The armed fleets of an enemy approaching our harbors would be no more alarming than the relentless advance of a day when we shall have neither sufficient food nor the means to purchase it for our population. The farmers of the nation must save it in the future, just as they built its greatness in the past.
--James J. Hill
James Jerome Hill has one credential, at least, to greatness--he was born in a log house. But let the painful fact be stated at once, without apology, that he could never be President of the United States, because this historic log house was situated in Canada. The exact spot is about three miles from the village of Rockwood, Wellington County, Ontario.
Rockwood is seven miles east of Guelph, forty from Toronto, and a hundred from Buffalo.
Mr. Hill well remembers his first visit to Toronto. He went with his father, with a load of farm produce. It took two days to go and two to return, and for their load they got the princely sum of seven dollars, with which they counted themselves rich.
James Hill, the father of James Jerome Hill, was a North of Ireland man; his wife was Anne Dunbar, good and Scotch. I saw a portrait of Anne Dunbar Hill in Mr. Hill's residence at Saint Paul, and was also shown the daguerreotype from which it was painted. It shows a woman of decided personality, strong in feature, frank, fearless, honest, sane and poised. The dress reveals the columnar neck that goes only with superb bodily vigor--the nose is large, the chin firm, the mouth strong. She looks like a Spartan, save for the pensive eyes that gaze upon a world from which she has passed, hungry and wistful. The woman certainly had ambition and aspiration which were unsatisfied.
James J. Hill is the son of his mother. His form, features, mental characteristics and ambition are the endowment of mother to son.
It was a tough old farm, then as now. As I tramped across its undulating acres, a week ago, and saw the stone fences and the piles of glacial drift that Jim Hill's hands helped pick up, I thought of the poverty of the situation when no railroad passed that way, and wheat was twenty cents a bushel, and pork one cent a pound--all for lack of a market!
Jim Hill as a boy fought the battle of life with ax, hoe, maul, adz, shovel, pick, mattock, drawshave, rake and pitchfork. Wool was carded and spun and woven by hand. The grist was carried to the mill on horseback, or if the roads were bad, on the farmer's back. All this pioneer experience came to James J. Hill as a necessary part of his education.
Life in Canada West in the Forties was essentially the same as life in Western New York at the same period. The country was a forest, traversed with swamps and sink-holes, on which roads were built by laying down long logs and across these, small logs. This formed the classic corduroy road. When ten years of age James Hill contracted to build a mile of corduroy road, between his father's farm and the village. For this labor his father promised him a two-year-old colt. The boy built the road all right. It took him six months, but the grades were easy and the curves so-so. The Tom Sawyer plan came in handy, otherwise it is probable there would have been a default on the time-limit. And Jim got the colt. He rode the animal for half a year, back and forth all Winter from the farm to the village, where he attended the famous Rockwood Academy. Then some one to whom the elder Hill was indebted, signified a desire for the colt, and the father turned the horse over to the creditor. When little Jim went out and found that the stall was empty he had a good cry, all by himself.
Three years after this, when his father died, he cried again, and that was the last time he ever wept over any of his own troubles.
* * * * * * *
From his seventh to his fourteenth year young Jim Hill attended the Rockford Academy. This "Academy" had about thirty boarding boys and a dozen day-scholars. Jim Hill was a "day-scholar," and the pride of the master. The boy was studious, appreciative, grateful. He wasn't so awfully clever, but he was true.
The master of the Academy was Professor William Wetherald, stern to view, but very gentle of heart. His wife was of the family of Balls. The Ball family moved from Virginia two generations before, to Western New York, and then when the Revolutionary War was on, slid over to Ontario for political reasons best known to themselves.
There was quite an emigration to Canada about then, including those worthy Mohawk Indians whose descendants, including Longboat the runner and the Princess Viroqua, are now to be found in the neighborhood of Brantford.
And certainly the Indians were wise, for Canada has treated the red brother with a degree of fairness quite unknown on this side of the line. As for the Tories--but what's the need of arguing!
The Balls trace to the same family that produced Mary Ball, and Mary Ball was the mother of George Washington--so tangled is this web of pedigree! And George Washington, be it known, got his genius from his mother, not from the tribe of Washington.
William Wetherald died at an advanced age--near ninety, I believe--only a short time ago. It is customary for a teacher to prophesy--after the pupil has arrived--and declare, "What did I tell you!" Wetherald looked after young Hill at school with almost a father's affection, and prophesied for him great things--only the "great things" were to be in the realms of science, oratory and literature.
Along about Eighteen Hundred Eighty-eight, when James J. Hill was getting his feet well planted on the earth, he sent for his old teacher to come to Saint Paul. Wetherald spent several weeks there, riding over the Hill roads in a private car, and discussing old times with the owner of the car and the railroad.
