FreightWaves Classics / Fallen Flags: James Hill Turned the Great Northern Railway into a Powerhouse (Part 1)

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Many people are interested in old transportation companies, whether they are trucking companies, railways, airlines or shipping companies. These companies are called “fallen flags”, and the term describes companies whose corporate name has been dissolved by merger, bankruptcy or liquidation.

The Great Northern Railway (GN) employed thousands of people, but it was truly the product of one man – James Jerome Hill. Known as the “Empire Builder”, Hill built “one of America’s great transportation companies” for nearly 40 years. Hill has been described as “methodical, determined and an excellent railroader”. He was so good at planning and executing that other railway executives often hired him as a consultant.

James Jérôme Hill.  (Photo: Minnesota Historical Society)
James Jérôme Hill. (Photo: Minnesota Historical Society)

Hill began with the small St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, and by the time of his death in 1917 the GN was a transcontinental carrier with over 8,000 miles of track. Under Hill, the GN was very well managed and remained so after his death until the end of his corporate life.

The background of the hill

Hill was born in Guelph, Ontario on September 16, 1838. He left school at age 15 after the death of his father. At 17 he left home and found himself in St. Paul, Minnesota in July 1856. Hill became a shipping clerk, learning the trade of freight forwarder. He has worked as an agent for several companies in the sector and has dealt on several occasions with various railways.

He was very successful and was also highly respected by his peers. Hill founded JJ Hill & Company. Then, with a few associates, Hill founded Hill, Griggs & Company in the late 1860s.

The company developed into the steamboat business, and its first steamboat entered service along the Red River in 1871. Hill subsequently sought to purchase a railroad.

St. Paul & Pacific Railway

Hill and three associates signed an agreement to purchase control of the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad (StP & P) on March 13, 1878.

At that time, the StP & P was operating a 214 mile extension from St. Paul to Breckenridge as well as a branch to Melrose, which was separating from Minneapolis. The latter also included a 100-mile disconnected segment from Glyndon to Crookston, planned as a continuous line that would reach the Canadian border at St. Vincent. However, the railway’s financial difficulties resulting from the panic of 1873 meant that the line had not been completed.

A St. Paul & Pacific train.  (Photo: MNopedia.org)
A St. Paul & Pacific train. (Photo: MNopedia.org)

After Hill and his partners took control of the StP & P, they began to complete this extension because the Minnesota state legislature required their property to complete the line by December 31, 1878.

The work on the line was done quickly; the StP & P sent its first train from Saint-Vincent to Saint-Paul on November 10, 1878. Less than a month later (December 2, 1878), the route was completed to Winnipeg, Manitoba, allowing transit traffic to exit Canada. .

A restored StP & P locomotive.  (Photo: MNopedia.org)
A restored StP & P locomotive.
(Photo: MNopedia.org)

Expanding beyond the StP & P

Hill set out to form a system that would acquire the assets of StP & P. He founded the St. Paul, Minnesota & Manitoba Railway (StPM & M) on May 23, 1879. Hill then opened a more direct connection with St. Paul; this involved completing a 70 mile gap between Alexandria and Barnesville, which was completed at the end of 1879. Following this completion, Hill added hundreds of miles of branch lines to transport agricultural produce from farms near the Red River .

Hill’s movements generated money; net income increased from $ 556,000 to $ 1.069 million during this period. His next project was to improve railroad facilities in and around Minneapolis / St. Paul. A stone bridge was built to span the Mississippi River; he crossed the falls of Saint-Antoine at an angle. The bridge deck supported two tracks and the first train crossed it on April 16, 1884. The Railways Gazette said the bridge was “one of the greatest specimens of engineering skill in the country.” It connected St. Paul with a new passenger terminal that was built along the waterfront in downtown Minneapolis.

James Jerome Hill (center) and others in front of a StP & P train.  (Photo: Minnesota Historical Society)
James Jerome Hill (center) and others in front of a StP & P locomotive and tender.
(Photo: Minnesota Historical Society)

Westward expansion

The Midwest had a number of railways competing for business, so Hill sought to expand to the West Coast. Montana had agricultural products, lumber, and natural minerals that could occupy a railroad’s freight system. Hill acquired part of the Montana Central Railway in 1885. The railway was chartered to connect Great Falls and Butte, Montana, although construction has not yet started.

In 1886 Hill ordered the StPM & M to begin laying the track westward from its present end at Devil’s Lake in Dakota Territory. Hill planned to connect with Montana Central (which had started construction) at Great Falls. StPM & M rails reached Great Falls on October 16, 1887 and service began on October 31. Railway construction crews began laying rails in a southwesterly direction towards Butte. However, winter weather stopped construction until 1888. The railway reached Butte on November 10, 1888.

An advertisement for the StPM & M railway.  (Image: MNopedia.org)
An advertisement for the StPM & M railway. (Image: MNopedia.org)

Hill had built the StPM & M on a major railroad in the upper Midwest in the late 1880s. Its network spanned over 1,000 miles of track. And although Hill grew west, it also continued to focus on Minnesota. Along with Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul (Milwaukee Road) and Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha (“The Omaha Road”) Hill had acquired part of the St. Paul & Duluth (StP & D) Railway. The StP & D provided the three railroads with a key connection to Duluth and Superior, which were key ports on Lake Superior.

However, Hill disliked sharing the StP & D rail line and was looking for his own route to the two ports on Lake Superior. The StPM & M has sold its share of the StP & D; then Hill started the Eastern Railway Company of Minnesota in August 1887. Construction of the 68 mile railway line proceeded quickly and it opened on September 23, 1888.

In addition, Hill returned to the steamboat business. He founded the Northern Steamship Company on June 12, 1888 to handle cargo on the Great Lakes from Buffalo, New York.

The StPM & M ticket office in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1887. "The only first class line East, West and North."(Photo: On Our Minds Facebook page by V. Winters / Minnesota)
The StPM & M ticket office in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1887. “The only first class line east, west and north.”
(Photo: On Our Minds Facebook page by V. Winters / Minnesota)

Always west

As Montana brought new profitable business opportunities to the StPM & M, Hill decided that the railroad should be built to Puget Sound on Washington’s Pacific Coast to generate maximum revenue.

Author’s Note: This article would not have been possible without the resources made available by Adam Burns of American-Rails.com. Those interested in learning more about the railways that operate in North America – and those who are now “fallen flags” – should explore the American-Rails site.


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