More to the Story of James J. Hill

There are some other aspects of this 125-year anniversary that might have been worth mentioning

By Ben Long

As the great-grandson of a Minnesota railroad engineer of the coal-and-steam era, I read with interest the Flathead Beacon’s history of James J. Hill.

It’s great to have a community newspaper that still allows reporters to dig deep and write long. There are some other aspects of this 125-year anniversary that might have been worth mentioning, if not exploring.

  • The railroad was built across the northern Great Plains over the territories and graves of the Lakota and Blackfoot and displaced the Kootenai on west slope. The railroad triggered the final collapse of the northern bison herd, which meant famine for the tribes of the Northern Plains.
  • The Great Northern (and railroads across the West) were built by the backs of immigrant workers from China. Some of these people settled in western communities afterward, but many found themselves less than welcome when the railroad construction jobs dwindled.
  • James J. Hill’s relations with his workers were much more complex than depicted. In fact, famous socialist and labor reformer Eugene Debs’ first major battle as leader of the American Railway Union was against Hill. Some 150,000 workers struck, shutting down construction for three weeks before Hill met nearly all their demands.

These historic events have a bearing on the lives we live today in the Flathead Valley and add a lot of breadth to the tapestry around the history of the Great Northern Railroad. While it may be so that Hill received no direct federal subsidy for his “adventure,” many groups of Americans subsidized the effort in other ways, their lives, their labor and their way of life.

Ben Long

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