Mr. Hill insisted that Wetherald should remain and teach the Hill children, but Fate said otherwise. There is no doubt that Hill's love of books, art, natural history, and his habit of independent thought were largely fixed in his nature through the influence of this fine Friend, teacher of children. The Quaker listens for the "Voice," and then acts without hunting up precedents. In other words, he does the things he wants to do. Mr. Hill's long hair and full beard form a sort of unconscious tribute to Wetherald. In fact, let James J. Hill wear a dusty miller's suit and a wide-brimmed hat and you get the true type of "Hicksite."
James J. Hill is a score of men in one, as every great man is. But when the kindly, philosophic, paternal and altruistic "Yim Hill" is in the saddle, you will see the significance of this story: Just after Mr. Hill had gotten possession of the Burlington, he made a trip over the road. A rear-end flagman at Galesburg was boasting to some of his mates about how he had gone over the division with the new "boss of the ranch."
Here a listener puts in a question, thus: "What kind of a lookin' fellow is th' ol' man?" And he of the red lantern and torpedoes scratches his head, and explains, "Well, you see, it's like this: He looks like Jesus Christ, only he's heavier set!"
* * * * * * *
The father of James J. Hill was a worthy man, with a good hold on the simple virtues, a weak chin and a cosmos of slaty gray.
His only claim to immortality lies in the fact that he was the father of his son. Pneumonia took him, as it often does the physically strong, and he passed out before he had reached his prime. "Death is the most joyfullest thing in life," said Thomas Carlyle to Milburn, the blind preacher, "when it transfers responsibility to those big enough to shoulder it, for that's the only way you can make a man."
I once saw a boy of fourteen on the prairies of Kansas transformed into a man, between the rising of the sun and its setting. His father was crushed beneath a wagon that sluiced and toppled in crossing a gully. The hub caught the poor man square on the chest, and after we got him out he never spoke. Six children and the mother were left, the oldest boy being fourteen. A grave was dug there on the prairie the next day, and this boy of fourteen patted down the earth over his father's grave, with the back of a spade. He then hitched up the horses, rounded up the cattle, and headed the cavalcade for the West. He was a man, and in after-life he proved himself one.
On the death of his father, Jim Hill's schooldays were done. His aptitude in mathematics, his ability to keep accounts, and his general disposition to make himself useful secured him a place in the village store, which was also the Post-Office. His pay was one dollar a week. This training in the country store proved of great value, just as it did in the case of H. H. Rogers, George Peabody and so many other men of mark.
It is one thing to get a job, and another to hold it. Jim Hill held his job, and his salary was raised before the end of the first year to three dollars a week.
On the strength of this prosperity, the struggle on the old farm with its stumps, boulders and mortgage was given up and the widow moved her little brood to town. The log house on the rambling main street of the village is now pointed out to visitors. Here the mother sewed for neighbors, took in washing, made garden, and with the help of her boy Jim, grew happy and fairly prosperous: more prosperous than the family had ever been. Thus matters went on until Jim was in his eighteenth year, when the wanderlust got hold of the young man. His mother saw it coming and being wise did not apply the brake.
Man is a migrating animal. To sit still and stay in one place is to vegetate.
Jim with twenty dollars in his pocket started for Toronto on foot with a bundle on a stick, followed by the prayers of his mother, the gaping wonder of the children, and the blessing of Professor Wetherald. Toronto was interesting, but too near home to think of as a permanent stopping-place. A leaky little steamer ran over to Fort Niagara every other day. Jim took passage, reached the foreign shore, walked up to Niagara Falls, and the next day tramped on to Buffalo. This was in the wonderful year of Eighteen Hundred Fifty-six, the year the Republican Party was born at Bloomington, Illinois. It was a time of unrest, of a healthy discontent and goodly prosperity, for things were in motion. The docks at Buffalo were all a-bustle with emigrants going West--forever West.
Jim Hill, aged eighteen, strong, healthy, farmer boy, lumberman, clerk, shipped as roustabout on a schooner bound for Chicago. His pay for the round trip was to be ten dollars and board, the money payable when the boat got back to Buffalo. If he left the ship at Chicago, he was to get no cash.
The boat reached Chicago in ten days. It was a great trip--full of mild adventure and lots of things that would have surprised the folks at Rockford. Jim got a job on the docks as checker-off, or understudy to a freight-clerk. The pay was a dollar a day. He now sent his original twenty dollars back to his mother to prove to her that he was prosperous and money was but a bagatelle and a burden. A month, and he had joined the ever-moving westward tide. He was headed for California, the land of shining nuggets and rainbow hopes. He reached Rock Island, and saw a sign out at a sawmill, "Men Wanted." He knew the business and was given work on sight. In a week his mathematics came in handy and he was handed a lumber-rule and a blank-book.
