James J. Hill

By Tom Hintgen

Otter Tail County Correspondent

When starting a guided tour of the James J. Hill house near downtown St. Paul, on display is a map of the state of Minnesota. Depicted is a rail line from St. Paul through Willmar to Breckenridge, 26 miles west of Fergus Falls, along with a branch line from St. Paul to St. Cloud.

This railway map, dating back to 1878, notes that the rail lines were owned by the St. Paul-Pacific Railroad. That year Hill and partner investors purchased the nearly bankrupt railway system. Hill saw this as a golden opportunity.

When other rail systems failed, Hill succeeded as a savvy businessman.

Over the next several years, Hill worked relentlessly to push his renamed Great Northern Railway north to Fargo, then westward across North Dakota and Montana, through the Rocky Mountains and onward to the Pacific coast in 1893.

This made Hill a multi-millionaire. He became known as the “Empire Builder,” a term coined by financier J. Pierpont Morgan. Hill was a detailed planner who traveled over proposed rail routes on horseback.

He later built another rail line from St. Cloud to Fergus Falls, through Otter Tail County, and onward to Fargo. A branch line, in western Otter Tail County, went from Fergus Falls to Pelican Rapids. 

By the 1890s Hill had purchased additional rail lines. With each expansion, his wealth and power grew.

Hill bargained for trackage rights with the Northern Pacific Railroad. He purchased large sections of the Mesabi Range iron mining district in Minnesota along with its rail lines.

The Great Northern Railway promoted settlements along its railway lines in Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana. Hill also invested in schools and churches for these communities and promoted a variety of businesses to ensure the towns prospered.

The rapidly increasing settlements in the Red River Valley close to the North Dakota-Minnesota border led to large-scale bonanza farming.

Hill experienced labor challenges. Due to economic downturns, he cut the wages of railway workers. But after those same workers went on strike in 1894, Hill accepted most of the workers’ demands and restored their pay. 

Today, one rail route designed by Hill is the Central Lakes Trail that runs from Fergus Falls to Osakis, southeast of Alexandria.

One-hour tours of the James J. Hill house are conducted Thursday through Sunday. The adult fee is $12 and $8 for children. The house is located on Summit Avenue, a short distance from St. Paul’s Cathedral. The phone number is 651-297-2555. Free parking is available.