Picture of James Jerome Hill: Empire Builder (MP3 download)

James Jerome Hill: Empire Builder (MP3 download)

By Talbot Manvel


The American railroad industry was reviled by the Left as one of the worst abusers of the free enterprise system. One of the major arguments for government regulation of the railroads was that they were built with federal funds. Although that claim is greatly exaggerated, one railroad, the Great Northern, was built without a penny of federal money.

The story of the Great Northern Railway is the story of James Jerome Hill, a young man from Canada who settled in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1856 and bought a delinquent land-grant railroad in 1878, the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, and turned it into a great transcontinental railroad, the Great Northern Railway, by 1893. Hill spent his boyhood in Ontario, Canada, where he learned the skills that proved so valuable to a young man on the frontier. Hill eventually journeyed to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he plunged into the rough and tumble affairs of that frontier city. In St. Paul, the only place Hill called home, he found the love of his life, Mary Mehegan, married her and together they raised a family of ten. Hill became a successful shipping agent, trading all sorts of goods and was associated with two men of the Hudson Bay Company who later would help Hill become a railroad man. Hill and his associates bought the bankrupt St. Paul & Pacific Railroad and turned it into a vibrant railroad line, supporting the people of Minnesota and the Red River Valley. His carefully planned but very long rail extension across North Dakota and Montana, labeled by an ignorant press as "Hill's Folly," tied the mineral-rich region of the Montana Rockies with the fertile Red River Valley. There is the heroic discovery of the Marias Pass by one of Hill's competent lieutenants, and the final struggle to the Pacific Ocean over the Cascade Mountains.

The railroad builder constantly improved his railroads while also investing his own money and resources to help farmers improve their production of agricultural goods shipped on his railroad. Also, there is the story of the "Battle of the Titans" on Wall Street in 1901, when a railroad stock price leaped from $170 to $1,000 a share in one day. James Jerome Hill traded value for value and built a transcontinental railroad to the Pacific. He built slowly, but profitably, across a desolate, inhospitable region and turned it into the prosperous American Northwest of a million and half people, a feat that earned him the title "Empire Builder."

This talk was recorded at the 2007 Objectivist Summer Conference in Telluride, CO.

(MP3 download; 75 min., with Q & A, 54.18 MB)