Mr. Hill yet recalls his first sight of a Mississippi River steamboat coming into Davenport. The tall smokestacks belching fire, the graceful, swanlike motion, the marvelous beauty of the superstructure, the wonderful letter "D" in gold, or something that looked like gold, swung between the stacks! It was just dusk, and as the boat glided in toward the shore, a big torch was set ablaze, the gang-plank was run out to the weird song of the colored deckhands, and miracle and fairyland arrived. For a month whenever a steamboat blew its siren whistle, Jim was on the wharf, open-mouthed, gaping, wondering, admiring. One day he could stand it no longer. He threw up his job and took passage on the sailing palace, "Molly Devine," for Dubuque. Here he changed boats, and boarded a smaller vessel, a stern-wheeler, deck passage for Saint Paul, a point which seemed to the young man somewhere near the North Pole.
He was going to get his fill of steamboat-riding for once at least. It was his intention to remain at Saint Paul a couple of days, see Saint Anthony's Falls and Minnehaha, and then take the same boat back down the river. But something happened that induced him to change his plans.
* * * * * * *
The two days on the steamboat had wearied Jim. The prenatal Scotch idea of industry was upon him, and conscience had begun to squirm. He applied for work as soon as he walked out on the levee. The place was the office of the steamboat company. He stated in an offhand way that he had had experience on the water-front in Chicago, Rock Island and Davenport.
He was hired on the spot as shipping-clerk with the gratuitous remark, "If you haven't sense enough to figure, you are surely strong enough to hustle."
The agents of the steamboat-line were J. W. Bass and Company. Hill got along all right. He was day-clerk or night-clerk, just as the boats came in. And it is wonderful how steamboats on the Mississippi usually arrive at about two o'clock in the morning.
Jim slept on a cot in the office, so as to be on hand when a boat arrived and to help unload. It was the duty of the shipping-clerk to check off the freight as it was brought ashore. Also, it was the law of steamboating that clerks took their meals on board the boat, if they were helping to unload her. Now, as Jim had food and a place to sleep when a Dubuque and Saint Paul steamboat was tied at the levee, all the meals he had to buy were those when no steamboat was in sight.
Being essentially Scotch, Jim managed to time his meals so as to last over. And sometimes if a boat was stuck on a sand-bar he did the MacFadden act for a whole day. It became a sort of joke in the office, and we hear of Mr. Bass, the agent, shouting up to the pilot-house of a steamboat, "Avast there, sir, for five minutes until Jim Hill stows his hold."
A part of Jim's work was to get wood for fuel for the boats. This was quite a business in itself. He once got a big lot of fuel and proudly piled it on the levee, mountain-high, in anticipation of several steamboats. A freshet came one night, the river rose and carried off every stick, so that when the "Mary Ann" arrived there was no fuel. "Wait until Jim Hill eats his breakfast and perhaps he'll get an armful of wood for us," shouted down the captain in derision. After that, Jim managed to load up a flatboat or two, and always had a little wood in reserve.
The young man was now fairly launched in business. The mystery of manifesting, billing, collecting; the matter of "shorts," "overs," and figuring damages were to him familiar.
The Territory of Minnesota was organized in Eighteen Hundred Forty-nine, and did not become a State until Eighteen Hundred Fifty-eight. In Eighteen Hundred Fifty-seven there was not a single mile of railway in the Territory. But in that year, Congress authorized the Territory to give alternate sections of public lands to any company that would build a railway through them. Through this stimulus, in the latter part of Eighteen Hundred Fifty-seven, there was organized a company with the ambitious title of "The Minnesota and Pacific Railroad Company." Its line extended from the steamboat-wharf in Saint Paul to the Falls of Saint Anthony. There were ten miles of track, including sidings, one engine, two box cars and a dozen flat cars for logs.
The railroad didn't seem to thrive. There was no paying passenger traffic to speak of. Passengers got aboard all right, but on being pressed for fares they felt insulted and jumped off, just as you would now if you got a ride with a farmer and he asked you to pay. Possibly, a rudimentary disinclination to pay fare still remains in most of us, like the hereditary indisposition of the Irish to pay rent.
No one ever thought it possible that a railroad could compete with a steamboat, and it was a long time after this that Commodore Vanderbilt had the temerity to build a railroad along the banks of the Hudson and be called a lunatic.
So there being no passenger traffic, the farmers carrying their grist to mill, and the logs being floated down the river to the mills, the railroad was in a bad way. Something had to be done, so the Minnesota and Pacific was reorganized, and a new road, the Saint Paul and Pacific, bought it out, with all its land grants. The intent of the new road was to strike right up into the woods for ten or twenty miles above Minneapolis and bring down logs that otherwise would have to be hauled to the river. For a time this road paid, with the sale of the odd-numbered sections of land that went with it.
In Eighteen Hundred Sixty-seven, James J. Hill became the Saint Paul agent of this railroad. He had quit his job with J. W. Bass, to become agent for the Northwestern Packet Line; and as the railroad ran right to his door he found it easy to serve both the steamboat company and the railroad.
