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The short, paunchy, neuralgic man who strode purposely between two newly scraped lanes of prairie west of Minot, Dakota Territory, that April day in 1887 was in a hurry, as always. If the ground had not thawed, blast it loose with black powder: It was time to lay rail.

James Jerome Hill’s fortune was already made. He admitted he had more money than he could ever use, and ‘all that would be good for his nine children and their offspring. And still his mind seethed with possibilities as thick as the dirt clouds that swirled around his 3,300 grading gangs as they urged their spans west along the right of way. He was 50, his remaining fringe of hair and beard a tangle of white, yet just beginning his life’s greatest challenge. This prairie without people was a desert. He was determined to change that with his railroad. But first he had to build 643 miles of track to Helena, Montana Territory, before winter shut him down.

No railroad had ever laid that much track in one season. And this track had to be laid from Minot west, taking along every length of timber, rail, keg of spikes, maul, can of beans and load of grain that 10,000 men and 3,500 teams needed to get the job done. Jim Hill had spent months getting it all to Minot, which the arrival of his innovative St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railroad had brought to life just months before.

Hill’s engineers had already roped and wrestled huge stacks of timber into a six-story trestle to carry the tracks over Gassman Coulee, three miles west of Minot. Now, as quickly as horse-drawn drag shovels mounded the graders’ heaps of broken ground onto the untouched center strip, it was leveled, packed and ready for the tie wagons. New workers quickly learned the old man watching from the buckboard did not tolerate the slightest deviation from the route he had tramped over, chosen and marked.

Hill was one of the first railroad builders to realize the grade fixes the load. It was crucial that the Manitoba’s climb to the Rockies–someday across, all the way to Puget Sound–be as gradual as possible so engines could pull heavier loads.

Hill, who would become known as the Empire Builder, was a visionary, a genius at seeing two or three steps beyond what is to what will be if one had the nerve–the drive–to make it happen. Doubters scoffed that a northern Plains harvest could yield nothing but buffalo bones, and when the buffalo were gone, the country would go back to the Indians. In truth, in March 1887 shrinking snowdrifts on the northern Plains were yielding ruinous numbers of cattle bones, victims of drought, blizzard and ranchers’ mismanagement. Yet Hill pictured farm families settled happily on every quarter section.

He’d long ago realized that railway profits depended on nearby customers with ample products to ship. The railroad is in partnership with the land, he often said. Montana mines already needed shippers for copper, gold, silver and coal. Livestock and hopper cars heaped with grain might be far in the future, but he could see his railway populating these wasted northern Plains with settlers forever grateful to James J. Hill.

He never imagined bitter farmers spitting out his name as a curse and labeling a noxious weed in his honor. A devoted father, he never dreamed that Montana schoolchildren would grow up chanting:

Twixt Hill and Hell there’s just one letter;Were Hill in Hell we’d feel much better.

That April of 1887, slackers who thought they had found an easy berth in one of Hill’s three-story freight car dormitories might have sung the same song. Hill detested waste, laziness and incompetence and didn’t expect to give orders twice. If a man worked hard until the day’s work was done, he had Hill’s appreciation and loyalty. If not, he was gone. It pays to be where the money is being spent, Hill told his partners, and he was there as often as possible that hot, hard summer, pushing, prodding, urging greater speed as the track crept west.

Born near Rockwood, Ontario, Canada, on September 16, 1838, Jim Hill was a teenager lacking in money, influence and anything beyond a basic education when he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota Territory, in 1856. But he had abundant ability and Napoleonic ambition. With no special knowledge or training, he began his search for wealth and power as a clerk for a steamship company. When he needed to know something, whether it was how a steam engine worked or which coal burned most efficiently (and where to find it), he fed his analytical mind with knowledge from the leading authorities. He had lost the use of one eye in a childhood bow-and-arrow accident, but the remaining eye seemed to scan whole books into his memory.

He moved freight by dogsled, cart and steamboat, but by the early 1870s Hill believed the future of the West would move on iron rails. His rapid rise to a substantial position in St. Paul, his enthusiasm and his self-confidence–all helped make him a persuasive man. In 1878, he convinced three Canadian associates to join him in buying the bankrupt St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, valued at $19.4 million. Notes he signed for his share–even at the $5.5 million fire-sale price–put everything he owned in peril, including his family’s new home.

At age 40, he learned on the job to lay track and made a railroad out of unconnected segments of line others called two streaks of rust and a right of way. That right of way–the Minnesota Land Grant–ballooned in value, and the renamed St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railroad was turning a profit before the track was finished. In five years, Jim Hill’s railroad stock was worth $14 million, and now he was plowing much of his fortune back into what he called the Manitoba’s grand progress. Even in the early years, when Hill and his partners–Canadians Norman Kittson, Donald A. Smith and George Stephen–completed their line to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Hill intended to eventually extend the railroad to the Pacific Ocean.

Construction workers, heaving ties into place on the packed median while iron wagons heavy with rails dogged their heels, felt the lash of Hill’s temper, but they had no idea how risky and complicated his scheme was. The Manitoba was pushing along the north side of the Missouri River, between already completed rivals, the Northern Pacific line across southern Montana Territory, and the Canadian Pacific, in which Hill had also invested, to the north. Both friends and enemies thought him mad to try to compete on a middle route, especially when it carried no government land grant, no land to sell, beyond Minnesota.

