Seattle Now & Then: James J. Hill, Empire Builder, 1909

(Click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN1: In this west-facing image, James J. Hill (lower left, near flag) addresses 20,000 on June 1, 1909, the opening day of Seattle’s first world’s fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, in an amphitheater approximately where the Padelford Hall parking garage stands today at the University of Washington. (Romans Photo Co., courtesy Stephen Sadis)
NOW: Stephen Sadis (right) and Kyle Kegley of Sadis Filmworks,, stand next to the James J. Hill bust and engraved railroad panel outside More Hall at the University of Washington. No plaque exists nearby to explain the stature of the Canadian-born, Minnesota-based Hill. The bust’s base originally was taller when it was unveiled Aug. 2, 1909, during the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition at a nearby site, west of today’s Drumheller Fountain on the UW campus. (Jean Sherrard)



Published in The Seattle Times online on Feb. 23, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Feb. 26, 2023

Documentary launches up-Hill quest to honor the ‘Empire Builder’
By Clay Eals
THEN2: This northbound view on Fourth Avenue on Nov. 2, 1953, shows the Great Northern Railway sign, with its mountain goat and “EMPIRE BUILDER’ slogan, at the juncture of Olive Way and Stewart Street. In South Seattle, the former name of today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Way was Empire Way, in Hill’s honor. (Seattle Municipal Archives)

When I routinely rode with my dad to his downtown office in the late 1950s, he drove north along Fourth Avenue. Looming as we approached the nexus of Olive and Stewart, Seattle’s version of Times Square, was an enormous, elevated sign featuring a scaffolded Great Northern mountain goat atop a showy slogan: “EMPIRE BUILDER.” Through the windshield, I and countless others were absorbing a layered message.

“Empire Builder” referenced the passenger train from St. Paul that had crucially connected our city to the rest of the country in 1893, post-Great Fire. The catchphrase also echoed the sobriquet for the railway’s indefatigable founder, who helped turn Seattle into a metropolis — yet whose name is little seen or celebrated today.

The cover of the new documentary. Click it to rent or purchase it at

Seasoned West Seattle documentarian Stephen Sadis seeks to change that, in a manner as audacious as his subject. His new “The Empire Builder: James J. Hill and the Great Northern Railway,” is a four-hour tour de force, the result of on-and-off research for 20-plus years, summoning 5,000-plus images, maps and film clips and dozens of interviews to tell its larger-than-life story.

Hill (1838-1916) was a town speculator, agriculturalist, shipping magnate, banker, collector, philanthropist, longtime husband and the father of 10, but his legacy rides with the “Iron Horse” and its inescapable impact, which inspired Sadis’ fascination.

“If I told you,” he says, “that tomorrow when you wake up you could travel from Seattle to New York in 10 minutes, that’s the kind of change that occurred in the mid-19th century, from a six-month wagon trek across the country to a four-day train ride. That transformation is the key.”

THEN3: A portrait of Hill from 1902. Quoted in the documentary, Hill says of the Great Northern line, “Most men who have really lived have had in some shape their great adventure. This railway is mine.” (Courtesy Stephen Sadis)

Through Hill’s saga, Sadis and producing partner Kyle Kegley weave the personal (Hill’s right-eye blindness from a bow-and-arrow accident as a child) with the enterprising (Hill’s insistence on fashioning efficient and enduring rail lines) while repeatedly giving voice to the trains’ displacement of Native Americans.

The tale hits a peak with Hill’s opening-day speech for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition at the University of Washington. For an industrialist, the bent is surprising, as bold and prescient as its source — and certainly relevant today:

“Will you realize what this country will become when stripped of its forests — the washing away of the soil, the inevitable changes in climate when the forests have gone? …

“You have but to raise your eyes and be in the presence of some of the grandest works of God. Soil, climate, resources, all favor you. You will never again know isolation. The spaces once separating you from the rest of the country have been conquered. Remain as you have been, the architects of your own fortunes.”


Special thanks to Stephen Sadis and Kyle Kegley for their invaluable help with this installment!

To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.

Below are an additional photo, a video interview and, in chronological order, 12 historical clips from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and Washington Digital Newspapers, that were helpful in the preparation of this column.

From roughly the same vantage as the “THEN2” image above is this color view of Fourth Avenue at dusk in the late 1960s, possibly from a postcard. The lighted Great Northern mountain goat (deep center) is backed by a red circle. Some letters are burned out in the “EMPIRE BUILDER” sign below.
VIDEO (4:00): Click this image to view a 4-minute interview with Kyle Kegley (left) and Stephen Sadis about their new James J. Hill documentary. (Clay Eals)
Oct. 5, 1896, Seattle Times, p5.
June 1, 1909, Seattle Star, p1.
June 2, 1909, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p13, featuring the complete text of his speech on opening day of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition at the University of Washington. The text continues and concludes in the next clip.
June 2, 1909, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p16.
Aug. 1, 1909 Seattle Times, p3.
May 14, 1916, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, p19.
May 29, 1916, Seattle Times, p1.
May 29, 1916, Seattle Times, p4.
May 29, 1916, Seattle Times, p8.
May 29, 1916, Seattle Times, p9.
May 30, 1916, Seattle Times, p6.
March 26, 2006, Seattle Times, p169, “Now & Then.”

3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: James J. Hill, Empire Builder, 1909”

  1. I loved the old GN sign as a kid. Hill was a true benefactor though we might question some of his methods today. The Mary Hill Museum, featuring a world class collection of Rodin sculptures and the Stonehenge replica on the Columbia are also part of his legacy to the PNW. Great article! Thanks!

  2. Congratulations, Clay, Kyle, and Stephen. What a wonderful documentary about such an intriguing and important man whose contributions still nourish us today. So much more of a doer than a showman – we can all benefit from studying him in our present time. KCTS, KUOW, SIFF, NW Film Forum, are you listening? A fine documentary that really needs to be seen by general audiences who might not find it through railroad history channels. (Thank you Clay!!). This is so much than just a railroad story. In a page-turning fashion that would make Ken Burns proud, it weaves a fascinating tale of Hill’s own struggle not only to compete in the notorious world of rail financing and construction, but also one of continual personal growth while building up the Northern Tier and finding his own ways to return something of his hard-won success to the nation and the world at large.

  3. Kindred ND the farm was made with the generosity of Mr. Hill. I would not be around without his kindness.

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