You will often hear people tell how James J. Hill began his railroad career as a station-agent, but it must be remembered that he was a station-agent, plus. The agents of steamboat-lines in those days were usually merchants or men who were financially responsible. And James J. Hill became the Saint Paul agent of the Saint Paul and Pacific because he was a man of resource, with ability to get business for the railroad.
As the extraordinary part of Mr. Hill's career did not begin until he was forty years of age, our romantic friends who write of him often picture him as a failure up to that time. The fact is, he was making head and gathering gear right along. These twenty-two years, up to the time that Mr. Hill became a railroad-owner, were years of intense activity.
* * * * * * *
While yet a clerk for J. W. Bass and Company, Mr. Hill made the acquaintance of Norman Kittson, as picturesque a figure as ever wore a coonskin cap, and evolved from this to all the refinements of Piccadilly, only to discard these and return to the Simple Life.
Kittson had been connected with the Hudson Bay Company. When Hill met him, he was running a fast express to Fort Garry, now Winnipeg, going over the route with ox-carts. In Summer it took one month to go and the same to return. In Winter dog-sleds were used and the trip was made more quickly.
Kittson was the inventor and patentee of the Red River Ox-Cart. It was a vehicle made of wood, save for the linch-pins. The wheels were enormous, some being ten feet in diameter. It was Kittson's theory that if you could make your wheel high enough it would eliminate friction and run of its own momentum. The wheels were made by boring and pinning plank on plank, criss-cross, and then chalking off with a string from the center. Then you sawed out your wheel, and there you were.
The creaking of a train of these ox-carts could be heard five miles. Kittson had the government contract for carrying the mails, and managed, with the help of trading in furs and loading up with merchandise on his own account, to make considerable money.
When Hill was in his twenties he went over the route with Kittson, and made several trips, also, alone with dog-sleds, for his friend, when there was a rush of freight. On one such occasion he had one companion, a half-breed of uncertain character, but who was taken along as a guide, he being familiar with the route. It was midwinter, the snow was heavy and deep, there were no roads, and much of the way led over frozen lakes and along streams. To face the blizzards of that country, alone, at that time required the courage of the seasoned pioneer.
Hill didn't much like the looks of his companion. And after a week out, when the fellow suggested their heading for Lake Superior and dividing their cargo, Hill became alarmed. The man was persistent and inclined to be quarrelsome. Each man had a knife and a rifle. Hill waited until they reached a high ridge. The snow lay dazzling white as far as the eye could reach. The nearest habitation was fifty miles away.
Under pretense of fixing the harness on his dogs, Jim got about forty feet from his man, quickly cocked his rifle and got a bead on the half-breed before the fellow knew what was up. At the word of command the rogue dropped his rifle and held up his hands. The next order was to right-about-face--march! The order was obeyed. A double-quick was ordered, and the half-breed lit out, quickening his pace as he got out of range. Hill then picked up the other rifle, put whip to his dogs, and by night had gone so far that he could not be overtaken. When Jim came back that way a few weeks later, he kept his eye peeled for danger, but he never saw his friend again.
When I heard Mr. Hill relate this story he told it as simply as he might relate how he went out to milk the cows. One of the men present asked, "Didn't you feel sorry for the fellow, to turn him adrift on that frozen plain, without food or fuel?" Mr. Hill hesitated, and then slowly answered: "I thought of that, but preferred to send him adrift rather than kill him, or let him kill me. Anyway he had only some fifty miles to travel to strike an Indian village. When he was there we were a hundred and fifty miles apart. You see I am a mathematician. It is a great joy to figure out what a long distance you are from some folks."
* * * * * * *
In his business of supplying cord-wood to steamboats, Mr. Hill had a partner, grizzled and gray, by the name of Griggs. Griggs was a typical pioneer: he was always moving on. He bought a little stern-wheel steamboat, and shipped its boiler and engine across to Breckenridge, where he had the joy of running the first steamboat, "The Northwest," on the Red River.
Mr. Hill built the second steamboat on the Red River, "The Swallow," on the order of Kittson, who bought the boat as soon as she had shown her ability to run. All the metal used in its making, which of course included engine and boiler, was sent across from Saint Paul. And if the outfit was gotten out of a wrecked Mississippi stern-wheeler, what boots it!
Then it was that Kittson, having also bought the Griggs steamboat, was given the title of Commodore, a distinction which he carried through life.
By this time several things had happened. One was that Hill had brought up to Saint Paul a steamboat-load of coal. This coal was mined near Peoria, on the Illinois River, floated down to the Mississippi, then carried up to Saint Paul. To bring coal to this Newcastle of wood was regarded as deliberate folly.
