The armed fleets of an enemy approaching
our harbors would be no more alarming than the
relentless advance of a day when we shall have
neither sufficient food nor the means to purchase it
for our population. The farmers of the nation
must save it in the future, just as they built
its greatness in the past.
James Jerome Hill has one credential,
at least, to greatness he was born in a
log house. But let the painful fact be stated
at once, without apology, that he could never be President
of the United States, because this historic log house
was situated in Canada. The exact spot is about
three miles from the village of Rockwood, Wellington
Rockwood is seven miles east of Guelph,
forty from Toronto, and a hundred from Buffalo.
Mr. Hill well remembers his first
visit to Toronto. He went with his father, with
a load of farm produce. It took two days to go
and two to return, and for their load they got the
princely sum of seven dollars, with which they counted
James Hill, the father of James Jerome
Hill, was a North of Ireland man; his wife was Anne
Dunbar, good and Scotch. I saw a portrait of Anne
Dunbar Hill in Mr. Hill’s residence at Saint
Paul, and was also shown the daguerreotype from which
it was painted. It shows a woman of decided personality,
strong in feature, frank, fearless, honest, sane and
poised. The dress reveals the columnar neck that
goes only with superb bodily vigor the
nose is large, the chin firm, the mouth strong.
She looks like a Spartan, save for the pensive eyes
that gaze upon a world from which she has passed,
hungry and wistful. The woman certainly had ambition
and aspiration which were unsatisfied.
James J. Hill is the son of his mother.
His form, features, mental characteristics and ambition
are the endowment of mother to son.
It was a tough old farm, then as now.
As I tramped across its undulating acres, a week ago,
and saw the stone fences and the piles of glacial
drift that Jim Hill’s hands helped pick up, I
thought of the poverty of the situation when no railroad
passed that way, and wheat was twenty cents a bushel,
and pork one cent a pound all for lack of
Jim Hill as a boy fought the battle
of life with ax, hoe, maul, adz, shovel, pick, mattock,
drawshave, rake and pitchfork. Wool was carded
and spun and woven by hand. The grist was carried
to the mill on horseback, or if the roads were bad,
on the farmer’s back. All this pioneer
experience came to James J. Hill as a necessary part
of his education.
Life in Canada West in the Forties
was essentially the same as life in Western New York
at the same period. The country was a forest,
traversed with swamps and sink-holes, on which roads
were built by laying down long logs and across these,
small logs. This formed the classic corduroy
road. When ten years of age James Hill contracted
to build a mile of corduroy road, between his father’s
farm and the village. For this labor his father
promised him a two-year-old colt. The boy built
the road all right. It took him six months, but
the grades were easy and the curves so-so. The
Tom Sawyer plan came in handy, otherwise it is probable
there would have been a default on the time-limit.
And Jim got the colt. He rode the animal for
half a year, back and forth all Winter from the farm
to the village, where he attended the famous Rockwood
Academy. Then some one to whom the elder Hill
was indebted, signified a desire for the colt, and
the father turned the horse over to the creditor.
When little Jim went out and found that the stall
was empty he had a good cry, all by himself.
Three years after this, when his father
died, he cried again, and that was the last time he
ever wept over any of his own troubles.
From his seventh to his fourteenth
year young Jim Hill attended the Rockford Academy.
This “Academy” had about thirty boarding
boys and a dozen day-scholars. Jim Hill was a
“day-scholar,” and the pride of the master.
The boy was studious, appreciative, grateful.
He wasn’t so awfully clever, but he was true.
The master of the Academy was Professor
William Wetherald, stern to view, but very gentle
of heart. His wife was of the family of Balls.
The Ball family moved from Virginia two generations
before, to Western New York, and then when the Revolutionary
War was on, slid over to Ontario for political reasons
best known to themselves.
There was quite an emigration to Canada
about then, including those worthy Mohawk Indians
whose descendants, including Longboat the runner and
the Princess Viroqua, are now to be found in the neighborhood
And certainly the Indians were wise,
for Canada has treated the red brother with a degree
of fairness quite unknown on this side of the line.
As for the Tories but what’s the need
The Balls trace to the same family
that produced Mary Ball, and Mary Ball was the mother
of George Washington so tangled is this
web of pedigree! And George Washington, be it
known, got his genius from his mother, not from the
tribe of Washington.
William Wetherald died at an advanced
age near ninety, I believe only
a short time ago. It is customary for a teacher
to prophesy after the pupil has arrived and
declare, “What did I tell you!” Wetherald
looked after young Hill at school with almost a father’s
affection, and prophesied for him great things only
the “great things” were to be in the realms
of science, oratory and literature.
Along about Eighteen Hundred Eighty-eight,
when James J. Hill was getting his feet well planted
on the earth, he sent for his old teacher to come
to Saint Paul. Wetherald spent several weeks there,
riding over the Hill roads in a private car, and discussing
old times with the owner of the car and the railroad.
