James J. Hill House, 240 Summit Avenue, Saint Paul, Minnesota

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James J. Hill House

Exterior 2001
Gate House 2001
Address: 240 Summit Avenue
Neighborhood/s: Summit Hill, Saint Paul, Minnesota
Saint Paul, Minnesota
Ramsey County, Minnesota
State/province: Minnesota
Country: United States
Year built: 1889
Current Function: Museum
Material of Exterior Wall Covering: Sandstone
Material of Roof: None Listed
Material of Foundation: None Listed
First Owner: James J. Hill

Summit Hill Saint Paul Ramsey

James J. Hill House, 240 Summit Avenue, Saint Paul, Minnesota
(44.945117° N, 93.109014° WLatitude: 44°56′42.421″N
Longitude: 93°6′32.45″W
National Register of Historic Places Information
Certification date: October 15, 1966
Level of significance: National
Primary Style: Richardsonian Romanesque

James J. Hill (1838-1916) was one of the major entrepreneurs in the early history of the state. His home is the largest residence on Summit Avenue and one of the largest private dwellings in the state. It was designed by nationally prominent Boston architects, Peabody and Stearns. The house was built at a cost of $931,000. The 42 rooms include a skylit art gallery, a pipe organ, 22 fireplaces, and 13 bathrooms. The interiors feature cut-glass chandeliers, stained glass windows, a gold leaf ceiling in the dining room, and extensive carved oak and mahogany. The Hill family lived in the house for 30 years and in 1925 family members donated the house to the Archdiocese of St. Paul. The building was used as a school and office until 1978 when it was given to the Minnesota Historical Society. It is now open as a multiple-use historic house museum offering tours, educational programs, concerts, art exhibitions, meeting and event space.



When the Hill House was donated to the Archdiocese, I believe it was first used as the Archbishop's home, and later as a teacher's college. When I was a young girl, probably eight years old, I knocked on the door. One of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet answered. I asked if I could see her house and she invited me in. I was escorted through the first floor of the building. There was a chapel at the west end. There was also a grotto in the back of the house on the hill, honoring the Virgin Mary. It was most likely removed when the MN Historical Society aquired the property. Being so young, I didn't realize the significance of being invited into the J.J. Hill House.


65}px This place is part of the
Summit Avenue Tour

65}px This place is part of the
Historic Hill District


NYTimes Obituary

May 30, 1916

OBITUARY J. J. Hill Dead In St. Paul Home At The Age of 77


ST. PAUL, May 29--James J. Hill, builder of the "Northwest Empire," died at 9:30 A.M. today at his house, 240 Summit Avenue.

In his room, in the southeast corner on the second floor of the brownstone house, overlooking the city to which he came sixty years ago as a clerk, the end came. His age, 77 years, was a handicap in combating the hemorrhoidal infection, which dates from May 17.

At the bedside were the children, hastily summoned from homes throughout the nation, the only member of the immediate family not present being Mrs. Anson M. Beard of New York. Kneeling at the bed, her hands clasping the hand of the man whose wife and helpmate she had been since 1867, was Mrs. Hill. Near by was the Rev. Thomas J. Gibbons, Vicar General of the Catholic Diocese of St. Paul, Mr. Hill having for years been on intimate terms with the clergy here, though not a member of the Church to which his wife belongs.

Dr. Hermann M. Biggs, who was called into consultation during the last illness of the financier, was the only physician present as the end approached. Drs. William F. and Charles H. Mayo had gone; there was no more they could do.

John J. Toomey, Mr. Hill's confidential business agent for many years, left the Hill residence twenty minutes after his chief died. Shortly afterward came Ralph Budd, assistant to Louis W. Hill, President of the Great Northern. Then came Louis W. Hill. The latter walked between the Rev. Father Gibbons and George A. MacPherson, intimate friend of the family. Grief, showing plainly in the faces of all the men, was most poignant in the face of the son, Louis, who will take up the generalship of the interests his father built and husbanded.