By this time the Saint Paul and Pacific had gotten a track laid clear through to Breckenridge, so as to connect with Commodore Kittson's steamboats. When Hill first reached Saint Paul, there was no agriculture north of that point. The wheat-belt still lingered around Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin. The fact that seeds can be acclimated, like men and animals, was still in the ether.
The Red River Valley is a wonderfully rich district. Louis Agassiz first mapped it and wrote a most interesting essay on it. Here was a wonderful prehistoric lake, draining to the south through the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, and thence to the Gulf of Mexico. By a volcanic rise of the land on the southern end, centuries ago, the current was turned and ran north, making what we call the Red River, emptying into Lake Winnipeg, which in turn has an outlet into Hudson Bay.
Agassiz came up the Mississippi River on a trip in Eighteen Hundred Sixty-five. The boat he traveled on was one for which James J. Hill was agent. Naturally, it devolved on Hill to show the visitors the sights thereabouts. And among these sights happened to be our friend Kittson, who, full of enthusiasm, offered to pilot the party across to the Red River. They accepted and ascended to Fort Garry. Agassiz, full of scientific enthusiasm, wrote out his theory about the prehistoric lake. And science, now, the world over, calls the Red River Valley, "Lake Agassiz." With Louis Agassiz was his son Alexander, a fine young man with pedagogic bent, headed for his father's place as Curator of the Museum at Harvard.
From Winnipeg the party was supplied an Indian guide, who took them across to Lake Superior. Then it was that Alexander Agassiz saw the wonders of Lake Superior copper and Lake Superior iron. And Harvard lost a professor, but the world gained a multimillionaire. Louis Agassiz had no time to make money, but his son Alexander was not thus handicapped.
The report of Agassiz on the mineral wealth of Lake Superior corroborated Mr. Hill's own opinions of this country, which he had traversed with dog-sleds. Money was scarce, but he, even then, made a small investment in Lake Superior mineral lands, and has been increasing it practically ever since. A recent present to the stockholders of the Great Northern of an iron tract worth many millions of dollars had its germ in that memorable day when James J. Hill met the Agassiz party on the levee in Saint Paul and unconsciously changed their route as planned.
Mr. Hill's experience would seem to prove that life after all is a sequence, and the man who does great work has long been in training for it.
* * * * * * *
There are two ways for a traveling-man to make money: one is to sell the goods, and the other is to work the expense-account.
There are two ways to make money by managing a railroad: one is through service to the people along the line of the road; the other is through working the bondholders.
It was the eventful year of Eighteen Hundred Seventy-six, before James J. Hill really got up steam. He was then thirty-eight years old. He was agent for the Saint Paul and Pacific, and in this capacity he had seen that the road was being run with the idea of making money by milking the bondholders.
The line had been pushed just as long as the bondholders of Holland would put up the money. To keep things going, interest had been paid to the worthy Dutch out of the money they had supplied. Gradually, the phlegmatic ones grew wise, and the purse-strings of the Netherlanders were drawn tight. For hundreds of years Holland had sought a quick Northwest passage to India. Little did she know she was now warm on the trail. Little, also, did Jim Hill know.
The equipment--engines and cars--was borrowed, so when the receiver was appointed he found only the classic streak of rust and right of way. No doubt both of these would have been hypothecated if it were possible.
Mr. Hill knew the Northwest as no other man did, except, possibly, Norman Kittson. He had traversed the country from Saint Paul to Winnipeg on foot, by ox-carts, on horseback, by dog-sledges. He had seen it in all seasons and under all conditions. He knew the Red River Valley would raise wheat, and he knew that the prosperity of old Louis Agassiz meant the prosperity of the railroad that ran between that rich valley and Saint Anthony's Falls, where the great flouring-mills were situated, the center of the flour zone having been shifted from Rochester, New York, to Minneapolis, Minnesota.
To gain possession of the railroad and run it so as to build up the country, and thus prosper as the farmers prospered, was his ambition. He was a farmer by prenatal tendency and by education, a commission man by chance, and a master of transportation by instinct. Every farmer should be interested in good roads, for his problem is quite as much to get his products to market as to raise them. Jim Hill focused on getting farm-products to market. While he was a Canadian by birth, he had now become a citizen of the United States. His old friend, Commodore Kittson, was a Canadian by birth, and never got beyond taking out his first papers. The Winnipeg agent of the Hudson Bay Company was Donald Alexander Smith, a hardy Scotch bur of a man, with many strong and sturdy oatmeal virtues. He had gone with the Hudson Bay Company as a laborer, became a guide, a trader, and then an agent. Hill and Kittson laid before Smith a plan, very plain, very simple. Buy up the bonds of the Saint Paul and Pacific from the Dutch bondholders, foreclose, and own the railroad!