Mr. Hill insisted that Wetherald should
remain and teach the Hill children, but Fate said
otherwise. There is no doubt that Hill’s
love of books, art, natural history, and his habit
of independent thought were largely fixed in his nature
through the influence of this fine Friend, teacher
of children. The Quaker listens for the “Voice,”
and then acts without hunting up precedents.
In other words, he does the things he wants to do.
Mr. Hill’s long hair and full beard form a sort
of unconscious tribute to Wetherald. In fact,
let James J. Hill wear a dusty miller’s suit
and a wide-brimmed hat and you get the true type of
James J. Hill is a score of men in
one, as every great man is. But when the kindly,
philosophic, paternal and altruistic “Yim Hill”
is in the saddle, you will see the significance of
this story: Just after Mr. Hill had gotten possession
of the Burlington, he made a trip over the road.
A rear-end flagman at Galesburg was boasting to some
of his mates about how he had gone over the division
with the new “boss of the ranch.”
Here a listener puts in a question,
thus: “What kind of a lookin’ fellow
is th’ ol’ man?” And he of the red
lantern and torpedoes scratches his head, and explains,
“Well, you see, it’s like this: He
looks like Jesus Christ, only he’s heavier set!”
The father of James J. Hill was a
worthy man, with a good hold on the simple virtues,
a weak chin and a cosmos of slaty gray.
His only claim to immortality lies
in the fact that he was the father of his son.
Pneumonia took him, as it often does the physically
strong, and he passed out before he had reached his
prime. “Death is the most joyfullest thing
in life,” said Thomas Carlyle to Milburn, the
blind preacher, “when it transfers responsibility
to those big enough to shoulder it, for that’s
the only way you can make a man.”
I once saw a boy of fourteen on the
prairies of Kansas transformed into a man, between
the rising of the sun and its setting. His father
was crushed beneath a wagon that sluiced and toppled
in crossing a gully. The hub caught the poor
man square on the chest, and after we got him out
he never spoke. Six children and the mother were
left, the oldest boy being fourteen. A grave
was dug there on the prairie the next day, and this
boy of fourteen patted down the earth over his father’s
grave, with the back of a spade. He then hitched
up the horses, rounded up the cattle, and headed the
cavalcade for the West. He was a man, and in
after-life he proved himself one.
On the death of his father, Jim Hill’s
schooldays were done. His aptitude in mathematics,
his ability to keep accounts, and his general disposition
to make himself useful secured him a place in the village
store, which was also the Post-Office. His pay
was one dollar a week. This training in the country
store proved of great value, just as it did in the
case of H. H. Rogers, George Peabody and so many other
men of mark.
It is one thing to get a job, and
another to hold it. Jim Hill held his job, and
his salary was raised before the end of the first year
to three dollars a week.
On the strength of this prosperity,
the struggle on the old farm with its stumps, boulders
and mortgage was given up and the widow moved her
little brood to town. The log house on the rambling
main street of the village is now pointed out to visitors.
Here the mother sewed for neighbors, took in washing,
made garden, and with the help of her boy Jim, grew
happy and fairly prosperous: more prosperous than
the family had ever been. Thus matters went on
until Jim was in his eighteenth year, when the wanderlust
got hold of the young man. His mother saw it
coming and being wise did not apply the brake.
Man is a migrating animal. To
sit still and stay in one place is to vegetate.
Jim with twenty dollars in his pocket
started for Toronto on foot with a bundle on a stick,
followed by the prayers of his mother, the gaping
wonder of the children, and the blessing of Professor
Wetherald. Toronto was interesting, but too near
home to think of as a permanent stopping-place.
A leaky little steamer ran over to Fort Niagara every
other day. Jim took passage, reached the foreign
shore, walked up to Niagara Falls, and the next day
tramped on to Buffalo. This was in the wonderful
year of Eighteen Hundred Fifty-six, the year the Republican
Party was born at Bloomington, Illinois. It was
a time of unrest, of a healthy discontent and goodly
prosperity, for things were in motion. The docks
at Buffalo were all a-bustle with emigrants going West forever
Jim Hill, aged eighteen, strong, healthy,
farmer boy, lumberman, clerk, shipped as roustabout
on a schooner bound for Chicago. His pay for the
round trip was to be ten dollars and board, the money
payable when the boat got back to Buffalo. If
he left the ship at Chicago, he was to get no cash.
The boat reached Chicago in ten days.
It was a great trip full of mild adventure
and lots of things that would have surprised the folks
at Rockford. Jim got a job on the docks as checker-off,
or understudy to a freight-clerk. The pay was
a dollar a day. He now sent his original twenty
dollars back to his mother to prove to her that he
was prosperous and money was but a bagatelle and a
burden. A month, and he had joined the ever-moving
westward tide. He was headed for California, the
land of shining nuggets and rainbow hopes. He
reached Rock Island, and saw a sign out at a sawmill,
“Men Wanted.” He knew the business
and was given work on sight. In a week his mathematics
came in handy and he was handed a lumber-rule and
Mr. Hill yet recalls his first sight
of a Mississippi River steamboat coming into Davenport.