The funeral will be held at his Summit Avenue home at 2 P.M. Wednesday. Interment will be in a private mausoleum to be erected at North Oaks, long the Summer home of the empire builder.

The general public will not have an opportunity formally to pay tributes to the leading citizen of the Northwest, but Mr. Hill's associates and the faithful employes who made possible his great achievements will be admitted to the house to view the body before the funeral services. The family statement includes a request that no flowers be sent. The Rev. Thomas J. Gibbons, vicar general of the Catholic diocese of St. Paul, who attended Mr. Hill during his last few hours, will officiate at the funeral.

The family statement was as follows:

St. Paul, Minn., May 29, 1916

Mr. Hill passed away very peacefully after several hours of unconsciousness. All the members of the immediate family were present except one daughter, Mrs. Anson Beard, who will arrive tonight, and one grandson, James N.B. Hill, son of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Hill, who will arrive from Cambridge tomorrow.

Vicar General Gibbons attended Mr. Hill during his last hours, and will officiate at the funeral services at the house and also at the grave. The public services will be held at the residence, 240 Summit Avenue, 2 P.M. Wednesday. Interment will be in private at North Oaks, where a family mausoleum or memorial chapel will probably be built.

Following the simplicity which the family know would be the desire of Mr. Hill, the request is made that no flowers or floral offerings be sent to the house. Tuesday at 2 P.M., at the residence, an opportunity will be given the veteran employes and the other employes of the Great Northern Railroad Company to pay their respects and take a last farewell of their old employer.

All afternoon telegrams continued to pour in from all parts of the country with expressions of condolence for the family.

The active pallbearers will be M. R. Brown, private secretary to J. J. Hill; Ralph Budd, assistant to the President, Great Northern Railway Company; C. W. Gordon, President Gordon & Ferguson Co.; J. M. Gruber, Vice President Great Northern Railway Company; W. P. Kenny, Vice President Great Northern Railway Company; Theodore Schulze, President Foot, Schulze & Co.; P. L. Howe, Minneapolis; G. A. MacPherson, intimate friend of the Hill family; J. J. Toomey, official of the Great Northern Railway and the First National Bank, and Charles Maitland, for twenty-five years a coachman in the Hill family.

At the announcement of the death of Mr. Hill Governor Burnquist ordered the flags at the Capitol placed at half mast, to remain so until after the funeral. This is said to be the first time that such deference has been shown a private citizen in the State.

"In the passing of James J. Hill the greatest constructive genius of the Northwest is gone," Governor Burnquist said. "He was acknowledged as its foremost railroad builder and business man, but his unparalleled ability appeared in many other fields of endeavor. He was ever greatly interested in agriculture, art, and education. His great and numerous gifts, especially to his city and to various institutions of learning, show his philanthropic spirit. The loss which his city, his State, and nation have sustained through his death cannot be measured."

James J. Hill's wealth is estimated all the way from $100,000,000 to $300,000,000. It probably is nearer the former figure than the latter.

The control of the First National Bank of St. Paul passed from James J. Hill to his son L.W. Hill, two weeks ago. Mr. Hill planned a great future for the First National Bank, and his policy will be carried out by his son.

In passing over the control of the First National Bank Mr. Hill told his son that he was more responsible for its rapid growth and development than any other person; and that he was entitled to the reward of his efforts. The transfer of the stock was made at the same time. The First National Bank has a combined capital and surplus of $5,000,000 and more than $54,000,000 in deposits. It is the second largest bank west of the Mississippi River.

All traffic on Hill roads and all boats on the Hill lines will be stopped for five minutes, from 2 P.M. until 2:05 P.M., Wednesday, in tribute to the dead.

Mr. Hill had absolute control of the First National Bank and Northwestern Trust Company, which have a combined capital and surplus of [missing text]. He is a large owner of stock [missing text] the Chase National Bank of New York, the First National Bank of Chicago and the Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis. He holds a large share in the Great Northern Pacific Steamship Company.

The greatest portion of Mr. Hill's wealth, however, lies in the stock and bonds of the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and Burlington Railroads.

