Business As It Might and Ought To Be

“Some men have convictions and lack courage; some men have courage and lack convictions; and some men have both. The difference between civilization and barbarism may be measured by the degree of safety to life, property, and the pursuit of the various callings men are engaged in.”

             – James J. Hill (1838 – 1916)

James Jerome Hill was born in Eramosa Township, Upper Canada (now Ontario) in 1838. He had only nine years of formal schooling, and thanks to a bow and arrow accident, only one eye. He quit school in 1852 due to the death of his father. Nonetheless, he was adept at algebra, geometry, land surveying, and English.

After working as a clerk in Kentucky, where he learned bookkeeping, Hill decided to move permanently to the United States and settled in St. Paul, Minnesota. His first job in St. Paul was with a steamboat company, where he worked as a bookkeeper. By 1860, he was working for wholesale grocers, for whom he handled freight transfers, especially dealing with railroads and steamboats. Through this work, he learned all aspects of the freight and transportation business.

In 1879, Hill and a group of partners purchased the bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. As General Manager of the railroad, Hill began immediately to upgrade and expand the line.

“What we want”, he famously said, “is the best possible line, shortest distance, lowest grades, and least curvature we can build. We do not care enough for Rocky Mountains scenery to spend a large sum of money developing it.” Hill got what he wanted, and in January 1893 his Great Northern Railway, running from St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington – a distance of more than 1,700 miles – was completed. The Great Northern was the first transcontinental built without public money and one of the few transcontinental railroads not to go bankrupt. 1

Hill was not just an outstanding businessman. He was also a great philanthropist, and in 1913, he endowed the James J. Hill Reference Library 2 in St. Paul, Minnesota. The library opened in 1921, and today is one of the nation’s premier sources of information for small businesses, business researchers, scholars, and business reporters.


1 The principle source for this article was the beautifully written and illustrated biography, James J. Hill and the Opening of the Great Northwest, by Albro Martin, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1991. I also consulted Wikipedia.

For more information on the James J. Hill Reference Library, see .