The tall smokestacks belching fire, the graceful,
swanlike motion, the marvelous beauty of the superstructure,
the wonderful letter “D” in gold, or something
that looked like gold, swung between the stacks!
It was just dusk, and as the boat glided in toward
the shore, a big torch was set ablaze, the gang-plank
was run out to the weird song of the colored deckhands,
and miracle and fairyland arrived. For a month
whenever a steamboat blew its siren whistle, Jim was
on the wharf, open-mouthed, gaping, wondering, admiring.
One day he could stand it no longer. He threw
up his job and took passage on the sailing palace,
“Molly Devine,” for Dubuque. Here
he changed boats, and boarded a smaller vessel, a
stern-wheeler, deck passage for Saint Paul, a point
which seemed to the young man somewhere near the North
He was going to get his fill of steamboat-riding
for once at least. It was his intention to remain
at Saint Paul a couple of days, see Saint Anthony’s
Falls and Minnehaha, and then take the same boat back
down the river. But something happened that induced
him to change his plans.
The two days on the steamboat had
wearied Jim. The prenatal Scotch idea of industry
was upon him, and conscience had begun to squirm.
He applied for work as soon as he walked out on the
levee. The place was the office of the steamboat
company. He stated in an offhand way that he had
had experience on the water-front in Chicago, Rock
Island and Davenport.
He was hired on the spot as shipping-clerk
with the gratuitous remark, “If you haven’t
sense enough to figure, you are surely strong enough
The agents of the steamboat-line were
J. W. Bass and Company. Hill got along all right.
He was day-clerk or night-clerk, just as the boats
came in. And it is wonderful how steamboats on
the Mississippi usually arrive at about two o’clock
in the morning.
Jim slept on a cot in the office,
so as to be on hand when a boat arrived and to help
unload. It was the duty of the shipping-clerk
to check off the freight as it was brought ashore.
Also, it was the law of steamboating that clerks took
their meals on board the boat, if they were helping
to unload her. Now, as Jim had food and a place
to sleep when a Dubuque and Saint Paul steamboat was
tied at the levee, all the meals he had to buy were
those when no steamboat was in sight.
Being essentially Scotch, Jim managed
to time his meals so as to last over. And sometimes
if a boat was stuck on a sand-bar he did the MacFadden
act for a whole day. It became a sort of joke
in the office, and we hear of Mr. Bass, the agent,
shouting up to the pilot-house of a steamboat, “Avast
there, sir, for five minutes until Jim Hill stows his
A part of Jim’s work was to
get wood for fuel for the boats. This was quite
a business in itself. He once got a big lot of
fuel and proudly piled it on the levee, mountain-high,
in anticipation of several steamboats. A freshet
came one night, the river rose and carried off every
stick, so that when the “Mary Ann” arrived
there was no fuel. “Wait until Jim Hill
eats his breakfast and perhaps he’ll get an armful
of wood for us,” shouted down the captain in
derision. After that, Jim managed to load up
a flatboat or two, and always had a little wood in
The young man was now fairly launched
in business. The mystery of manifesting, billing,
collecting; the matter of “shorts,” “overs,”
and figuring damages were to him familiar.
The Territory of Minnesota was organized
in Eighteen Hundred Forty-nine, and did not become
a State until Eighteen Hundred Fifty-eight. In
Eighteen Hundred Fifty-seven there was not a single
mile of railway in the Territory. But in that
year, Congress authorized the Territory to give alternate
sections of public lands to any company that would
build a railway through them. Through this stimulus,
in the latter part of Eighteen Hundred Fifty-seven,
there was organized a company with the ambitious title
of “The Minnesota and Pacific Railroad Company.”
Its line extended from the steamboat-wharf in Saint
Paul to the Falls of Saint Anthony. There were
ten miles of track, including sidings, one engine,
two box cars and a dozen flat cars for logs.
The railroad didn’t seem to
thrive. There was no paying passenger traffic
to speak of. Passengers got aboard all right,
but on being pressed for fares they felt insulted
and jumped off, just as you would now if you got a
ride with a farmer and he asked you to pay. Possibly,
a rudimentary disinclination to pay fare still remains
in most of us, like the hereditary indisposition of
the Irish to pay rent.
No one ever thought it possible that
a railroad could compete with a steamboat, and it
was a long time after this that Commodore Vanderbilt
had the temerity to build a railroad along the banks
of the Hudson and be called a lunatic.
So there being no passenger traffic,
the farmers carrying their grist to mill, and the
logs being floated down the river to the mills, the
railroad was in a bad way. Something had to be
done, so the Minnesota and Pacific was reorganized,
and a new road, the Saint Paul and Pacific, bought
it out, with all its land grants. The intent of
the new road was to strike right up into the woods
for ten or twenty miles above Minneapolis and bring
down logs that otherwise would have to be hauled to
the river. For a time this road paid, with the
sale of the odd-numbered sections of land that went
In Eighteen Hundred Sixty-seven, James
J. Hill became the Saint Paul agent of this railroad.
He had quit his job with J. W. Bass, to become agent
for the Northwestern Packet Line; and as the railroad
ran right to his door he found it easy to serve both
the steamboat company and the railroad.