The executors of Mr. Hill's estate probably will be Louis W. Hill, son, and the Northwestern Trust Company. L.W. Hill will succeed his father as head of the Hill properties. Since becoming President and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Great Northern Road, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the First National Bank and the Northwestern Trust Company, L.W. Hill has been getting into the harness to take up his father's business.

Heads of these companies today would not talk of a possible successor to Mr. Hill.

The Career of James J. Hill From a Small Beginning to the Greatest "Empire Builder" Leaving as a monument of his life's work more than 6,000 miles of railroad, with gross earnings of $66,000,000 from carrying 15,000,000 tons of freight annually, along whose line in six different States of the great Northwest are scattered 400,000 farms, with 65,000,000 acres of improved land worth $5,000,000,000, James Jerome Hill was called the greatest empire builder of the new world.

Born near Guelph, in Wellington County, Ontario, Canada, he was the son of an Irish- Canadian, who went there in 1826 and became a successful farmer. His mother was Scottish, and Mr. Hill inherited the best traits of both races. His early education was obtained in the Rockwood Academy, a Quaker school, which he attended until his fifteenth year, when his father died.

It was three years later that the boy made his first vital decision to emigrate to the United States. In memory of this there still stands a stump at his old home, on which is rudely cut, "The last tree chopped by James J. Hill." His resolution to leave his home for pastures new was brought about by one of those chance incidents that mold the lives of great men. According to the story, a way-worn traveler stopped at the Hill farm for dinner, leaving his horse tied at the gate. The boy saw that the animal was tired and carried it a pail of water. The stranger was pleased at his thoughtfulness, and as he rode off tossed him a newspaper from the United States and called out gravely, "Go there, young man. That country needs youngsters of your spirit."

Young Hill read the paper carefully and found that it contained glowing accounts of the opportunities in the States. He decided to investigate for himself, and with that decision Canada lost one who might have proved to be her most useful citizen. The next morning he chopped that famous last tree.

Gets Work on River Front Then he started on his travels, which led from Maine to Minnesota, during which he was always investigating and observing--always looking for the chance that he felt would come to him. It was in 1856 that he disembarked from a Mississippi River packet at St. Paul, then a frontier town of about 5,000 inhabitants. After looking the town over, young Hill decided to go to work and obtained a job as stevedore and clerk with W.J. Bass & Co., agents for the Dubuque & St. Paul Packet Company. True to the instinct that was to make him great, he began to study river transportation and during the next fifteen years became a master of its problems. With knowledge came the realization of the needs of the great Northwest, and in 1865 Mr. Hill took the agency of the Northwest Packet Company, later becoming representative for the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad.

In 1869 Mr. Hill started in business for himself, when he organized the firm of Hill, Griggs & Co., in the transportation and fuel trade, and brought to St. Paul the first coal ever seen there. Two years later, after learning first hand of the fertile Red River Valley and seeing that adequate transportation was its crying need, he obtained a flat-bottomed steamer and established the first regular communication between St. Paul and the Manitoba ports along the river.

St. Paul was then having its first experience with railroad building and was meeting with poor success. Eighty miles of road had been laid to St. Cloud, 316 miles to Breckenridge. In addition, there were 100 miles built into space which were said to begin and end nowhere. This railroad venture finally collapsed with a deb of $33,000,000, its only assets being "a few streaks of rust and a right of way." In addition it had earned the ill-will of all those connected with it.

Close to the land and knowing its promise, Mr. Hill felt that there were great things in store for the property. He felt a consuming desire to acquire it. Success had been the result of his hard work and foresight so far, and he began to make definite plans for getting hold of those dead railroads. For five years he dickered, those who knew his hopes regarding him as a visionary, and then he made the final decision and acted. He sold all his other interests, receiving $100,000 for them, and, in partnership with Donald A. Smith, afterward Lord Strathcona, George Stephen, afterward Lord Mountstephen, and John S. Kennedy, the New York banker, obtained the property he desired.

