Railroad executive, James J. Hill

by Howard Lestrud
ECM Online Managing Editor
If you happen to be somewhat of a history buff, you surely have heard of James J. Hill of St. Paul. He was a railroad executive, serving as a chief executive officer of a family of lines headed by the Great Northern Railway, which served a substantial area of the Upper Midwest, the northern Great Plains, and Pacific Northwest.
The James J. Hill House located on Summit Ave. is a historical gem that many Minnesota residents and visitors to Minnesota put on their tour map. Meet Hill at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Jerome_Hill
A special Irish Heritage Day at the Hill House is planned from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 12 and from 1-4 p.m. Sunday, March 13 at the James J. Hill House located at 240 Summit Ave., St. Paul. Tours cost $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and college students and $5 for children 6-17. Those under five and Minnesota Historical Society members are free.
Find out more about the Irish day at the Hill house by going to http://events.mnhs.org/media/events/index.cfm?ID=4183&searchType=event
Mary Theresa Mehegan’s parents came from Ireland to the United States, eventually locating in St. Paul in 1850. At the age of 21 Mary wed James J. Hill, an up-and-coming young man of Scotch-Irish stock who had come to St. Paul from Rockwood, Ontario.
Though proudly American, Mary retained attachments to Irish values and culture.
These special Irish-themed tours will include Irish music played on the home’s restored pipe organ, lace-making demonstrations, and information about the Mehegan and Hill families’ ancestral roots in Ireland. Stories of the Hills and their servants (many of them Irish) will engage visitors in the history of Irish-Americans in Minnesota.
The Hill House Chamber Players celebrate their 25th anniversary season with three pairs of concerts in the restored art gallery of the James J. Hill House. House tours are available following each concert. Co-sponsored by the Schubert Club.  The concerts are set for 7 p.m. at the Hill House on Monday, March 7 and Monday, March 14. Cost is $17 for adults, $12 for students and $15 for MHS members and Schubert Club subscribers. For more information, call 651-297-2555.
The Hill House Chamber Players, who are variously members of the Minnesota Orchestra and the University of Minnesota and Hamline University faculty, are: Rees Allison; piano; Julie Ayer, violin; Cathy Schubilski, violin; Thomas Turner, viola; Tanya Remenikova, cello; and Jeffrey Van; guitar.
The program for March includes Bach Trio Sonata in G Major; Boccherini Guitar Quintet in E Minor; Corelli Trio Sonata Op 1; and Schubert String Quartet, in G Minor.
Let’s find out more about James J. Hill by going to http://www.mnhs.org/places/sites/jjhh/history/hill.htm
Let’s read: At the end of his life, James J. Hill was asked by a newspaper reporter to reveal the secret of his success. Hill responded with characteristic bluntness, “Work, hard work, intelligent work, and then more work.”
Hill became a pivotal force in the transformation of the Northwest as his railroad served as the backbone of white American settlement, agricultural development, and commercial expansion.
Born in southern Ontario in 1838, Hill began his career in transportation in 1856 as a 17- year-old clerk on the St. Paul levee. After 20 years working in the shipping business on the Mississippi and Red Rivers, Hill and several other investors purchased the nearly bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in 1878.
Over the next two decades, he worked relentlessly to push the line north to Canada and then west across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Renamed the Great Northern Railway in 1890, it remained the “great adventure” of Hill’s life. “When we are all dead and gone,” he said, “the sun will still shine, the rain will fall, and this railroad will run as usual.”
Hill pursued a broad range of other business interests: coal and iron ore mining, Great Lakes and Pacific Ocean shipping, banking and finance, agriculture and milling. In later years, he explained his economic philosophy in the book Highways of Progress and continued the campaign to convert the farmers of the Northwest to the principles of scientific agriculture.
After amassing a personal fortune estimated at $63 million, James J. Hill died in his Summit Avenue home on May 29, 1916, one of the wealthiest and most powerful figures of America’s Gilded Age.
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In a sense the Hill House has become more popular than the man. Go to http://www.mnhs.org/places/sites/jjhh/history/house.htm
Read about the Hill House: The firm of Peabody, Stearns, and Furber designed a simple, forceful, and direct house in the massive Richardsonian Romanesque style.
Hill oversaw the planning, construction, and furnishing of the house as if it were a new branch of the railroad. He rejected stained-glass window designs by Tiffany and Company, saying they were “anything but what I want,” and even replaced the architects when they ignored his orders to the stonecutters. He engaged Boston firm Irving and Casson to finish the interiors.
Completed in 1891, the mansion was the largest and most expensive home in Minnesota. It contained 36,000 square feet on five floors including 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces, 16 crystal chandeliers, a two-story skylit art gallery, a 100-foot reception hall, and a profusion of elaborately carved oak and mahogany woodwork.
Sophisticated technical systems throughout the mansion provided central heating, gas and electric lighting, plumbing, ventilation, security, and communication. The final cost totaled $931,275.01 including construction, furnishings, and landscaping for the three-acre estate.
The home served as the center for the public and private lives of the Hill family for the next 30 years. Mary T. Hill maintained the house after Hill’s death in 1916 until her own death five years later. In 1925, family members purchased the mansion from the estate and presented it to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul. For the next half century the structure served as an office building, school, and residence for the church. The Hill House was acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1978. Recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1961, the James J. Hill House recalls the powerful era of the Northwest’s “Empire Builder.”

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