You will often hear people tell how
James J. Hill began his railroad career as a station-agent,
but it must be remembered that he was a station-agent,
plus. The agents of steamboat-lines in those days
were usually merchants or men who were financially
responsible. And James J. Hill became the Saint
Paul agent of the Saint Paul and Pacific because he
was a man of resource, with ability to get business
for the railroad.
As the extraordinary part of Mr. Hill’s
career did not begin until he was forty years of age,
our romantic friends who write of him often picture
him as a failure up to that time. The fact is,
he was making head and gathering gear right along.
These twenty-two years, up to the time that Mr. Hill
became a railroad-owner, were years of intense activity.
While yet a clerk for J. W. Bass and
Company, Mr. Hill made the acquaintance of Norman
Kittson, as picturesque a figure as ever wore a coonskin
cap, and evolved from this to all the refinements of
Piccadilly, only to discard these and return to the
Kittson had been connected with the
Hudson Bay Company. When Hill met him, he was
running a fast express to Fort Garry, now Winnipeg,
going over the route with ox-carts. In Summer
it took one month to go and the same to return.
In Winter dog-sleds were used and the trip was made
Kittson was the inventor and patentee
of the Red River Ox-Cart. It was a vehicle made
of wood, save for the linch-pins. The wheels were
enormous, some being ten feet in diameter. It
was Kittson’s theory that if you could make
your wheel high enough it would eliminate friction
and run of its own momentum. The wheels were
made by boring and pinning plank on plank, criss-cross,
and then chalking off with a string from the center.
Then you sawed out your wheel, and there you were.
The creaking of a train of these ox-carts
could be heard five miles. Kittson had the government
contract for carrying the mails, and managed, with
the help of trading in furs and loading up with merchandise
on his own account, to make considerable money.
When Hill was in his twenties he went
over the route with Kittson, and made several trips,
also, alone with dog-sleds, for his friend, when there
was a rush of freight. On one such occasion he
had one companion, a half-breed of uncertain character,
but who was taken along as a guide, he being familiar
with the route. It was midwinter, the snow was
heavy and deep, there were no roads, and much of the
way led over frozen lakes and along streams.
To face the blizzards of that country, alone, at that
time required the courage of the seasoned pioneer.
Hill didn’t much like the looks
of his companion. And after a week out, when
the fellow suggested their heading for Lake Superior
and dividing their cargo, Hill became alarmed.
The man was persistent and inclined to be quarrelsome.
Each man had a knife and a rifle. Hill waited
until they reached a high ridge. The snow lay
dazzling white as far as the eye could reach.
The nearest habitation was fifty miles away.
Under pretense of fixing the harness
on his dogs, Jim got about forty feet from his man,
quickly cocked his rifle and got a bead on the half-breed
before the fellow knew what was up. At the word
of command the rogue dropped his rifle and held up
his hands. The next order was to right-about-face march!
The order was obeyed. A double-quick was ordered,
and the half-breed lit out, quickening his pace as
he got out of range. Hill then picked up the
other rifle, put whip to his dogs, and by night had
gone so far that he could not be overtaken. When
Jim came back that way a few weeks later, he kept
his eye peeled for danger, but he never saw his friend
When I heard Mr. Hill relate this
story he told it as simply as he might relate how
he went out to milk the cows. One of the men present
asked, “Didn’t you feel sorry for the
fellow, to turn him adrift on that frozen plain, without
food or fuel?” Mr. Hill hesitated, and then slowly
answered: “I thought of that, but preferred
to send him adrift rather than kill him, or let him
kill me. Anyway he had only some fifty miles
to travel to strike an Indian village. When he
was there we were a hundred and fifty miles apart.
You see I am a mathematician. It is a great joy
to figure out what a long distance you are from some
In his business of supplying cord-wood
to steamboats, Mr. Hill had a partner, grizzled and
gray, by the name of Griggs. Griggs was a typical
pioneer: he was always moving on. He bought
a little stern-wheel steamboat, and shipped its boiler
and engine across to Breckenridge, where he had the
joy of running the first steamboat, “The Northwest,”
on the Red River.
Mr. Hill built the second steamboat
on the Red River, “The Swallow,” on the
order of Kittson, who bought the boat as soon as she
had shown her ability to run. All the metal used
in its making, which of course included engine and
boiler, was sent across from Saint Paul. And if
the outfit was gotten out of a wrecked Mississippi
stern-wheeler, what boots it!
Then it was that Kittson, having also
bought the Griggs steamboat, was given the title of
Commodore, a distinction which he carried through
By this time several things had happened.
