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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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