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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
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.
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.”
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.
3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: James J. Hill, Empire Builder, 1909”
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!
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.
Kindred ND the farm was made with the generosity of Mr. Hill. I would not be around without his kindness.