"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

‘Once I built a railroad’

By on April 27, 2020 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Rod Molzahn

J.J. Hill and the Great Northern

By Rod Molzahn

In the late 1860s, Jim Hill was a $75 a month freight clerk for a warehouse along the Mississippi River at St. Paul, Minnesota. 

William Kahlow, 1890 settler in the Okanogan Valley, knew Jim Hill as the fastest receiving clerk on the Mississippi. The job involved directing the wharf-men unloading freight from the riverboats to the proper space in the warehouse for each consignee. 

Kahlow recalled competitions between Jim Hill and other freight clerks. Jim Hill always won. “If they bet on Jim Hill they didn’t lose their wagers.” Jim Hill had lost an eye to a childhood accident but that didn’t slow down his work or his ambitions.

It was during those years that freight clerk Jim Hill met Mississippi riverboat captain Alexander Griggs. The two men formed a friendship that would last as long as their lives. 

Hill knew how to move freight and Griggs knew riverboats. Captain Griggs thought there was money to be made hauling freight on the Red River of Minnesota. 

Jim Hill became J.J. Hill, the king of the The Great Northern railroad. Photo courtesy Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center 75-49-155

In 1872 he convinced his friend, Jim Hill, to invest with him to build a riverboat to ply the Red River. The Selkirk cost $22,000 to build but paid for itself in the first year of operation.

That changed Jim Hill’s life. No longer a freight clerk, he added a middle initial to his name and became James J. Hill, shipping magnate. 

He soon concluded that the future of shipping was not in riverboats but in railroads.

In 1873, Hill took his substantial profits from the Red River Transportation Co. and bought controlling interest in the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. 

There was a national financial panic and the railroad was in trouble. Hill paid 25 cents a share for the stock. He immediately began expanding his line west to reach more towns and more population.

Hill demanded much from his crews. He expected a mile and a half of new track each day. 

As the line grew the stock value grew with it. It was estimated that James J. Hill made two million dollars in the next few years as he added other lines to his holdings. 

In 1879 he announced, “I’m going to push a line to Puget Sound.” People called it, “Hill’s Folly.” 

Ten years later most of Hill’s lines lost their individual names and, together became the Great Northern Railroad. The push west accelerated as Hill exhorted his crews to “lay more track.”

Out of Minnesota and on to the flat plains of the Dakotas, Great Northern track laying crews ate up the miles. 

Sally Carriker, a Hill family friend, recalled, “Hill was always a superman. Without much cash, he just kept those rails rolling along. Out on the level prairie he never even waited to ballast the roadbed. Right on top of the ground his workmen laid ties and stretched the rails over them, mile after mile.” 

With every new town reached there was more freight to haul. The more freight, the more income for the Great Northern. With more money, available crews were sent back to ballast the track beds.

J.J. Hill was a strong supporter of the economies of the towns his tracks reached. He gave financial backing to community projects that would benefit the local economy. 

In Wenatchee, Hill backed several projects including building the trestle across the Wenatchee River to bring the Gunn/Shotwell irrigation ditch to the Wenatchee Flat. 

What was good for the towns was good for the Great Northern.

J.J. Hill’s track crews loved and respected him. He was as strong and tough as any of them and he loved them right back. 

Lee Howard, a track crewman in the Dakotas, described a visit by Hill. “During a sizeable blizzard Hill came in his special car to where a crew was trying to clear the line. He didn’t stay inside that car. He jumped out, grabbed my shovel and started heaving snow furiously. ‘Go back to my car and get hot coffee,’ he told me. I did and rested there a while. Hill spelled first one and then another of us that day.”

The rapid pace of track laying continued through eastern Montana then slowed to a crawl in the face of the Rocky Mountains. 

Hill was up to the challenge. In December of 1889 he sent John F. Stevens, a young engineer, to the northern Rockies to locate a low pass talked about in Blackfoot Indian legend.

In a 40 degree below zero blizzard, Stevens climbed up into darkness, eventually coming into a small flat where he walked until dawn in circles to avoid freezing to death. 

In the light he found himself at the summit of Marias Pass, the sought after northern Rockies route for the Great Northern Railroad. 

With that barrier breached, the road-building pace quickened through northern Idaho to Spokane. 

John Stevens was sent west to find a pass through the north Cascades.

With the arrival of Great Northern tracks in Spokane an upheaval of speculation arose around the likely route west from there. 

Where would it cross the Big Bend? Where would it cross the Columbia and where would it cross the Cascades? And most important, what towns would benefit?

Some thought it would go through Waterville. Some thought it would pass through Yakima and over Snoqualmie Pass. Others thought Lt. Henry Pierce’s 1882 expedition had located a rail route up the Methow Valley and over a pass at the head of the Twisp River or maybe Hart’s Pass in the upper Methow. 

Dr. J.B. Smith, founder of Orondo, believed the tracks would cross the Big Bend then follow a route down to the Columbia. From there it would pass through Orondo and follow the left bank of the Columbia north to a point opposite Chelan Falls. There it would cross the Columbia, climb to Lake Chelan and follow a route along the north shore of the lake to Stehekin and over the Cascades from there.

Only the Spokane Chronicle got it right. 

The route would be south of the Big Bend and reach the Columbia below Rock Island Rapids then follow the left bank to a crossing of the Columbia below Wenatchee then up the Wenatchee River to the mountains. 

This route was made possible when John Stevens, in the summer of 1890, located the north Cascade pass that bears his name.

The rails reached Wenatchee on Oct. 17, 1892. A commemorative silver spike was driven where the tracks crossed Orondo Avenue. 

The spike was set by Wenatchee’s two oldest homesteaders — Philip Miller living at the south end of Miller Street, below Saddle Rock, and Sam Miller, founder of the Miller/Freer Trading Post at the Wenatchee/Columbia confluence.

James J. Hill built his railroad out of pocket with no federal aid. 

The other western railroads, Union Pacific, Central Pacific and Northern Pacific all received millions of acres of federal land grants that could be sold to finance the railroad construction. 

The Great Northern, built on the back of J.J. Hill’s determination, was the only one of the big four railroads to survive the financial panic of 1893. The Great Northern had no debts. 

J.J. Hill took advantage of the situation to buy Northern Pacific stock at depressed prices and greatly expand his track holdings.

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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