Now, Donald A. Smith's connection with the Hudson Bay Company gave him a standing in Montreal banking circles, and to be trusted by Montreal is to have the ear of London. Donald A. Smith went down to Montreal and laid the plan before George Stephen, Manager of the Bank of Montreal. If the Bank of Montreal endorsed a financial scheme it was a go. Only one thing seemed to lie in the way--the willingness of the bondholders to sell out at a figure which our four Canadians could pay. Mr. Hill was for going to Holland, and interviewing the bondholders, personally. Stephen, more astute in big finance, said, bring them over here. Hill could not fetch them, Kittson couldn't and Donald A. Smith couldn't, because there was no dog-sled line to Amsterdam.
The Bank of Montreal did the trick, and a committee of Dutchmen arrived to look over their Minnesota holdings with a view of selling out. Mr. Hill took them over the line--a dreary waste of slashings, then a wide expanse of prairie broken now and again by scrub-oak and hazel-groves; deep gullies here and there--swamps, sloughs and ponds, with assets of brant, wild geese, ducks and sand-hill cranes.
The road was in bad shape--the equipment worse. An inventory of the actual property was taken with the help of the Dutch Committee. The visiting Hollanders made a report to the bondholders, advising sale of the bonds at an average of about forty per cent of their face-value, which is what the inventory showed.
Our Canadian friends secured an option which gave them time to turn. Farley, the Receiver, was willing. The road was reorganized as the Saint Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railroad. George Stephen was President, Norman Kittson, First Vice-President, Donald A. Smith, Second Vice-President, and James J. Hill, General Manager. And on Mr. Hill fell the burden of turning a losing property into a prosperous and paying one. From the very day that he became manager he breathed into the business the breath of life.
He sent over to England and bought hundreds of young Hereford bulls, and distributed them along the line of the road among the farmers. "Jim Hill's bulls" are pointed out now over three thousand miles of range, and jokes on how Hill bulled the market are always in order. Clydesdale horses were sent out on low prices and long-time payments.
Farm seeds, implements and lumber were put within the reach of any man who really wanted to get on. And lo! the land prospered. The waste places were made green, and the desert blossomed like the rose.
* * * * * * *
The financial blizzard of the year Eighteen Hundred Seventy-three was, without doubt, an important factor in letting down the bars, so that James J. Hill could come to the front. The River Valley at that time was not shipping a bushel of wheat. The settlers were just taking care of their own wants, and were feeding the Lady of the Snows up North around Winnipeg. We now know that the snows of the Lady of the Snows are mostly mythical. She is supplying her own food, and we are looking toward her with envious eyes.
In the year Nineteen Hundred Nine, the two Dakotas and Minnesota produced more than two hundred million bushels of wheat--worth, say, a dollar a bushel. And when wheat is a dollar a bushel the farmers are buying pianolas.
The "Jim Hill Country" east of the Rockies is producing, easily, more than five hundred million dollars a year in food-products that are sent to the East for market.
The first time I saw Mr. Hill was in Eighteen Hundred Eighty. He was surely a dynamo of nervous energy. His full beard was tinged with gray, his hair was worn long, and he looked like a successful ranchman, with an Omar Khayyam bias. That he hasn't painted pictures, like Sir William Van Horne, and thus put that worthy to shame, is to me a marvel.
Hill has been an educator of men. He even supplied Donald A. Smith a few business thrills. "Tomorrow night I intend to entertain the Governor," once said Smith to Hill. "Tomorrow night you will be on the way to Europe to borrow money for me," said Hill. And it was so.
First and foremost, James J. Hill is a farmer. He thinks of himself as following a plow, milking cows, salting steers, shoveling out ear-corn for the pigs. He can lift his voice and call the cattle from a mile away--and does at times. He bought a section of Red River railroad land from himself and put it in his wife's name. The land was swampy, covered with swale, and the settlers had all passed it up as worthless. Mr. Hill cut the swale, tiled the land, and grew a crop that put the farmers to shame. He then started a tile-factory in the vicinity, and sold it to the managers--two young fellows from the East--as soon as they proved that they had the mental phosphorus and the commercial jamake.
The agricultural schools have always interested Mr. Hill. That which brings a practical return and makes men self-supporting and self-reliant is his eternal hobby. Four years in college is to him too much. "You can get what you want in a year, or not at all," he says. He has sent hundreds of farmers' boys to the agricultural colleges for short terms. Imagine what this means to boys who have been born on a farm and have never been off it--to get the stimulus of travel, lectures, books, and new sights and scenes! In this work, often the boys did not know who their benefactor was. The money was supplied by some man in the near-by town--that was all. These boys, inoculated at Mr. Hill's expense with the education microbe, have often been a civilizing leaven in new communities in the Dakotas, Montana and Washington. In Eighteen Hundred Eighty-eight the Saint Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba became a part of the Great Northern.
