James J. Hill, Railroad Magnate

GEORGE C. PORTER July 1 1906

James J. Hill, Railroad Magnate

GEORGE C. PORTER July 1 1906

James J. Hill, Railroad Magnate


During the past few months Canada has been stirred by the announcement that James J. Hill would build a fourth railroad from Winnipeg to the Coast, through the western provinces, without any subsidy from the Dominion Government or the issuing of any bonds About the time of this announcement Mr. Hill afforded Mr. Porter, of the Winnipeg Telegram, the rare apportunity of an interview, and the result is the following self-told story of his life, which appeared on May 12 in the Winnipeg paper.

LIKE a page from fiction reads the story of James J. Hill’s rise from obscurity to opulence. “How to become a millionaire, or my progress from a Canadian farm to command of the greatest railroad combination in North America,” would be a very faithful title for the entertaining personal reminiscence furnished by Mr. Hill. For the first time during his busy career, in which he met and mastered such keen intellects as J. Pierpont Morgan,, John W. Gates, Jay Gould, Russell Sage and other satellites of the great world of finance and railroading, Mr. Hill has consented to make public some of the rules, as lie calls them, by which he advanced up fajne’s ladder, but the acquisition of fabulous wealth is one thing, and the practical use of those millions for the employment of hundreds of thousands of individuals is another. James J. Hill is one of the great captains of industry who has solved both problems,. Having reared one of the most colossal industrial fabrics in modern history, covering an empire

with transportation facilities, giving profitable employment to mpre than 100,000 men, involving combined capital exceeding $500,000,000, he quits the exciting game long enough to tell his life story.

The heights to which James J. Hill ’s genius has carried him have not made him forget his Canadian nativity nor dimmed his recollection of early battles with adversity around Rock wood, Ont.

In consenting to mention the elements which he conceived had contributed most to his success, Mr. Hill said he was moved largely by the hope that his experience might be the source from which some of the young people of the Dominion could draw their inspirations to mount the ladder of life. The versatile mind that created the Northern Securities Company evidently still clings fondly to the memory of those days¡ between 1838-58 when as a ragged boy the young Canadian was laboriously moulding the foundation upon which his great fortune was to be constructed.

Sitting in his gigantic office building, looking about upon a, network of steel rails, over which the traffic from all parts of the world was streaming in obedience to his direction, the railroad king turned back the pages of his life history and dwelt with apparent satisfaction for an hour upon those days when lie was so poor arid so happy. He traced his way from the farm to the little old Quaker school ko use, the country store, across into the United States to more days of toil on the farm, and then to the unknown west, where he wended his way, without a cent, to woo Dame Fortune with such dazzling success.

The strong features of the railroad dictator softened as lie revived those spirits of the past, lie smiled in recollection of boyish pranks, and his great, piercing eyes were half-closed as the entertaining story was concluded. James J. Hill's reverie was rudely disturbed by the roar and whir of one of his great limited trains from the Pacific slope, as it steamed out through the yards. He roso from his chair, his countenance again assumed that alert expression so characteristic of the man and the picture of the Canadian farm boy had given place to the president of the Northern Securities Company and the most influential force in the affairs of western railroads of the day.

Briefly, Mr. Hill asserts that conditions to-day present more opportunities for young Canadians to acquire millions than when he carved out his fortune, that, in his estimation, the western hemisphere is entering upon an era of prosperity, in comparison with which the big things of the industrial’ world during the past decade will be the merest pigmiesv and that no boy need feel that

he is required to seek his fortune beyond the confines of this Dominion, since, in his judgment, Canada will be the centre of the industrial wave for some years to come,

“Give some rules which have governed me in my life work? I can’t say that I have any rules. I attribute it all to work and a measure of good luoik,” arid Mr. Hiill smiled, as» if he did not take the “good luck” feature seriously.

“Let me see; this thing of laying down a set of rules to govern one’s career, or to run back over a lifetime of hard knocks, and say just what rule contributed to my good fortune is not easy for me. In the first place I was born on a farm—a Canadian farm. That was in 1838. This is a good beginning, for it means a sound body as a rule.

In other words it starts a

chap right. That’s about half of the battle; I might say it is everything, because a bad start means a big handicap in the race. But as far as rules go, I would say that those that have helped me to succeed are;

“Work, hard work, intelligent work, and then more work.

“A sound body and a sound mind; I had both of these, though I left school when fourteen and a half years old and never got time to see inside a school house again. An education, however, is indispensable. I do not mean necessarily college training. An education comes frequently with contact with the world; studying conditions, life as you see it.

“Don’t mortgage your future. Practically, have an eve to securing the benefits of what you earn. Look ahead to the point where you are determined to get into business for yourself. If you are not worth your hire you cannot be hired, and if you

can earn money for another you can earn money for yourself.