One was that Hill had brought up to Saint Paul a steamboat-load
of coal. This coal was mined near Peoria, on
the Illinois River, floated down to the Mississippi,
then carried up to Saint Paul. To bring coal
to this Newcastle of wood was regarded as deliberate
By this time the Saint Paul and Pacific
had gotten a track laid clear through to Breckenridge,
so as to connect with Commodore Kittson’s steamboats.
When Hill first reached Saint Paul, there was no agriculture
north of that point. The wheat-belt still lingered
around Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin.
The fact that seeds can be acclimated, like men and
animals, was still in the ether.
The Red River Valley is a wonderfully
rich district. Louis Agassiz first mapped it
and wrote a most interesting essay on it. Here
was a wonderful prehistoric lake, draining to the
south through the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers,
and thence to the Gulf of Mexico. By a volcanic
rise of the land on the southern end, centuries ago,
the current was turned and ran north, making what
we call the Red River, emptying into Lake Winnipeg,
which in turn has an outlet into Hudson Bay.
Agassiz came up the Mississippi River
on a trip in Eighteen Hundred Sixty-five. The
boat he traveled on was one for which James J. Hill
was agent. Naturally, it devolved on Hill to
show the visitors the sights thereabouts. And
among these sights happened to be our friend Kittson,
who, full of enthusiasm, offered to pilot the party
across to the Red River. They accepted and ascended
to Fort Garry. Agassiz, full of scientific enthusiasm,
wrote out his theory about the prehistoric lake.
And science, now, the world over, calls the Red River
Valley, “Lake Agassiz.” With Louis
Agassiz was his son Alexander, a fine young man with
pedagogic bent, headed for his father’s place
as Curator of the Museum at Harvard.
From Winnipeg the party was supplied
an Indian guide, who took them across to Lake Superior.
Then it was that Alexander Agassiz saw the wonders
of Lake Superior copper and Lake Superior iron.
And Harvard lost a professor, but the world gained
a multimillionaire. Louis Agassiz had no time
to make money, but his son Alexander was not thus handicapped.
The report of Agassiz on the mineral
wealth of Lake Superior corroborated Mr. Hill’s
own opinions of this country, which he had traversed
with dog-sleds. Money was scarce, but he, even
then, made a small investment in Lake Superior mineral
lands, and has been increasing it practically ever
since. A recent present to the stockholders of
the Great Northern of an iron tract worth many millions
of dollars had its germ in that memorable day when
James J. Hill met the Agassiz party on the levee in
Saint Paul and unconsciously changed their route as
Mr. Hill’s experience would
seem to prove that life after all is a sequence, and
the man who does great work has long been in training
There are two ways for a traveling-man
to make money: one is to sell the goods, and
the other is to work the expense-account.
There are two ways to make money by
managing a railroad: one is through service to
the people along the line of the road; the other is
through working the bondholders.
It was the eventful year of Eighteen
Hundred Seventy-six, before James J. Hill really got
up steam. He was then thirty-eight years old.
He was agent for the Saint Paul and Pacific, and in
this capacity he had seen that the road was being
run with the idea of making money by milking the bondholders.
The line had been pushed just as long
as the bondholders of Holland would put up the money.
To keep things going, interest had been paid to the
worthy Dutch out of the money they had supplied.
Gradually, the phlegmatic ones grew wise, and the
purse-strings of the Netherlanders were drawn tight.
For hundreds of years Holland had sought a quick Northwest
passage to India. Little did she know she was
now warm on the trail. Little, also, did Jim
The equipment engines and
cars was borrowed, so when the receiver
was appointed he found only the classic streak of
rust and right of way. No doubt both of these
would have been hypothecated if it were possible.
Mr. Hill knew the Northwest as no
other man did, except, possibly, Norman Kittson.
He had traversed the country from Saint Paul to Winnipeg
on foot, by ox-carts, on horseback, by dog-sledges.
He had seen it in all seasons and under all conditions.
He knew the Red River Valley would raise wheat, and
he knew that the prosperity of old Louis Agassiz meant
the prosperity of the railroad that ran between that
rich valley and Saint Anthony’s Falls, where
the great flouring-mills were situated, the center
of the flour zone having been shifted from Rochester,
New York, to Minneapolis, Minnesota.
To gain possession of the railroad
and run it so as to build up the country, and thus
prosper as the farmers prospered, was his ambition.
He was a farmer by prenatal tendency and by education,
a commission man by chance, and a master of transportation
by instinct. Every farmer should be interested
in good roads, for his problem is quite as much to
get his products to market as to raise them.
Jim Hill focused on getting farm-products to market.
While he was a Canadian by birth, he had now become
a citizen of the United States. His old friend,
Commodore Kittson, was a Canadian by birth, and never
got beyond taking out his first papers. The Winnipeg
agent of the Hudson Bay Company was Donald Alexander
Smith, a hardy Scotch bur of a man, with many strong
and sturdy oatmeal virtues. He had gone with
the Hudson Bay Company as a laborer, became a guide,
a trader, and then an agent. Hill and Kittson
laid before Smith a plan, very plain, very simple.
