Born James Jerome Hill in 1838 near Rockwood, Ontario, Canada, J. J. Hill became known as 'The Empire Builder' by the time of his death in 1916. Beginning his business career after his arrival in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1856 he became involved in several businesses, a river steamboat line based in Winnipeg, Canada and with the formation of a fuel company to supply coal to the railroads. Between 1856 and 1878 he concentrated on the steamboat trade along the Mississippi and Red rivers along with the warehousing and fuel businesses. In 1878 Hill and several associates purchased the Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad.
After the purchase of the Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad in 1878, Hill began to amalgamate several smaller lines reaching up to the Canadian border and west into Dakota Territory. By the end of 1885 Hill had expanded the railroad far into Dakota Territory and beyond, with a total of 1,470 miles of main and branch lines.
The lands around Hill's railroad became know as 'Hill Country,' which, compared to other parts of the west, was settled by boxcar instead of ox cart. After laying his rails Hill labored endlessly to create business for his trains, his plans depended on it.
Since he has sold his land, it was up to him to 'make it good' after it was settled. To make his land good, he showed farmers improved methods of farming and thus became an authority on agriculture. Hill also was an advocate of soil diversification, introduced new strains of seed, and established experimental farms. By doing all of the above, Hill was able to expand his railroad's mileage rapidly without land grants or subsidies from the U.S. government. In 1889 the name of Hill's railroad was changed to the Great Northern Railroad Company,