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St. Paul railroad baron James J. Hill was born in Canada in 1838. He moved to St. Paul in the Minnesota Territory by himself at age 17. In St. Paul, Hill began working as a clerk and shipping agent for several steamboat companies and quickly started his own transportation and fuel businesses. In 1878, he joined with several partners to buy out the failing St. Paul & Pacific Railroad.
Hill concentrated the following decade on extending this line, reorganized as the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba, into western Minnesota, Dakota, Montana and the Pacific Northwest. The final spike of the transcontinental track was driven January 6, 1893.
Over next twenty years, Hill managed his railroad, renamed the Great Northern Railway, and also ventured into mining, timber, land and livestock, as well as philanthropy. He faced battles with competing companies, including the Northern Pacific Railway. His attempts to overtake and merge with the Northern Pacific led to an antitrust suit by Theodore Roosevelt's government; Hill eventually lost.
Hill maintained a front-line role in his businesses until his death in 1916. His personal fortune at that time has been estimated at $63 million with $200 million in related assets, making Hill one of the wealthiest and most powerful figures of America's Gilded Age.