The First Empire Builder of the Northwest | History | Smithsonian

The First Empire Builder of the Northwest

Long before Bill Gates, James J. Hill blazed a technological trail, built a fortune — and tested the government's tolerance for big business

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It is the turn of the century. Companies have been merging at an alarming rate, forming business empires larger and more powerful than any the world has ever known. Enterprising executives are amassing vast fortunes by ridding themselves of competition, sometimes by using underhanded tricks, sometimes by simply buying out the competitors. They temporarily slash prices to keep new businesses from getting started, and form "cooperative" agreements by which retailers or transporters will carry only their products and not their competitors'. When it comes to their particular product or service, they argue, monopoly is just a means to efficiency.

One of these leaders is very much in the news, having been sued by the U.S. Attorney General for violating the country's antitrust law. He's known as "the Empire Builder of the Northwest" — and his name is James J. Hill.

The year is 1902, and railroad magnate Hill has become President Theodore Roosevelt's first target in his campaign to rein in big business, and to revitalize the long-neglected Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.

In this article, author Minna Morse tells the story of Hill's life, his rise in the railroad business, and "fall" (really a minor setback) at the hands of Roosevelt. She also paints a picture of the country at the turn of the last century when a merger mania, unparalleled perhaps until today, was taking hold of the nation's businesses, and when the nation's businesses — growing ever larger — were threatening to control the country.

"I've made my mark on the surface of the earth," Hill once said, "and they can't wipe it out." "No truer words may be said," Morse writes. "Hill and men like him forever changed the physical and economic landscape of the country. Their conduct, meanwhile, raised questions about power and progress that we continue to struggle with today."

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