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Front Row Seat: Documentary chronicles life of railroad baron

Documentarians Stephen Sadis and Kyle Kegley take four hours to examine "Empire Builder" James J. Hill's transformative career. Hill's Great Northern Railway is well-represented in the Lake Superior Railroad Museum's collection.

A close-up view of the side of an orange, yellow, and black diesel locomotive with the number 192 and the Great Northern Railway logo featuring mountain goat silhouette.
The Lake Superior Railroad Museum has a rare diesel locomotive, formerly used on the Great Northern Railway, that also generates steam for heating passenger cars.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — "James J. Hill was late to the party," said Ken Buehler, standing next to a display of Great Northern Railway tableware at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum.

Despite the St. Paul railroad baron's farsighted development of the American northwest, Hill's Great Northern wasn't the first railroad connecting Duluth to the country's growing grid. "Northern Pacific bet its money on Duluth," said Buehler, the Railroad Museum's director. "They had been here first. They came up with the Lake Superior and Mississippi (Railroad), and then of course, Jay Cooke decides he's going to go to Carlton and start building to the West Coast."

Hill would ultimately control the Northern Pacific as well, but first he built his own infrastructure across the harbor in Superior.

"That's why you see the big Great Northern (grain) elevators that were built, were built on the Superior side and not the Duluth side," explained Buehler. "It took a while for him to build that Interstate Bridge that brought his train across to Duluth, and to do that, he had to move a lot of obstacles, because all the other railroads certainly didn't want the Great Northern in their backyard."

A colorized vintage postcard photo of a large lakeside grain elevator with the words GREAT NORTHERN ELEVATOR written on the side.
A grain elevator built in Superior by James J. Hill, as seen in "The Empire Builder."
Contributed / Great Northern Filmworks

Duluth makes only a couple cameos in "The Empire Builder," a stately new four-part documentary film about Hill's extraordinary career. The entrepreneur simply did too much in his 77 years of life for even a four-hour film to spend much time in one place.

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The man who's led the Duluth museum for the past 20 years became an unlikely YouTube star telling the stories of all the trains in the St. Louis County Depot.

"The Empire Builder: James J. Hill and the Great Northern Railway" chronicles Hill's rise from a Canadian farmer's child to one of the world's most influential people. The ambitious young man hit the road and found his opportunity in St. Paul. When Hill arrived there in the 1850s, the Mississippi River was a pivotal waterway dividing the established eastern states and the wild west.

By the time of Hill's death in 1916, his adopted country had become what would later be called a superpower. Underlying Hill's story is the epic of America's industrial transformation, and specifically the role of railroads in enabling the growth of industry from St. Paul to Seattle. It's a stunning, sobering story.

As soon as railroads rendered western land accessible to national markets, the U.S. government broke treaties and drove exploitative deals with Indigenous peoples to open land for farming, mining and logging. Hill built his Great Northern through Blackfoot territory, contributing to a vast reduction in the land left available for the people who were there first.

He then set about populating the finished line's environs with his future customers. Documentarians Stephen Sadis and Kyle Kegley, drawing on a wealth of archival photos and documents as well as interviews with historians, show how Hill combined settlement incentives with agricultural research and education to install farmers in the high plains of Montana and North Dakota. It was a land of opportunity, until many of the farmers went bust in a succession of droughts in the 1910s.

"There was one lady who came up to me whose father worked for the railroads in North Dakota around this time, and she still retained a bitterness toward James J. Hill," historian Larry Haeg says in the documentary.

Front page of Duluth Herald reading JAMES J. HILL IS NO MORE with photo of bearded older white man.
In 1916, the Duluth Herald reported the news of James J. Hill's death, calling the railroad baron the "most widely known figure in (the) northwest."
Contributed / Great Northern Filmworks

Over the course of his life, Hill's bearded face — a favorite of editorial cartoonists — became associated with debates over everything from Pacific shipping to war policy. He was the quintessential railroad baron, partnering with financier J.P. Morgan to outmaneuver his rivals in an era when controlling a railroad line meant controlling a region's destiny.

Watching the film lends local viewers a new appreciation of the significance of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum's collection. Though Hill was a relative latecomer to the Twin Ports, his iconic line is represented in some of the museum's most striking pieces.

"Obviously, this is the star. This was the William Crooks," said Buehler, indicating a colorful steam locomotive with a classic cow-catcher. "That was the first locomotive in Minnesota. The railroad that brought it dies of bankruptcy, and with Norm Kittson's help, James J. Hill buys (the railroad) ... it became the Great Northern."

