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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 66

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This is the grave of James J. Hill.

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Born in 1838 in Ontario, Hill moved permanently to the United States in 1856, setting in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a few years before the good citizens of that state committed massive genocide against the Dakota people in the 1862 Dakota War. He quickly became involved in shipping and then banking, building a small fortune for himself. Railroads became his next target. He wanted to build a transcontinental line across the northern border of the U.S. to the Puget Sound. He starting buying up railroads and moving his lines farther west, into North Dakota and Montana. In 1893, his Great Northern Railway reached Seattle, connecting that burgeoning city to the east. As part of the railroad empires, the federal government deeded huge sums of land to the capitalists. They wanted to dump that land in order to turn a profit that was not always easy to get building into sparsely populated land. But how to turn North Dakota into a profit? Hill relied on schemes to convince Scandinavia farmers to come to the United States and buy this bucolic land of mild climate, where anything could grow and sure fortunes were to result. In other words, his agents lied to the poor of Europe to sucker them into buying land in the middle of North Dakota. Hill also was aggressive in finding new labor forces to exploit. Never comfortable actually paying workers enough to live, he originally wanted to use the Chinese but that was getting more difficult by the 1890s. He briefly turned to Italians and Greeks but found the Japanese more exploitable.

He then sold 900,000 acres of Washington to Frederick Weyerhaeuser in 1900, creating that state as a timber capital and allowing the southwestern part of it to become a permanent timber colony, subject to the whims of the global market and allowing it to remain in poverty, in many cases to the present, as massive deforestation, a lack of alternative economic options, and schemes to con the poor into farming logged-off lands created a semi-permanent Washington underclass today embodied in such areas as Aberdeen, Longview, and Centralia.

Hill of course was as steeped in shady dealings as any other Gilded Age capitalist, although he doesn’t seem to have stolen from his own companies like the California rail barons did. He sought to build his monopoly and found a ready ally in J.P. Morgan to help him do that. He wanted to take over most of the major railroad lines in the West. He first grabbed the Northern Pacific during the Panic of 1893. He and Morgan then made a play at the Union Pacific, but that railroad had Rockefeller money behind it. The ensuing chaos meant too much competition. So instead they came to a truce, but Hill and Morgan created the Northern Securities Company to tie all the lines together and come out on top. It was this monopoly that Theodore Roosevelt chose to take on in 1902 to acquire his undeserved reputation as a “trust-buster,” a reputation that, like everything else with Roosevelt, was a product of his own self-promotion machine that sought to play the press like a violin to promote his own agenda, a machine that still colors our view of Roosevelt, as well as people who he turned on like William Howard Taft, into the present.

In any case, the Supreme Court upholding Roosevelt’s actions in busting the Northern Securities monopoly did hurt Hill’s hoped for investments in Asia. He had to console himself with only taking over more American railroads and building himself a 36,000 square foot mansion. When Hill died in 1916, he was only worth $2.5 billion in today’s money. Hard out there for a plutocrat.

What kind of man was James J. Hill? The kind who is a hero to the Mises Institute and other purveyors of Austrian economics. The kind of man who would call William Jennings Bryan’s plan for government regulation of the railroads “revolution.”

Unfortunately, no one has ever played Hill on TV or in the movies. Maybe it’s time to create an HBO show on the vile doings of Gilded Age capitalists.

James J. Hill is buried in Resurrection Cemetery, Saint Paul, Minnesota

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  • Denverite

    Born in 1838 in Ontario, Hill moved permanently to the United States in 1856

    I never really trust Canucks who settle in the US. Canadian cities are awesome! Who really says “I’m living the dream out here in Vancouver or Montreal, but hey, I’d really love to go live in Erie, PA (or wherever)”? People who Canada decides that it doesn’t want, that’s who. And Canada is a pretty tolerant place. You’ve got to have something really wrong with you if CANADA decides that you’re just not up to snuff to kick it in Thunder Bay or Quebec City.

    Just my $0.02.

    • All I’m saying is that this blog would be a lot better off if Trump had built the northern wall a week ago.

      That’s all I’m saying.

  • Brett

    There’s Hell on Wheels and Deadwood, but they’re more narrowly focused. I’d love to see a good HBO series that dwelt on this type of thing, like if somebody read Richard White’s Railroaded and decided to base a series off of that.

    What kind of man was James J. Hill? The kind who is a hero to the Mises Institute and other purveyors of Austrian economics. The kind of man who would call William Jennings Bryan’s plan for government regulation of the railroads “revolution.”

    Ayn Rand was a huge fan as well. She gave a lecture praising him in 1962, and Hill was probably the inspiration for the fictional Nathaniel Taggart in Atlas Shrugged. She liked the fact that he only took land grants and not subsidies, although of course he bought up railroads that had been built with those.

    Credit where credits due, though. He ran a sound railroad, and was the least shady out of a very shady set of plutocrats in the 19th century. He was also a genuine social climber, not some son of privilege who got richer (although not as much as John Rockefeller).

    • Deadwood really is the only one that comes to mind. Gerald McRaney’s George Hearst was a perfect villain: stupendously callous and malevolent yet at the same time totally convinced that he was the misunderstood good guy. HBO is never to be forgiven for canceling that show one season before it was gonna end anyway.

      • Brett

        We just needed one more season to show the aftermath of that.

        Agreed that that portrayal of Hearst was brilliant. Now that is a person I can imagine becoming rich off of ruthless business practices.

    • Rob in CT

      Credit where credits due, though. He ran a sound railroad, and was the least shady out of a very shady set of plutocrats in the 19th century.

      This was my impression. As Erik said, he actually didn’t loot his company.

      He appears to have been an empire-builder type (ETA: gah, forgot this was basically his nickname), not a conman/crook.

      That he wasn’t exactly a friend of labor… well, this is my shocked face.

  • michaelrbn

    The AMC show “Hell on Wheels” attempted to be the “Mad Men” for the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Like many post-MM series, it felt like the producers/writers were working from a Wikipedia history of the events (I particularly disliked the lead character; the noble, non-slave owning, ex-Confederate.).

  • thicket creeper

    Philando Castile worked at J. J. Hill Montessori School several blocks NW of the Hill mansion. Could be time to think about renaming that school.

  • bender

    Why the big Celtic cross?

  • Dilan Esper

    The Amtrak train from Seattle to Chicago, the Empire Builder, is named for Hill.

  • Bruce Vail

    Don’t know much about Hill but the headstone is just fantastic.

    Is that supposed to be some kind of celtic cross?

  • Bruce Vail

    One of the few genuine treasures of my home library is a 1934 first edition of Matthew Josephson’s The Robber Barons. (I picked it up at a local used book sale. I think I paid $2.)

    Josephson has a lot on Hill. I think I’ll read up…

  • Kathleen

    Thanks for this post, Erik. Hill’s wife was one of the first students who attended St. Joseph’s Academy, an all girls Catholic high school and the first private high school established in Minnesota in 1849. I graduated from there in 1967. Here’s a link with more background on James Hill and his wife Mary and their early life in St. Paul:

    http://sites.mnhs.org/historic-sites/james-j-hill-house/mary-theresa-hill

  • wengler

    The Hill Mansion is a testament to dark and creepy 1890s architecture.

  • Tehanu

    I love these posts! I’m learning so much I never knew from them. Thanks, Erik!

  • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

    I’d appreciate more info on your views of TR if you feel moved to write on the subject. While I’ve viewed him as an egotist, and that his treatment of Taft was a huge mistake driven by his ego, I had always assumed that his progressive efforts were genuine.

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