road in Jackson, Tennessee. Scenic overlooks let travelers marvel at the vast river and snowy ridges. If crews could build a highway in terrain as impassable and steep as the Columbia Gorge, they could do so anywhere. To illustrate this technological mastery, the opening featured an encounter between a faux indigenous leader, “Chief Multnomah” and a figure representing White colonizers, with the “chief” retreating into the forest.
Car culture was getting rolling: In 1915, the state of Oregon tallied fewer than 12,000 registered vehicles. By 1922, Multnomah County, home to Portland, counted 37,717 registrations.
While the Columbia River Scenic Highway was a smashing success, Hill’s colony at Maryhill never took off. Set on the riverbank between the damp forests of the Cascade Mountains and the eastern desert—between “rain and sunshine,” as Hill put it—the parcel was too dry for agriculture and in winter was blasted by winds ripping through the gorge. Hill’s mansion remained only a shell—a good analogy for his marriage. Mary Hill, a Minneapolis native and a Catholic, never took to the Northwest—nor her husband, perhaps—enough to live there permanently. She remained in the Twin Cities, and their two children divided their time between the parents. Hill had liaisons and children with other women, but never divorced, likely due to Mary Hill’s faith.
Hill poured his tremendous energy into more lasting endeavors. Holding to Quakerism’s pacifist ideals, he created two memorials to the dead of the Great War. One was the Peace Arch, erected on the border between Washington and British Columbia in 1921. The other, a more startling structure, replicated Stonehenge and was completed in 1930 about three miles from Hill’s Maryhill mansion. At the time England’s Neolithic monument was believed to have been a site of human sacrifice, a view archaeologists came to discredit. Today the sculpture is the scene of many selfies and the occasional marriage ceremony.
The Maryhill mansion’s fate posed a lingering challenge. A friend, American dance innovator Loie Fuller—whom Hill had met while assisting with hunger relief in Belgium during the war—suggested he open the mansion as a museum and that he do so while Queen Marie was touring the United States in 1926.
On November 3, the Romanian monarch, a friend of Hill’s since 1893, arrived with her entourage at the ramshackle, empty manse, to find a throng of press, Portlanders, and 400 schoolchildren, as well as local Yakama chief Alex Saluskin and his wife, whom the monarch had invited. In her dedication, Marie of Romania gamely predicted glory for the unlikely institution, and donated 50 boxes of Romanian textiles, statuary, and furniture for a collection still on display at the facility. The unusually eclectic museum also displays portraits of Loie Fuller and numerous drawings and sculptures by Auguste Rodin. These figures were but a few of the friends Hill collected, apparently even having made the acquaintance of Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Perce, who long inhabited the region before being defeated by the U.S. Army. Curators have augmented Hill’s personal array of Native American basketry with indigenous artifacts from across North America.
Hill loved life and work, any work. “If you saw him in his broad-brimmed gray hat with a red bandanna around his neck, wearing his well-worn corduroys, stopping his auto to shovel a sharp-cornered rock out of the road, you would think he was a road supervisor,” wrote Portland journalist Fred Lockley. Hill also loved recognition.
“Did you ever stop to think how large a debt of gratitude Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller owe me?” Hill said. “I have had a great deal to do with making them two of the richest men in the United States. Unless we had good roads, Henry Ford wouldn’t have been able to sell millions of his cars. Without Henry Ford’s cars, John D. Rockefeller wouldn’t sell quite so much gasoline.”