Buy up the bonds of the Saint Paul and Pacific from
the Dutch bondholders, foreclose, and own the railroad!
Now, Donald A. Smith’s connection
with the Hudson Bay Company gave him a standing in
Montreal banking circles, and to be trusted by Montreal
is to have the ear of London. Donald A. Smith
went down to Montreal and laid the plan before George
Stephen, Manager of the Bank of Montreal. If
the Bank of Montreal endorsed a financial scheme it
was a go. Only one thing seemed to lie in the
way the willingness of the bondholders to
sell out at a figure which our four Canadians could
pay. Mr. Hill was for going to Holland, and interviewing
the bondholders, personally. Stephen, more astute
in big finance, said, bring them over here. Hill
could not fetch them, Kittson couldn’t and Donald
A. Smith couldn’t, because there was no dog-sled
line to Amsterdam.
The Bank of Montreal did the trick,
and a committee of Dutchmen arrived to look over their
Minnesota holdings with a view of selling out.
Mr. Hill took them over the line a dreary
waste of slashings, then a wide expanse of prairie
broken now and again by scrub-oak and hazel-groves;
deep gullies here and there swamps, sloughs
and ponds, with assets of brant, wild geese, ducks
and sand-hill cranes.
The road was in bad shape the
equipment worse. An inventory of the actual property
was taken with the help of the Dutch Committee.
The visiting Hollanders made a report to the bondholders,
advising sale of the bonds at an average of about
forty per cent of their face-value, which is what
the inventory showed.
Our Canadian friends secured an option
which gave them time to turn. Farley, the Receiver,
was willing. The road was reorganized as the Saint
Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railroad. George
Stephen was President, Norman Kittson, First Vice-President,
Donald A. Smith, Second Vice-President, and James
J. Hill, General Manager. And on Mr. Hill fell
the burden of turning a losing property into a prosperous
and paying one. From the very day that he became
manager he breathed into the business the breath of
He sent over to England and bought
hundreds of young Hereford bulls, and distributed
them along the line of the road among the farmers.
“Jim Hill’s bulls” are pointed out
now over three thousand miles of range, and jokes
on how Hill bulled the market are always in order.
Clydesdale horses were sent out on low prices and
Farm seeds, implements and lumber
were put within the reach of any man who really wanted
to get on. And lo! the land prospered. The
waste places were made green, and the desert blossomed
like the rose.
The financial blizzard of the year
Eighteen Hundred Seventy-three was, without doubt,
an important factor in letting down the bars, so that
James J. Hill could come to the front. The River
Valley at that time was not shipping a bushel of wheat.
The settlers were just taking care of their own wants,
and were feeding the Lady of the Snows up North around
Winnipeg. We now know that the snows of the Lady
of the Snows are mostly mythical. She is supplying
her own food, and we are looking toward her with envious
In the year Nineteen Hundred Nine,
the two Dakotas and Minnesota produced more than two
hundred million bushels of wheat worth,
say, a dollar a bushel. And when wheat is a dollar
a bushel the farmers are buying pianolas.
The “Jim Hill Country”
east of the Rockies is producing, easily, more than
five hundred million dollars a year in food-products
that are sent to the East for market.
The first time I saw Mr. Hill was
in Eighteen Hundred Eighty. He was surely a dynamo
of nervous energy. His full beard was tinged with
gray, his hair was worn long, and he looked like a
successful ranchman, with an Omar Khayyam bias.
That he hasn’t painted pictures, like Sir William
Van Horne, and thus put that worthy to shame, is to
me a marvel.
Hill has been an educator of men.
He even supplied Donald A. Smith a few business thrills.
“Tomorrow night I intend to entertain the Governor,”
once said Smith to Hill. “Tomorrow night
you will be on the way to Europe to borrow money for
me,” said Hill. And it was so.
First and foremost, James J. Hill
is a farmer. He thinks of himself as following
a plow, milking cows, salting steers, shoveling out
ear-corn for the pigs. He can lift his voice
and call the cattle from a mile away and
does at times. He bought a section of Red River
railroad land from himself and put it in his wife’s
name. The land was swampy, covered with swale,
and the settlers had all passed it up as worthless.
Mr. Hill cut the swale, tiled the land, and grew a
crop that put the farmers to shame. He then started
a tile-factory in the vicinity, and sold it to the
managers two young fellows from the East as
soon as they proved that they had the mental phosphorus
and the commercial jamake.
The agricultural schools have always
interested Mr. Hill. That which brings a practical
return and makes men self-supporting and self-reliant
is his eternal hobby. Four years in college is
to him too much. “You can get what you
want in a year, or not at all,” he says.
He has sent hundreds of farmers’ boys to the
agricultural colleges for short terms. Imagine
what this means to boys who have been born on a farm
and have never been off it to get the stimulus
of travel, lectures, books, and new sights and scenes!
In this work, often the boys did not know who their
benefactor was. The money was supplied by some
man in the near-by town that was all.