Becomes Railroad Manager This was the birth of the St. Paul, Minnesota & Manitoba Railway, which was formed to operate the property, with Mr. Hill as General Manager and chief of practically all operations. This was in 1878, and four years later he became Vice President, being elected President the following year. As chief executive he held the power to realize his dreams of a great transportation system, and he undertook to extend the road to the Pacific Ocean. Again the skeptics regarded his plans as impossible of successful completion, and the extension became known as "Hill's Folly." It was thought that it would be utterly impractical for his system to live in the face of the competition it was forced to meet. There were three great systems to the south, all of which received large Government bonuses, whereas the "Manitoba," or the "Great Northern," as it soon came to be known, did not have a dollar of Government subsidy or the grant of an acre of land to help it in its progress from the Minnesota boundary to the sea. Those who considered these facts failed to remember that the line had "Jim" Hill, as he was known, back of it. With his indomitable energy and grim determination the Great Northern had more behind it than all the Government land grants and subsidies the other roads had leaned on.

Critics said that he was building through a country barren of people, which could give his line no tonnage and would mean ruin. But they reckoned without the genius of the empire builder. He laid rails westward at the rate of a mile a day, and at an average cost of $30,000 a mile, and as he went he left a trail of embryonic farms and homesteads by the railside. Thus was the foundation laid for the coming empire.

Then came the completion of the line to Puget Sound, and the empire builder turned his genius to building up the land that must support his road. Knowing that there was quick money in beef and hogs, he introduced the livestock industry into vast areas of bunch-grass plains and improved the breeds of stock by importing the best blood that money could buy. He turned to farming and sent demonstration trains through the country with experts who showed the people how to grow more wheat to the acre, and then to market this grain, he made a cheap rate by railroad and steamship to Buffalo, where it was handled in the great elevators he built.

For twenty years Mr. Hill left nothing undone to develop his empire and to make it bring tonnage to "Hill's Folly," the Great Northern. During these years he came to be regarded as a sort of father by his people. They came and took up the land and thriving towns grew up almost before the weeds had grown on the railroad cuts and embankments. All through four States the name of Hill swayed the destinies of men, and there seemed to be nothing that could happen unless he was directly or indirectly responsible for its successful conclusion. The term "Hill's Folly" gradually changed to "Hill's Fortune"--his courage, foresight and will power had won.

With his fast-growing empire behind him, he stood at the Pacific tidewater, and the Orient beckoned to him. He saw the golden opportunities that awaited him there, and he organized a fleet of Pacific steamships for the commercial invasion of China and Japan. Japan, then in the first flush of her recent growth, wanted steel rails, but proposed getting them from England, as the rates were less. It is said that John W. Gates, the Chicago steel magnate, came to Mr. Hill with the proposition of getting American rails to China, and the railroad man replied: "I will make you a rate of $8 a ton from Chicago or Pittsburgh to Yokohama. If that is too much, I will carry it for the axle grease used on the locomotives and freight cars; if you can't stand that, I will carry your freight for nothing!"

Northern Pacific "Corner" Mr. Hill's great passion for empire building conflicted with another great passion for railroad domain, and there ensued the great stock market fight for the control of the Northern Pacific, with its memorable "Blue Thursday," May 9, 1901, the story of which is still told in Wall Street. E.H. Harriman and his associates had then developed the Union Pacific system and had formed a close alliance with the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul. Mr. Hill's roads lacked a Chicago outlet. Together with the late J.P. Morgan, Mr. Hill first endeavored to secure the St. Paul. That road was not for sale. They then bought control of the Burlington and turned it over to the Great Northern and Northern Pacific. Mr. Harriman and Jacob H. Schiff met this move by starting after the Northern Pacific in the open market, and so well conducted their campaign that they had all but control of the property before the Hill-Morgan crowd learned of the fight against them.

Mr. Morgan, who was abroad, cabled orders to buy all the Northern Pacific to be found in the market. The Harriman party was no less eager. Brokers acting for both sides bid the stock up until on the day of the corner it sold at $1,000 a share, while panic seized the Stock Exchange and the rest of the market broke widely, sweeping away an estimated $1,000,000,000 of market values. If all of the Northern Pacific stock that had been contracted for on the Exchange could have been delivered, it turned out, each party would have had a majority. But delivery was impossible, and a compromise was reached in which shorts were permitted to settle.

