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James J. Hill: Railroad Baron: Overview

Best Bets

James J. HillJames J. Hill: Empire Builder of the Northwestby Michael P. Malone.
MNHS call number: HE2754.H5 M35 1996, also available for purchase

James J. Hill and the Opening of the Northwest, by Albro Martin.
MNHS call number: HE2754.H5 M37 1991, also available for purchase.

James J. Hill Papers 
Papers, newspaper clippings, and photographs related to the personal and business dealings of St. Paul railroad baron and business magnate James J. Hill.
MNHS call number: Digital Finding Aid

Great Northern Railroad Corporate Records
Corporate records of the St. Paul-based Great Northern, its predecessors, and its subsidiaries and affiliates. 
MNHS call number: Digital Finding Aid

Hill-Boeckmann Family Photograph Collection
Includes views of James J. and Mary T. Hill, their children and grandchildren, family friends.
MNHS call number: Digital Finding Aid
Selected images from this collection are also available digitally


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.

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Revised by Katie Jean Davey
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