These boys, inoculated at Mr. Hill’s expense
with the education microbe, have often been a civilizing
leaven in new communities in the Dakotas, Montana
and Washington. In Eighteen Hundred Eighty-eight
the Saint Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba became a part
of the Great Northern.
Hill had reached out beyond the wheat
country into the arid zone, which was found to be
not nearly so arid as we thought. The Black Angus
and the White-Faced Herefords followed, and where
once were only scattering droves of skinny pintos,
now were to be seen shaggy-legged Shire horses, and
The bicycle had come and also the
trolley-car, and Calamity Jake prophesied that horses
would soon be valuable only for feeding Frenchmen.
But Jacob was wrong. Good horses steadily increased
in value. And today, in spite of automobiles
and aeroplanes, the prices of horses have aviated.
Jim Hill’s railroads last year hauled over three
hundred thousand horses out of Montana to the Eastern
The clothes that a man wears, the
house that he builds for his family, and the furnishings
that he places therein, are all an index of his character.
Mr. Hill’s mansion on Summit Avenue, Saint Paul,
was built to last a thousand years. The bronze
girder that supports the staircase is strong enough
to hold up a locomotive.
The house is nearly two hundred feet
long, but looks proportionate, from the Art-Gallery
with its fine pictures and pipe-organ at one end, to
its rich leather-finished dining-room at the other.
It is of brownstone the real Fifth Avenue
stuff. Fond du Lac stone is cheaper and perhaps
just as good, but it has the objectionable light-colored
Nothing but the best will do for Hill.
The tallest flagpole that can pass the curves of the
mountains between Puget Sound and Saint Paul graces
the yard. The kitchen is lined with glazed brick,
so that a hose could be turned on the walls; the laundry-room
has immense drawers for indoor drying of clothes;
no need to open a single window for ventilation, as
air from above is forced inside over ice-chambers in
Summer and over hot-water pipes in Winter.
Mr. Hill is a rare judge of art, and
has the best collection of “Barbizons”
in America. Any one can get from his private secretary,
J. J. Toomey, a card of admission. As early as
Eighteen Hundred Eighty-one, Mr. Hill had in his modest
home on Ninth Street, Saint Paul, several “Corots.”
Mr. Hill is fond of good horses, and has a hundred
or so of them on his farm of three thousand acres,
ten miles north of Saint Paul.
Some years ago, while President of
the Great Northern Railway, he drove night and morning
in Summertime to and from his farm to his office.
He very often walks to his house on Summit Avenue
or takes a street-car. He is thoroughly democratic,
and may be seen almost any day walking from the Great
Northern Railway office engaged in conversation with
one or more; and no matter how deeply engrossed or
how important the subject in hand, he never fails
to greet with a nod or a smile an acquaintance.
He knows everybody, and sees everything.
Mr. Hill knows more about farming
than any other man I ever met. He raises hogs
and cattle, has taken prizes for fat cattle at the
Chicago show, and knows more than anybody else today
as to the food-supply of the world yes,
and of the coal and timber supply, too. He has
formed public opinion on these matters, and others,
by his able contributions to various magazines.
Seattle has erected a monument to
James J. Hill, and Saint Paul and Minneapolis will,
I know, erelong be only too glad to do something in
the same line, only greater.
Just how any man will act under excitement
is an unknown quantity. When the Omaha Railway
General Offices in Saint Paul took fire, at the first
alarm E. W. Winter, then General Manager, ran for the
stairway, emerging on the street. Then he bawled
up to his clerk on the second floor excitedly, “Charlie,
bring down my hat!” But his clerk, young Fuller,
with more presence of mind, was then at the telephone
sending in word to the fire-department. Everybody
got out safely, even to the top floor, but the building
One night about ten o’clock,
the St. P., M. & M. Ry. offices at Saint Paul caught
fire. The smoke penetrated the room where Mr.
Hill with his Secretary, Will Stephens, was doing
some work after all others had departed. They
had paid no attention to the alarm of fire, but the
smell of smoke started them into action. Young
Stephens hurriedly carried valued books and papers
to the vault, while Mr. Hill with the strength of
a giant grasped a heavy roll-top desk used by A. H.
Bode, Comptroller, pushed it to the wall, and threw
it bodily out of the second-story window. The
desk was shattered to fragments and the hoodlums grabbed
on to the contents. No harm was done to the railway
office, save discoloring the edges of some documents.
The next morning when Bode, all unconscious of fire
or accident, came to work, Edward Sawyer, the Treasurer,
said jokingly, “Bode, you may consider yourself
discharged, for your desk is in the street.”
When Conductor McMillan sold his farm
in the valley for ten thousand dollars, he asked Mr.
Hill what he should do with the money. “Buy
Northern Securities,” was the answer. He
did so and saw them jump one-third. Frank Moffatt
was Mr. Hill’s Secretary for some years.
Frank now has charge of the Peavey Estate. C.