“Be satisfied to start in a small way. Too many young men want to begin to pile on before the foundatijon is finished, and what they accumulate they cannot retain. A. slow beginning makes a permanent business.

“Be economical, but not penurious. This is not a distinction without a difference. It is the difference between the mind built on the broad gauge and the narrow. It is the difference between great things and small things; between boundless success that sheds a generous share of its prosperity on the whole community and a meagre competency, that distinguishes the miser from the man of affairs.

“Have confidence in your own future and conditions generally. Men prefer the optimist to the pessimist. The bright side of things is a view that helps a chap forward. Even if the worsjt occurs, a person has more strength to meet it from having taken a complacent view of the situation. When a fellow7 has put forth hisj best efforts, been thoroughly alert, done the best he could, lie has no room for worry.

“The selection of a vocation is quite important. My experience is that those things are largely matters of chance. I don’t think I ever expected as a young man to get into the railroad business. Having chosen a profession, I do not think a young man is warranted in sticking to it ivhen he feels that he is not fitted for it, or that he sees a better opportunity to acquire wealth in another direction. I was first a farmer, then a merchant’s clerk, then a farmer, a laborer, a clerk, a builder of steamboats, a constructor of rail-

roads ag a sub-contractor, and then stockholder and owner. So, again comes the question of confidence in one’s ability to discern that which is best for him and to strive for that regardless of opposition. In other words, it is; the confidence that enables the young man to take risks without which great things can never be accomplished.

“Perhaps you might accept these outlines as the rules which I have observed through life. The young man should not make the mistake to-day of imagining that conditions are not ,as favourable as at any time in the past century for the poor boy acquiring wealth. The world is in its infancy, especially the -western world. Industrial development is just beginning. Agriculture, mining, contracting, shipping, railroading, land speculating, mercantile life and manufacturing offer every inducement for the ambitious youth to-day to become a man of millions. Money is so plentiful that a determined boy of worth can borrow7 all he needs. Bankers accept the element of prospects in lending money asi well as ability to pay, and there is no more promising prospect of a monetary value than youth, ambition and grit, backed by western intelligence. Therefore, tile way is, if anything, more easy; that is, the way to the top. The real struggle is at the bottom. T.lieie is where the ranks are crowded. The fight is very fierce there. When you begin to get away from the crowd it is easier. You pass .many commercial derelicts, failures and wreaks of men along the way, but the great trouble is in getting started up. Everything seems to contribute to hold a man down until he starts, then everything turns to boost him

up after he has secured a start. That is the way of the world.

“My father’s farm was located four miles south of Rockwood, Ont., Canada. Jamesi Dunbar Hill, my father, was not very prosperous. The farm was not very fertile, and my early experience was that of a very little boy on a big farm. I recall that my father frequently remarked that he could trace our family tree back sixteen generations through Scotland and Ireland. To this I attribute my mental and physical vigor. I had to walk four miles to the Quaker Academy at Rockwood. The average boy to-day would think this a mighty hard way to get an education, and it was. One winter,, arrangements were made by which, I remained in Rockwood. I paid part of my tuition by doing chores* around the little odd academy. I don’t think I studied any harder than any other 14-year-old boy, but I had much work to do.

“Then the exigencies of my family required me to begin to make a return for my living. That was in the spring of 1853, and I began to clerk in a general store at the crossroads. I continued this employment, occasionally varying it with a little work on the farm, until I was 19 years old. I was dissatistfied, and yet. when I look back to those days it was very pleasant. Altogether, life is always pleasant in youth, little matter the conditions, But I had concluded to go to the United States.

“I made up my mind that I would have a better chance in the Western States, which were then just beginning to attract settlers. Perhaps I might have done just as well in Canada, but I did not think so. Others remained there and prospered. I have many relations to-dav around

Guelph. I had not saved sufficient money to make the trip west, so I went over to Syracuse, N. Y., and worked for a few months on a farm. That was the spring of 1858. It was July 4 of that year I started west. I can never forget that day, for it was a big day in my life and also a big day in the life of the American Republic—their independence day.

“When I reached St. Paul, a week later, I practically had not a dollar to my name and knew not a single individual here. This was the outpost of civilization in the northwest them I liked it, and I enjoyed particularly, the rough, cordial welcome the westerners gave all newcomers.