Following the settlement of the struggle in the stock market, the count of stock showed the Harriman party in possession of the majority of Northern Pacific common and preferred combined. But Mr. Hill and his associates had a majority of the common, and, being in control of the company, were in a position, under its charter, to retire the preferred stock. Thus the upshot was not far from a drawn battle, and there was evolved, by way of peace terms, the Northern Securities Company, to which were turned over the Great Northern and Northern Pacific, carrying the control of the Burlington, held by both parties. The United States Supreme Court subsequently dissolved the holding company, but in so doing ordered its shares distributed pro rata, much to Mr. Harriman's disappointment, and the control of the three roads reverted to Mr. Hill and his associates.

The best pen picture of "Jim" Hill is that written during the days of the Northern Pacific "corner." He was always a Westerner and in times of stress was at his best.

After the smash--when more than $1,000,000,000 had been swept away, precipitating one of the worst panics known in the history of finance--James J. Hill, the storm centre of it all, stood grim, unshaken, and impregnable. He was aptly described by one of those who called on him at his hotel here.

"Somewhat below the average height," he said, "but built like a buffalo, with a prodigious chest and neck and head; his arms long, sinewy, powerful; his feet large and firm planted and his legs as solid as steel columns--truly a massive, imposing figure of a man. And the head--shaggy brows, shading an eye that bored right through; a mass of long, iron-gray hair reaching to the collar of his coat, and a heavy, rough, iron-gray beard, growing without restraint over the entire face, yet hiding nothing of the immense chin and powerful jaws, and the wide lips, between which showed two rows of teeth seemingly fit to crunch iron.

"A very pile-driver of a man, slow and deliberate to rise, but swift and crushing in the downward stroke. A man to avoid as an enemy, a joy as a friend. On this night, the whole financial structure of the country lying about him in ruins, Hill's eye was veiled with the light of combat. The skin showing at the temples was pale with the strain, the great hands clenched and opened and clenched again. His voice was harsh and his speech tense with suppression."

In times such as these Mr. Hill was as resourceful and dominant as the late J. Pierpont Morgan. Like him, he was brusque and willful--his enemies called him overbearing.

Mr. Hill was interested in many other properties in addition to his railroads and steamship lines, and is said to have bought into the famous Mesaba iron range at exactly the right time. So huge were his interests there that he testified before the Stanley Steel Committee in 1912 he would receive $750,000,000 in ore from properties which he acquired for $4,050,000.

In April, 1907, he retired as President of the Great Northern, and became Chairman of the Board of Directors, from which he resigned in June, 1912, retaining only his membership in the Executive Committee of the Board. His son, Louis W. Hill, succeeded him both as President and Chairman.

For more than a score of years Mr. Hill was a national figure, and in September, 1915, came here from his home in St. Paul on the urgent request of the group of bankers who made the $500,000,000 loan to the Allies, and spent some time in consultation with them over the transaction. He said that it would prove to be a help to this country, but expressed regret that his presence here forced him to forego his birthday celebration at home.

The story of Mr. Hill's marriage is one that was often told as an example of romance. When he was a station agent near St. Paul he boarded at the Merchants' Hotel, where Mary Mehegan served his meals to him. He lost his heart to her and won her promise that she would marry him. Then he sent her away to school, where he paid for her education, and when she returned some years later they were married. Their home life was said to be most happy, and they were never more joyful than when surrounded by their three sons and six daughters in the St. Paul home.

Mr. Hill always insisted that there was no secret in his great success. He had no new receipts for success to offer, and said: "The man with the big opportunity today is the man in the ranks." Extravagance, he insisted, was often the cause of failure. Mr. Hill regarded this as a national tendency, against which he strongly set himself, particularly when it concerns the natural resources of the United States.