D. Bentley, now a prominent insurance man of Saint
Paul, a friend of Frank’s, used to visit him
in Mr. Hill’s private office. Mr. Hill
caught him there once and said, “Young man if
I catch you here again I’ll throw you out of
the window.” Bentley thought he meant it,
so he kept away in the future. He told the story
once in my presence, when Mr. Hill was also present.
Mr. Hill bought red lemonade for the bunch. A
porter on his private car was foolish enough to ask
him at Chicago once at what hour the train returned.
That porter had all day to look for another job, and
Mr. Hill’s secretary provided another porter
at once. Mr. Hill can not overlook incompetency
or neglect. Colonel Clough engineered Northern
Securities; M. D. Grover, attorney for the Great Northern
Railway, said it would not work. Grover was the
brightest attorney the road ever had. When the
scheme failed, Grover never once said, “I told
you so,” and Mr. Hill sent him a check for a
thousand dollars, over and above his salary.
Colonel Clough was employed at a salary
of fifteen thousand dollars, some years before his
real work began. He came from the Northern Pacific.
Mr. Hill, when asked by a leading official of that
road what he thought of the Colonel, replied, “Huh!
he’s a good man to file contracts.”
Mr. Hill said of Allan Manvel, then
General Manager of his road, “He may make a
man some day.” Mr. Hill grew faster than
any man about him. He distanced them all.
S. S. Breed was Treasurer of the old Saint Paul and
Pacific Railroad. His signature in a bold, fine
hand adorned all the bonds of that road, held mostly
by the Dutch. He was made auditor when the St.
P., M. & M. Ry. was formed.
Breed had reached his point of greatest
efficiency, but that did not suffice Mr. Hill, who
said to him more than once, for Breed was an old-timer
and well liked, “If you can’t do the work
I’ll have to get some one who can.”
Mr. Hill, however, neither fired the old man, nor
reduced his pay. Breed got work up to his death
in the Great Northern Railway office, but at the last
he served as a guide for strangers.
Breed was supplanted by Bode as Comptroller,
followed by C. H. Warren and then by Farrington all
three Big Boys.
About Eighteen Hundred Eighty-nine,
Mr. Hill gave an address at a banquet in the Merchants’
Hotel, Saint Paul. With a large map of the United
States and Canada on the wall, he took a huge pair
of dividers or compasses and putting one leg of the
dividers on the map at Saint Paul, he swung the other
leg out southeast fifteen hundred miles as the crow
flies, into the ocean off the Carolina Coast.
Then with Saint Paul still as a center he swung the
compasses around to the northwest fifteen hundred
miles. “All this country,” he said,
“is within the wheat-belt.” The leg
of the compasses went beyond Edmonton in Alberta.
Last year this new Canadian country produced more
than one hundred million bushels of wheat, and this
is only the beginning.
Mr. Hill has always maintained that
to call cotton king is a misnomer. Cotton never
was king. Wheat is king, for food is more important
Wheat is the natural food of man.
The civilization of ancient Greece was built upon
the Nile Valley wheat. It is the one complete,
perfect, vegetable food. It contains all the
elements necessary to the making of the human body.
The supply of wheat is the arterial blood that makes
this world of ours do something. Without wheat
we would languish go quickly to seed, as
Saint Paul and Minneapolis lie at
the head of navigation on the Mississippi River a
little less than two thousand miles by water from
the Gulf and about the same distance from Puget Sound
tidewater by rail.
These cities are in the middle of
the wheat-belt. To this point came Mr. Hill,
a green country youth.
Transportation was his theme, and
transportation of wheat has been the foundation of
his success. Wheat is of more importance to us
than anything else than gold or cotton
or coal or timber or iron.
Mr. Hill carries all these over his
railroads. The Great Northern Railway, the Northern
Pacific, and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy over
twenty thousand miles of track are in the
hollow of his hand.
He directs, controls, even to minute
details, this great transportation system. His
seventy-fifth birthday was celebrated a year ago last
September. Still he fails not. He has given
up the Presidency of the Great Northern Railway, retaining,
however, the title, “Chairman of the Board.”
But we all know that his hand is felt just the same
in every part of the working of these miles of track.
Rareripes rot. But the man who
comes into his own late in life has a sense of values
and trains on. Mr. Hill does not ask for taffy
on a stick. And while he prizes friendship, the
hate or praise of those for whose opinions he has
little respect are to him as naught. No one need
burn the social incense before him in a warm desire
to reach his walletosky. He judges quickly, and
his decisions are usually right and just. It
isn’t time yet to write his biography. Too
many men are alive who have been moved, pushed and
gently jostled out of the way by him, as he forged
to the front. Perspective is required in order
to get rid of prejudice. But the work of James
J. Hill is dedicated to time; and Clio will eventually
write his name high on her roster as a great modern
prophet, a creator, a builder. Pericles built
a city, but this man made an empire. Smiling
farms, thriving schools, busy factories and happy
homes sprang into being in the sunlight of prosperity
which he made possible, and as yet the wealth of the
“Hill Country” is practically untapped.