“My progress was mighty slow for ten years. It consisted of some rough experience. I was without what is known as a “trade,” and this was against me. I was forced to do manual labor. Still, I mingled with rough and ready people, and it sharpened my wits. That was my matriculation into the western college of life and my education was rapid and thorough. When I wa^ handling baggagt as a railroad employe in those days, I cannot say that I ever expected to own a railroad. I did intend, however, not to work for another man all my life, though I believe I wo ilk harder to-day than I did then. Then, at least, I had no cares if my wages were sjmall. With increased income came additional burdens. I became a shipbuilder in a small wray. This was my introduction into the transportation world,

“My hours of work? Well, I try to work as much as I can, as I have a good many things to look after. Of course, I don’t get up like I used to on the farm before daylight, though I see many stories to that ef-

feet. I rise at 7 o’clock. I can’t sleep after that, and I get around to my office about 9 o’clock. Sometimes I get away by 5 o’clock and sometimes not until midnight. That just depends.

“But Canadian boys should make up their minds that they have as fine opportunities at home to-day for getting rich as anywhere in the world. I have some thirty Canadians here in my general offices-, and young Canada is spreading out a good deal, but it is usually easier to acquire fortune in a new country than an old, and, in a sense, Western Canada is a new country. That is the centre of great enterprise at present. Great fortunes are to be made there in the next decade. My final advice to the young men of the country of my nativity is to be alert, keep abreast of the times and grasp Opportunity when he passes, holding on to him firmly. Prepare yourself to recognize him when you see him, too. That is quite important. Learn this lesson well.”

Mr. Hill’s handsome residence overlooking the Mississippi River is one of the interesting sights of St. Paul. The busy man has found time to fill it with a rare collection of paintings, relics of his travels, and the choicest productions of the artists of many countries. The president of the Great Northern railroad i^ said to have fear of cyclones, whose devastating work he has witnessed more than once in the west. He has constructed his residence therefore somewhat after the fashion of some of the great bridges on his roads—a ground work of steel, anchored to great beeffi of cement, around which hist splendid home is built.

President Hill has an eye single

always to advancing merit, even though he at the same time advances his own inteiests. It is something like the rules that Carnegie applied in business. It is related that he had more than once observed the enormous expense of his different roads for the long lines of rubber hose used at nearly every station for filling tanks of cars, sprinkling lawns and kindred work. He bought an improved quality of hose, but the dragging of the line over the platform surface usually wore it out in a short time. Away out on a mountain division, at a small station, he observed a day laborer filling the tank of a dining car with a piece of hose, around which was wrapped an old piece of telegraph wire, coil-like. He asked the man what that was for.

“To allow me to drag it around without destroying it,” was the reply.

The mystery was solved, and the invention slaved the company thousands of dollars annually. The laborer is now one of the chief mechanical men on the Great Northern.

The president of the big railroad is too alert to let anything escape him. Examining the operating expense account, he noted the increased consumption of coal on the engines. He figured down the average quantity of coal consumed by each engine, and posted a bulletin offering each engine crew half of the value of all coal they could save monthly under this established average. Each engine had its separate account. The first year the company divided with the men some $30,000. Now it is an established rule, each side profiting.

’ Not long ago, some five years, in a wreck, a conductor, who had been a medical student, saved the lives of

two passengers who were bleeding to death, by the simple process of tying a handkerchief around their lace ratarms, making a windlass of a stick and twisting it around until the hemorrhage ceased. The president .rewarded thjej man, and at once, required the conductors and the enginemen of the entire system to tallm a course in “first aid to the wounded,” which the company instituted. Now, when a passenger gets hurt on his lines Mr. Hill knows he has always present several experienced men to render immediate aid until the surgeons can arrive. The company spent $50,000 establishing this system, For every life thus saved the company reaps a reward in avoiding damage suits, to say nothing of preserving human life.

President Hill is always intensely interested in the development of the country through which his lines pass. He figures that he may carry the

freight of any manufacturing industry on his line, therefore he aids in every practical way these industries. He has a “promotion” department, which receives all communications addressed to him on the subject of aid, saw mills, factories, etc. This department supplies literature of a highly inteie,sting character on short notice, touching the resources of the northwest.

President James J. Hill is a powerfully-built man. His enormous head is set off by massive shoulders. He probably weighs 210 pounds. His eyes, of most piercing brightness^, are abnormally large, and are shaded by shaggy brows. Sixty-five years of age, his style of wearing his beard and hair give him rather the appearance of greater age. He speaks with the greatest deliberation, his mental restlessness being apparent in the quick movement of his. head from side to side during conversation.

High excellence of character and achievement are the result of accumulated excellencies in so-called minor things. One who, on common days, amid the humdrum and the frequent nerve-taxing experiences that accompany the daily task, can keep his temper equable, his inner life unspotted, his loftiest ideals undimmcd, and his steps towards the goal of his life unslackened, is weaving into the fabric of his character qualities of abiding beauty and masterly strength.—Don O. Shelton.