During his active supervision of the Great Northern system, Mr. Hill oversaw every detail, often to the wonder and despair of the employes with whom he often came in contact.

His fame in his own country, the Northwest, and among his own people, those with whom he peopled his "empire," is attested by the fact that there are said to be at least ten thousand stories afloat in the Swedish sections, and all having him for their hero. He ruled his road and people almost like a dictator. The route of the road, and the locations of its settlements, were all decided by him, whether others liked it or not, as part of his economic policy. Branch lines of his road were built with singular regularity, always providing a minimum of short lines on which light trains were necessary.

The principal tenets of his railway gospel were low grades, heavy power, large capacity cars, big trainloads on main lines, and he began to preach these things at a time when the best railway men thought them mere visions.

His Interest in Art It was said that Mr. Hill was gifted with fine tastes and a keen artistic sense of beauty of form and color, and his collections of art and jewels were among the finest in the country. From the earliest days of his prosperity he spent money in indulging what might be called his secret passion for gems of the rarest. None of these were ever used for personal adornment by either their owner or his family, except on the rarest occasions. His pleasure in them was that of the collector.

His knowledge of precious stones was that of an expert, and several years ago it was said his collection was worth more than $2,000,000. One of his delights, in his hours of leisure, was to take out his collection and show it to his friends, explaining the distinctive points of each stone.

From precious stones, his first love, he turned to art. When he built his great home on Summit Avenue, in St. Paul, one of his chief features was the picture gallery, two hundred feet long, and running from one end to the other of the residence. It is finished in oak, with a large pipe organ at one end and a great fireplace at the other, over which hangs Ribot's "Christ Taken from the Cross." Mr. Hill was his own agent in the selection and purchase of his works of art, and it was said that he could not be deceived by spurious works or copies, and seldom failed to discern the true value of a picture.

It was not generally known that he was a fair artist himself. He would take his brushes and palette, and with a keen sense of the values of light, shade, coloring and perspective, would turn out a very fair painting. When he was a boy in the Quaker school in Rockwood, Canada, he used to draw and make copies of famous engravings and paintings.

His picture gallery was said to be a paradise for art lovers. There are eighteen examples of the best work of Corot, which critics say cannot be matched in the world, not even in the Louvre. Among the best examples of this artist's work are his "Bibils." There are also splendid works by Fromentin, Decamp, Puvis de Chavannes, Millet, Troyon, Bouguereau, Banvin, Cazin, Henner, Laurens, Jules Breton, Daubigny, Dupre, Delacroix and Diaz. No estimate of the value of his collection has ever been given, but it is known that Mr. Hill Seldom paid less than $50,000 for a picture.

Gifts to Charity Mr. Hill was generous in his charities, and had given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the worthy poor. When he gave up his old home in St. Paul and moved into the Summit Avenue mansion, he gave the old residence, complete in all its furnishings, to the Little Sisters of the Poor. In addition to this gift he had always contributed largely to their work in St. Paul and the Northwest.

He took an active interest in the Catholic College, near St. Paul, and gave it an endowment of $500,000. Mrs. Hill was always a devout Catholic, and they were married in a Catholic church by a priest. Mr. Hill also gave largely to other church organizations and charitable societies.

In 1908 Mr. Hill brought the house at 8 East Sixty-fifth Street, where he made his home when in this city. He was a member of the Union, Metropolitan, Manhattan, Jekyl Island, Down Town and New York Yacht Clubs, and an honorary member of the Rocky Mountain Club. In addition, he belonged to numerous clubs and other organizations in the West.

Honored by Yale

Mr. Hill received the degree of LL.D. from Yale in 1910. Harvard has the Hill Professorship of Transportation endowed by seventy-four friends of the great railway builder. He addressed many audiences on railroad and other economic topics and wrote a good deal. "Highways of Progress" and many pamphlets dealt with the business problems of the day.



External links

James J. Hill House, Minnesota Historical Society Historic Site "The James Hill House: Symbol of Status and Security," by Barbara Ann Caron, Minnesota History, Summer 1997


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