The Great Northern Railroad founded by James J Hill plays a key roll in the history of St. Cloud MN.
James J Hill faced great adversity and turned it into great success. Known as The Empire Builder, he was a Minnesota entrepreneur extraordinaire. The statue in his honor in St. Cloud stands 20 feet tall and is carved out of granite.
Born in 1838, later blinded in the right eye by an accident with a bow and arrow, and forced to quite school due to the death of his father, he gained his knowledge from his work.
In 1873 a severe international economic depression happened. Banks were failing, unemployment hit 14% and Britian was loosing its position as a world economic leader. After the Civil War the railroads were the largest employeer (with the exception of farming) as over 50,000 miles of new track was laid across the United States largely due to Government land grants and subsidies.
In September of 1873 Jay Cooke & Company was about to start the construction of the second United States transcontinental railroad when reports circulated that due to the $300,000,000 loan from the government his firms credit was now nearly worthless and bankruptcy followed. This set off a chain reaction where the New York Stock Exchange closed for 10 days and out of 364 railroad companies in America 89 went bankrupt.
James J Hill saw this as an opportunity and with the help of Norman Kittson and Donald Smith they came up with a plan to make the St Paul & Pacific a very profitable company. Together with the help of the President of the Bank of Montreal, George Stephen, they purchased the St Paul & Pacific railway company.
James J Hill was very hands on and followed every detail of the plan closely, even going out on horse back and plotting the trail for the new tracks himself. He wanted to find the most efficient placement for the rail lines to save money. He is qutoed as saying "What we want, is the best possible line, shortest distance, lowest grades, and least curvature we can build."
Mr Hill was at times widely criticized for his ways and his views, even the New York Times publicized a what must have been very scathing article about his business practices. I would like to find the original letter that Mr Hill wrote to the Senator to see his words. James J Hill was against any form of Government subsidy and bailout. He has been accused of being one of the robber barrons of old, but was in fact a true business man who understood how to operate a profitable business without the necessity of intervention from the government.
James Jerome Hill was a beloved figure in St Cloud. To the Great Northern Shopworkers in St. Cloud and Waite Park and to other local business persons he was a very important part of the local economy, and a man of his word. When Mr Hill passed away in 1916 the Great Northern trains all stopped for 5 minutes in his honor as he was laid to rest. "Most men who have really lived have had, in some share, their great adventure. This railway is mine."
James J. Hill's legacy lives on from the amazing mansion in St Paul (now a National Historic Landmark) he built and lived in with his wife and their 10 children, to the James J Hill Reference Library (a major national resource for the Small Business Administration), to the incredible collection of works of art still on display, to his beloved rail company. He is responsible for much more, and with the links included you will be able to get a really good idea of who this man was way beyond what I was able to post here.