To commemorate the 175th anniversary of the birth of James J. Hill, who built and managed the Great Northern Railway, here is a video about Hill produced by the Minnesota Historical Society.
The first person interviewed in the video is Thomas White, who for many years curated Hill’s business papers at the James J. Hill Library in St. Paul. The other man who was interviewed, Craig Johnson, made a couple of errors: he says Hill tried to build into Canada but was forbidden from doing so by the Canadian government, so he built west instead. In fact, he did build into Canada to Winnipeg, and only built west when it became plain that the Canadian government would not incorporate Hill’s American railway into the planned Canadian Pacific Railway. Johnson also suggests Hill was worth more than $250 million when he died; it was more like $60 million.
Hill earned the nickname “Empire Builder” when he completed the Great Northern to Seattle just a few months before the Panic of 1893, the nation’s worst depression up to that point. This financial crisis put almost every other transcontinental railroad into bankruptcy, so Wall Street was highly impressed when Hill’s sound management kept the GN profitable throughout the economic downturn. Eventually, Hill’s transportation empire extended from Buffalo to Yokohama and from Winnipeg to Galveston, and today it forms the nucleus of BNSF, which is run from the James J. Hill Network Operations Center in Ft. Worth, Texas.
“He has captured more territory with the coupling pin, and made it habitable for man, than did Julius Caesar with the sword,” said John Wilson, a U.S. Senator from Washington, in 1909. He “was one of the first of our great railroaders to see the vision of vast miles of country as they might be, and then to go to work patiently to make the vision real,” wrote the New York Times in 1910. In 1912, the president of the Chicago Great Western Railway remarked that, “The name of James J. Hill will go down into history as the most remarkable character that our railroading industry has developed.”
In addition to the video, here is brochure about the train that was named for Hill, who earned the nickname “Empire Builder” in his lifetime. While the 1940 brochure advertised that all cars on the train were air conditioned, at the time this 1934 brochure was published, GN had only managed to air condition the dining and observation cars.
While the 1940 brochure had two pages of photos of Glacier Park and other destinations along the Empire Builder‘s route, this earlier brochure only has interior photos. Unlike the 1940 brochure, which had multiple photos on every page, the 1934 one also has three pages of solid text and several more pages with only one photo. This may indicate that the railroad thought that its clientele was more literate in 1934 or that its marketing department later learned that pictures sell better than text.