Actually, Hill had no right to enter large blocks of land directly in his path. The government had already given the land to native people who had long considered it home. Expecting quick approval, Hill had lobbied Congress to grant the Manitoba right of way across the reservations. The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, home to Mandans, Hidatsas, Arickaras and Gros Ventres, began just west of Minot. Across the Montana line, the Blackfeet Reserve, dedicated for exclusive use of Blackfeet, Assiniboines, Sioux and Gros Ventres, spread all the way to the Rockies.

Congress said yes. President Grover Cleveland, citing railroaders’ general lack of regard for the interest or welfare of the Indians, said no. Sure that rival railroads had inspired the surprising veto, Hill mixed threats to nail his opponents to the doors of the Capitol by their ears and promises to pay the Indians for their land, until Cleveland signed a second bill just two months before construction began.

The American Indians had never been asked. Even as Hill’s iron gangs hammered home spikes that manacled the iron rails to the Dakota prairie, government negotiators were just beginning to treat with the Indians for what Hill and his partners already had permission to buy. This huge swath of land–75 feet on each side of the track–was presumed by Hill, and many of his contemporaries, to be not only unused and unwanted but also wasted on a people who, even when peaceful, would never develop its potential. He was confident the Indians would gladly accept a fair market price that averaged 50 cents an acre. But to make his railroad pay, reservation lands would have to be opened to white settlement; that intrusion required new treaties, yet to be signed and ratified.

Negotiations dragged, and other problems threatened. Hill was already heavily invested in a new town site in Montana Territory at the Missouri River’s Great Falls and in a new line he and his partners called the Montana Central. Pretending the Montana Central was simply a local line, they bought up the right of way from Butte to Helena to Great Falls and began building roadbed in 1886.

Awakened days late, and with dollars short, the rival Northern Pacific realized Hill’s real intent: to route Montana Central cars, loaded with Butte’s profitable copper ore, onto the proposed Manitoba’s rails for a shorter, cheaper ride east than the Northern Pacific could provide. The Northern Pacific put earth, rails and even a locomotive in the Montana Central’s way. It took court action to move them, draining time and money from the Manitoba’s grand progress.

Financing was a continual problem. Investors paled and fled before Hill’s vast undertaking. Horses required 600,000 bushels of oats and still died from exposure and strain. They moved 9.7 million cubic feet of earth and more than 32,000 cubic yards of rock. As the work settled into a rhythm, grading crews leapfrogged each other, averaging 314 miles a day through summer heat and maddening mosquitoes. Building bridges ahead and laying ties behind, 650 timber workers consumed 100 million board feet of lumber.

The grimy swirl of men and horses left the Missouri’s banks for the Milk River valley, then angled southwest at Havre.

Iron gangs were Irish, tough and experienced, and on August 8 they spiked a near-record eight miles of track. Hill sternly vetoed a celebration as the track reached Great Falls in October 1897; he had neither time nor patience for men to nurse hangovers.

When the Manitoba entered Helena on November 16, 1887, an exhausted Hill had achieved his announced goal. He was at the foot of the Rockies. The Manitoba absorbed the Montana Central. Profitable freight was already rolling east.

Yet Hill knew that to be truly competitive, his road must reach the coast. But where could he cross the Rockies? The Northern Pacific occupied the known southern pass, and Canadian Pacific track crossed the only northern break in the chain. Doubters declared there were no more. For many months it seemed they were right. But Hill remembered old reports of a pass west of Havre in the Marias River drainage, and he hired New England engineer John F. Stevens to search. Stevens was one of the rare men who could equal Hill’s perseverance. He battled alone through massive drifts and temperatures of 40 degrees below zero until, on December 11, 1889, he found the lost Marias Pass.

As if he’d already known the outcome, Hill had consolidated and renamed his railroad that September. The Great Northern Railway, swishing a 2,770-mile tail, could turn its head toward the Pacific and build through a 5,214-foot pass. Hill’s track would cross the lowest pass, climb the mildest grades and round the gentlest curves of any northern line. Overwhelmed by all the settlers, the Indians ceded their lands. North and South Dakota, Montana and Washington gained statehood that November, and Idaho followed in July 1890.

For three years, Great Northern construction gangs applied Hill’s mantra of work, hard work, intelligent work and then some more work. They cleared wooded valleys, bridged rivers and bored through rock faces to take the grand prog-ress 800 miles, through the Rockies to Spokane, on through the Cascades to the Seattle waterfront. The final spike was driven on January 3, 1893, just as the nation entered a severe financial panic. Both the Northern Pacific and the Union Pacific sank into receivership. Micro-managing as usual, Hill fired workers, cut salaries and closed stations. The Great Northern shuddered but did not fall. Needing a product to fill his eastbound cars, Hill played the key role in developing the Northwest’s lumber industry.