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The William Crooks — Hill's first locomotive — will almost certainly never run again, but the museum also has a running locomotive from the Great Northern's later history. "It's an NW5," said Buehler. "There's only a handful that still exist."

Built in the 1940s, the bold orange and black locomotive has a diesel engine, but one built with a steam generator so that it could provide steam to heat passenger cars built with the assumption they'd be pulled by a steam locomotive.

Buehler then stepped into the museum's China car, where he indicated several thematically linked sets of tableware.

"You see several different Great Northern designs here that they would actually bring out at different times of the year," said Buehler. "Every item was branded, right down to the matchbooks." The Great Northern's "Glory of the West" pattern emphasized the scenic vistas riders would enjoy as they crossed the Rocky Mountains.

"That's why they created Glacier National Park," Buehler pointed out. "Union Pacific had done very well with Yellowstone National Park, so Louis Hill, son of James J. Hill ... created their destination, and their destination was Glacier National Park."

That makes for a poignant episode in the documentary, which shows Blackfeet being incorporated into the park's iconography. As Blackfeet interviewees point out to the filmmakers, the Hills were exploiting a Native community as a tourist attraction. Yet, the railroaders were also arguing for the preservation of a culture that was at the time being threatened with erasure via "assimilation."

An irreducible irony of James J. Hill's story is that he became an advocate for environmental sustainability after making a fortune providing freight service to the very people — including Minnesota's own Northland loggers and Iron Range miners — who transformed the country's ecology by extracting natural resources. Hill figured that he could solve any problem his enterprises might run into, testing the limits of nature itself.

Museum display of plates, ashtray, and pitcher, with a label reading "Great Northern." The China is decorated with a pattern featuring mountains and flowers.
Tableware from the Great Northern Railway is on display at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

A smaller irony, but nonetheless a rich one, came at the end of Hill's life. Even on the day trains across Hill's holdings came to a halt and sounded their whistles in tribute to the deceased Empire Builder, his funeral service involved a long procession of automobiles. The new combustion empire had arrived, and its tracks would be far wider.

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"The Empire Builder" will be available for purchase on Vimeo as of Friday. The price tag of $79.99 may be a bit steep for those who aren't dedicated railroad buffs, but Sadis told the News Tribune via email that producers are "working on broadcast and streaming options." (See greatnorthernfilmworks.com for information.)

In the meantime, you can also see evidence of Hill's empire in the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, and read about the Great Northern in books like Buehler's recommendation, "Great Northern Railway: A History" by Ralph W. Hidy, Muriel E. Hidy, Roy V. Scott and Don L. Hofsommer. It's available in the museum's gift shop, and the Duluth Public Library also holds copies.

"Almost every other railroad has a good time and a bad time and a good time and bad times, and there were several bankruptcies," said Buehler. "The Hill family never went bankrupt, so they were able to control the railroad, and that gives it a special mystique that other railroads can't claim."

Short cuts

Hand holding two hardcover cookbooks: "Star Wars: The Padawan Cookbook" and "Black Panther: The Wakanda Cookbook."
"The Padawan Cookbook" and "The Wakanda Cookbook" are kid-friendly guides with local ties.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

Insight Editions has a line of cookbooks that are accessible to kids and associated with popular franchises: among them Pokemon, Gilmore Girls and Avatar (The Last Airbender). A few of the books have Minnesota connections, starting of course with "The Official Peanuts Cookbook Collection," featuring the characters created by St. Paul's own Charles M. "Sparky" Schulz.

Then there's "Star Wars: The Padawan Cookbook," written by Jenn Fujikawa and Minneapolis resident Liz Lee Heinecke. In the Star Wars universe, a "Padawan" is a Jedi Knight in training. Fujikawa and Heinecke lead aspiring cooks through 10 trials, starting with a rich Bantha Milk Slushie that Uncle Owen would never indulge. Heinecke specializes in science writing, and accordingly the book is full of tidbits about the real-world science of fibers, enzymes, pressure and other phenomena. When you crunch Kyber Crystal Candy in space, does it make a sound? You'll have to hop into your X-Wing to find out.

Another recipe volume is tied to Marvel's Black Panther. "'The Wakanda Cookbook' is a celebration of the food of the great continent of Africa, as imagined through the lens of the fictional nation of Wakanda," according to the biography of author Nyanyika Banda. Foodies who knew the local scene in the 2010s will remember Banda — now based in Massachusetts — as the proprietor of acclaimed Duluth restaurant Martha's Daughter. The wide-ranging cookbook includes recipes for everything from Harissa Spiced Popcorn to Carob Energy Balls to Roasted Lake Trout. For more information on all these cookbooks, see insighteditions.com.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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