Hill had reached out beyond the wheat country into the arid zone, which was found to be not nearly so arid as we thought. The Black Angus and the White-Faced Herefords followed, and where once were only scattering droves of skinny pintos, now were to be seen shaggy-legged Shire horses, and dappled Percherons.
The bicycle had come and also the trolley-car, and Calamity Jake prophesied that horses would soon be valuable only for feeding Frenchmen. But Jacob was wrong. Good horses steadily increased in value. And today, in spite of automobiles and aeroplanes, the prices of horses have aviated. Jim Hill's railroads last year hauled over three hundred thousand horses out of Montana to the Eastern States.
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The clothes that a man wears, the house that he builds for his family, and the furnishings that he places therein, are all an index of his character. Mr. Hill's mansion on Summit Avenue, Saint Paul, was built to last a thousand years. The bronze girder that supports the staircase is strong enough to hold up a locomotive.
The house is nearly two hundred feet long, but looks proportionate, from the Art-Gallery with its fine pictures and pipe-organ at one end, to its rich leather-finished dining-room at the other. It is of brownstone--the real Fifth Avenue stuff. Fond du Lac stone is cheaper and perhaps just as good, but it has the objectionable light-colored spots.
Nothing but the best will do for Hill. The tallest flagpole that can pass the curves of the mountains between Puget Sound and Saint Paul graces the yard. The kitchen is lined with glazed brick, so that a hose could be turned on the walls; the laundry-room has immense drawers for indoor drying of clothes; no need to open a single window for ventilation, as air from above is forced inside over ice-chambers in Summer and over hot-water pipes in Winter.
Mr. Hill is a rare judge of art, and has the best collection of "Barbizons" in America. Any one can get from his private secretary, J. J. Toomey, a card of admission. As early as Eighteen Hundred Eighty-one, Mr. Hill had in his modest home on Ninth Street, Saint Paul, several "Corots." Mr. Hill is fond of good horses, and has a hundred or so of them on his farm of three thousand acres, ten miles north of Saint Paul.
Some years ago, while President of the Great Northern Railway, he drove night and morning in Summertime to and from his farm to his office. He very often walks to his house on Summit Avenue or takes a street-car. He is thoroughly democratic, and may be seen almost any day walking from the Great Northern Railway office engaged in conversation with one or more; and no matter how deeply engrossed or how important the subject in hand, he never fails to greet with a nod or a smile an acquaintance. He knows everybody, and sees everything.
Mr. Hill knows more about farming than any other man I ever met. He raises hogs and cattle, has taken prizes for fat cattle at the Chicago show, and knows more than anybody else today as to the food-supply of the world--yes, and of the coal and timber supply, too. He has formed public opinion on these matters, and others, by his able contributions to various magazines.
Seattle has erected a monument to James J. Hill, and Saint Paul and Minneapolis will, I know, erelong be only too glad to do something in the same line, only greater.
Just how any man will act under excitement is an unknown quantity. When the Omaha Railway General Offices in Saint Paul took fire, at the first alarm E. W. Winter, then General Manager, ran for the stairway, emerging on the street. Then he bawled up to his clerk on the second floor excitedly, "Charlie, bring down my hat!" But his clerk, young Fuller, with more presence of mind, was then at the telephone sending in word to the fire-department. Everybody got out safely, even to the top floor, but the building was destroyed.
One night about ten o'clock, the St. P., M. & M. Ry. offices at Saint Paul caught fire. The smoke penetrated the room where Mr. Hill with his Secretary, Will Stephens, was doing some work after all others had departed. They had paid no attention to the alarm of fire, but the smell of smoke started them into action. Young Stephens hurriedly carried valued books and papers to the vault, while Mr. Hill with the strength of a giant grasped a heavy roll-top desk used by A. H. Bode, Comptroller, pushed it to the wall, and threw it bodily out of the second-story window. The desk was shattered to fragments and the hoodlums grabbed on to the contents. No harm was done to the railway office, save discoloring the edges of some documents. The next morning when Bode, all unconscious of fire or accident, came to work, Edward Sawyer, the Treasurer, said jokingly, "Bode, you may consider yourself discharged, for your desk is in the street."
When Conductor McMillan sold his farm in the valley for ten thousand dollars, he asked Mr. Hill what he should do with the money. "Buy Northern Securities," was the answer. He did so and saw them jump one-third. Frank Moffatt was Mr. Hill's Secretary for some years. Frank now has charge of the Peavey Estate. C. D. Bentley, now a prominent insurance man of Saint Paul, a friend of Frank's, used to visit him in Mr. Hill's private office. Mr. Hill caught him there once and said, "Young man if I catch you here again I'll throw you out of the window." Bentley thought he meant it, so he kept away in the future. He told the story once in my presence, when Mr. Hill was also present. Mr. Hill bought red lemonade for the bunch. A porter on his private car was foolish enough to ask him at Chicago once at what hour the train returned. That porter had all day to look for another job, and Mr. Hill's secretary provided another porter at once. Mr. Hill can not overlook incompetency or neglect. Colonel Clough engineered Northern Securities; M. D. Grover, attorney for the Great Northern Railway, said it would not work. Grover was the brightest attorney the road ever had. When the scheme failed, Grover never once said, "I told you so," and Mr. Hill sent him a check for a thousand dollars, over and above his salary.