By 1895, with a personal fortune worth $12 million, he could team with banker J.P. Morgan to buy controlling interest in his old rival, the Northern Pacific. The Northern Pacific joined what were commonly known as the Hill Lines. When the new century opened, Hill and Morgan had added the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy to their stable and merged the three lines into a cooperative group called Northern Securities. President Theodore Roosevelt found the new holding company a popular target for his trustbusters. Hill and his associates lost that battle to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, but Hill remained in control of the field.

Praise for his accomplishments was lavish. He has captured more territory with a coupling pin and made it habitable for man than did Julius Caesar with the sword, ex-Senator John J. Wilson declared in 1909. Hill’s wealth soared to $53 million in 1910, despite the fact that he had never taken a salary from the Great Northern and continually plowed his profits back into improving his line. A nationally recognized captain of industry, he was much sought as a speaker, and in 1910, articles he’d authored were collected into a book, Highways of Progress.

Surprisingly, the closest subject to his heart was the family farm. He was among the first to promote–and help fund–experimental farms, agricultural extension agents, rotation and diversification of crops, soil and plant analysis, reclamation projects to provide irrigation, and soil conservation. Hill fervently believed the farm is the basis for all industry, and land without population is a wilderness. He went so far as to declare that a railway which is a mere line of iron from ocean to ocean would do nobody any good, while the settlement of the country is the greatest desideratum.

James J. Hill admitted, It is hard for me to see things out of joint and keep my hands off. In 1908 he considered the Montana plains empty wilderness, and so out of joint. Having turned the presidency of the Great Northern over to his son Louis, he concentrated some of his vast energy on changing Montana dry land to a Montana dream. Homesteaders in northern Montana and the western Dakotas, now allotted 320 acres, could use scientific methods, such as deep plowing and cultivating after every rain to produce bumper crops as, according to theory, rainfall follows the plow.

Hill was not the first or foremost promoter of dry farming, but he was terribly effective. Agricultural display trains toured the eastern states, and brochures, leaflets and advertisements touting extravagant crop yields urged northern European farmers to get their share of paradise. Once immigrants were on American shores, Hill gave them cheap rates for boxcar space to move their families, belongings, seed and livestock to homestead farmland described as the best in the United States.

The last great land rush in U.S. history began. In 1909, Hill, standing in a buckboard, told citizens of Havre, Mont., that he intended to populate the state with a family on every quarter or half section. One year later people stood in line two nights and a day to file claims. The Havre land office assigned 1,600 quarter sections in one month. The Great Falls land office processed between 1,000 and 1,500 homestead filings each month in 1910.

You are now our children, Hill had told the Dry Land Congress audience in Billings in 1909, but we are in the same boat with you and we have got to prosper with you or we have got to be poor with you. He did his best to make them prosper, providing free instruction in farming methods, awarding prizes for the tallest corn, fattest steers and richest milk.

For eight years, it seemed Hill and numerous other dry farm advocates were right. Precipitation was ample, hard wheat flourished where only grass had grown and one acre could yield 50 bushels of wheat, 100 of oats. Prices stimulated by World War I soared until a poster depicting gold coins flowing out of a fresh-cut furrow became farmers’ virtual reality. One-quarter million settlers poured into North Dakota, more than doubling the population. In August 1915, an aging Jim Hill rode his line and described the land from the Twin Cities to the Rocky Mountains as a grain field. The crops were better than even he had hoped.

On May 29, 1916, the 78-year-old Hill died in bed in his 38-room mansion in St. Paul. His was a painful death from blood poisoning, but he was surrounded by his family and his cherished collection of paintings and books. He could take satisfaction in the completion of his 14-story Great Northern Office Building and the James Jerome Hill Reference Library taking shape in downtown St. Paul. Both bore his personal stamp, as did everything he touched. He was a driven man, and he drove others in turn, but even his enemies had to admit he earned the title Empire Builder.

The first year Jim Hill lay in his grave, rain clouds diminished above the northern prairie he had rescued from wilderness. Each year it got drier. High winds scoured away the loosened topsoil. In the 1920s the disaster deepened. If the sky darkened, it was with dust, smoke from wildfires or a blizzard of grasshoppers. Wheat prices plunged and the homesteaders discovered that 320 acres could not support a family.

Destitute settlers abandoned hopeless claims by the thousands–75,000 farmers and their families fled their parched homesteads in Montana and North Dakota. Banks failed, children went hungry and paternalistic Jim Hill was not there to see or share their suffering.

Despite the predictions, though, the high Plains did not go back to the Indians. Outsiders now owned most reservation lands. In North Dakota, Fort Berthold Reservation had shrunk by 2 million acres. The Montana Indians traded their land for annuities and three smaller reserves, one in the Marias drainage, and Fort Peck and Fort Belknap along the Missouri.

The complicated man who had drastically influenced so many lives had been saluted accurately in a New York Times obituary: Whatever he had done, it had been greatly done. Jim Hill’s vision, skill and optimism had leveled mountains. The Empire Builder’s legacy of accomplishments and philanthropy dwarfs that of most men. Ironically, when he expected too much, the family farmers he most wanted to help paid a cruel price.


This article was written by Nancy M. Peterson and originally appeared in the August 2002 issue of Wild West.

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