Colonel Clough was employed at a salary of fifteen thousand dollars, some years before his real work began. He came from the Northern Pacific. Mr. Hill, when asked by a leading official of that road what he thought of the Colonel, replied, "Huh! he's a good man to file contracts."
Mr. Hill said of Allan Manvel, then General Manager of his road, "He may make a man some day." Mr. Hill grew faster than any man about him. He distanced them all. S. S. Breed was Treasurer of the old Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad. His signature in a bold, fine hand adorned all the bonds of that road, held mostly by the Dutch. He was made auditor when the St. P., M. & M. Ry. was formed.
Breed had reached his point of greatest efficiency, but that did not suffice Mr. Hill, who said to him more than once, for Breed was an old-timer and well liked, "If you can't do the work I'll have to get some one who can." Mr. Hill, however, neither fired the old man, nor reduced his pay. Breed got work up to his death in the Great Northern Railway office, but at the last he served as a guide for strangers.
Breed was supplanted by Bode as Comptroller, followed by C. H. Warren and then by Farrington--all three Big Boys.
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About Eighteen Hundred Eighty-nine, Mr. Hill gave an address at a banquet in the Merchants' Hotel, Saint Paul. With a large map of the United States and Canada on the wall, he took a huge pair of dividers or compasses and putting one leg of the dividers on the map at Saint Paul, he swung the other leg out southeast fifteen hundred miles as the crow flies, into the ocean off the Carolina Coast. Then with Saint Paul still as a center he swung the compasses around to the northwest fifteen hundred miles. "All this country," he said, "is within the wheat-belt." The leg of the compasses went beyond Edmonton in Alberta. Last year this new Canadian country produced more than one hundred million bushels of wheat, and this is only the beginning.
Mr. Hill has always maintained that to call cotton king is a misnomer. Cotton never was king. Wheat is king, for food is more important than raiment.
Wheat is the natural food of man. The civilization of ancient Greece was built upon the Nile Valley wheat. It is the one complete, perfect, vegetable food. It contains all the elements necessary to the making of the human body. The supply of wheat is the arterial blood that makes this world of ours do something. Without wheat we would languish--go quickly to seed, as China has.
Saint Paul and Minneapolis lie at the head of navigation on the Mississippi River--a little less than two thousand miles by water from the Gulf and about the same distance from Puget Sound tidewater by rail.
These cities are in the middle of the wheat-belt. To this point came Mr. Hill, a green country youth.
Transportation was his theme, and transportation of wheat has been the foundation of his success. Wheat is of more importance to us than anything else--than gold or cotton or coal or timber or iron.
Mr. Hill carries all these over his railroads. The Great Northern Railway, the Northern Pacific, and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy--over twenty thousand miles of track--are in the hollow of his hand.
He directs, controls, even to minute details, this great transportation system. His seventy-fifth birthday was celebrated a year ago last September. Still he fails not. He has given up the Presidency of the Great Northern Railway, retaining, however, the title, "Chairman of the Board." But we all know that his hand is felt just the same in every part of the working of these miles of track.
Rareripes rot. But the man who comes into his own late in life has a sense of values and trains on. Mr. Hill does not ask for taffy on a stick. And while he prizes friendship, the hate or praise of those for whose opinions he has little respect are to him as naught. No one need burn the social incense before him in a warm desire to reach his walletosky. He judges quickly, and his decisions are usually right and just. It isn't time yet to write his biography. Too many men are alive who have been moved, pushed and gently jostled out of the way by him, as he forged to the front. Perspective is required in order to get rid of prejudice. But the work of James J. Hill is dedicated to time; and Clio will eventually write his name high on her roster as a great modern prophet, a creator, a builder. Pericles built a city, but this man made an empire. Smiling farms, thriving schools, busy factories and happy homes sprang into being in the sunlight of prosperity which he made possible, and as yet the wealth of the "Hill Country" is practically untapped.
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SO HERE ENDETH "LITTLE JOURNEYS TO THE HOMES OF GREAT BUSINESSMEN," BEING VOLUME ELEVEN OF THE SERIES, AS WRITTEN BY ELBERT HUBBARD: EDITED AND ARRANGED BY FRED BANN; BORDERS AND INITIALS BY ROYCROFT ARTISTS, AND PRODUCED BY THE ROYCROFTERS, AT THEIR SHOPS, WHICH ARE IN EAST AURORA, ERIE COUNTY, NEW YORK, MCMXXII.
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