James J. Hill House

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Guides lead tours that explore family and servant life in the Gilded Age mansion. Completed in 1891, the red sandstone residence was the setting of the public and private lives of the family of James J. Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railway.


James J. Hill built a house that symbolized success, but one that also suited him and his family. The Boston firm of Peabody, Stearns and Furber designed a simple, forceful and direct house in the massive Richardsonian Romanesque style. Hill oversaw the planning, construction and furnishing of the house as if it were a new branch of the railroad. He rejected stained-glass window designs by Tiffany and Company, saying they were "anything but what I want," and even replaced the architects when they ignored his orders to the stonecutters. He engaged Irving and Casson, also of Boston, to finish the interiors.

Completed in 1891, the mansion was the largest and most expensive home in Minnesota. It contained 36,000 square feet on five floors including 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces, 16 crystal chandeliers, a two-story skylit art gallery, a 100-foot reception hall, and a profusion of elaborately carved oak and mahogany woodwork. Sophisticated technical systems throughout the mansion provided central heating, gas and electric lighting, plumbing, ventilation, security and communication. The final cost totaled $931,275.01 including construction, furnishings and landscaping for the three-acre estate.

The home served as the center for the public and private lives of the Hill family for the next 30 years. Mary T. Hill kept a watchful eye over the household including the large domestic staff. She hired maids and cooks, inspected the kitchens, and served as hostess at countless dinners and receptions. "I feel it is necessary to know just where everything is and how it is," she commented in her diary.

Mrs. Hill maintained the house after Hill's death in 1916 until her own death five years later. In 1925, family members purchased the mansion from the estate and presented it to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul. For the next half century the structure was used by the church for a variety of purposes until it was acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1978. Recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1961, the James J. Hill House recalls the powerful era of the Northwest's storied "Empire Builder."

At the end of his life, James J. Hill was asked by a newspaper reporter to reveal the secret of his success. Hill responded with characteristic bluntness, "Work, hard work, intelligent work, and then more work." Hill became a pivotal force in the transformation of the Northwest as his railroad served as the backbone of white American settlement, agricultural development and commercial expansion.

Born in southern Ontario in 1838, Hill began his career in transportation in 1856 as a 17 year-old clerk on the St. Paul levee. After 20 years working in the shipping business on the Mississippi and Red rivers, Hill and several other investors purchased the nearly bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in 1878. Over the next two decades, he worked relentlessly to push the line north to Canada and then west across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Renamed the Great Northern Railway in 1890, it remained the "great adventure" of Hill's life. "When we are all dead and gone," he said, "the sun will still shine, the rain will fall, and this railroad will run as usual."

In 1864 James J. Hill met a waitress working at the Merchants Hotel in St. Paul, where he often took his meals. Mary Theresa Mehegan, born in 1846 in New York City, was the child of Irish immigrants who settled in the frontier town of St. Paul in 1850. To prepare her for the impending change of stature in her life, Hill sent Mary to finishing school in Milwaukee before their marriage in 1867. Over the next 18 years they had 10 children: Mary (who married before the family moved to Summit Avenue), James, Louis, Clara, Katherine (who died in infancy), Charlotte, Ruth, Rachel, Gertrude and Walter. Four of the daughters were married in the mansion, and five children later had homes on Summit Avenue. Louis Warren Hill succeeded his father as president of the Great Northern Railway, and lived with his family next door at 260 Summit Ave.

Hill pursued a broad range of other business interests: coal and iron ore mining, Great Lakes and Pacific Ocean shipping, banking and finance, agriculture and milling. In later years he explained his economic philosophy in the book "Highways of Progress" and continued the campaign to convert the farmers of the Northwest to the principles of scientific agriculture. After amassing a personal fortune estimated at $63 million, James J. Hill died in his Summit Avenue home on May 29, 1916, one of the wealthiest and most powerful figures of America's Gilded Age.

The Great Northern Railroad

James J. Hill's Great Adventure

The epic completion of Great Northern Railway's transcontinental line to the Pacific in 1893 and the creation of the Burlington Northern some 77 years later [May 2, 1970] were in a very real sense the fulfillment of one man's dreams. That man was James Jerome Hill, "The Empire Builder." The Great Northern was begun in 1857 as the Minnesota & Pacific Railroad Company when the Minnesota legislature, eager for rails in its territory, granted a charter to "construct a railroad in the direction of the Pacific." In 1862, the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad Company acquired the rights to the railroad after they had been forfeited to the state. The St. Paul & Pacific ultimately died the same death, and after foreclosure in 1879, the properties were reorganized as the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway Company, with St. Paul businessman James J. Hill its general manager.

The expansion of the railroad in Minnesota and into Dakota Territory continued at a steady pace, and by the close of 1885 the system of main and branch lines had grown to 1,470 miles. It has been said of other sections of the West that they were settled from the ox cart; "Hill Country" was settled from the boxcar. Hill laid his rails first, then labored tirelessly to create traffic for his trains. The success for his plans depended upon quick and sound colonization. Having sold his country, it was up to him to "make it good" after the settler moved in. So he started showing the farmers how to improve their methods, and became an authority on agriculture in the process. Hill was an advocate of soil diversification, he introduced improved strains of seed and he established experimental farms. The formula enabled Hill to expand his railroad's mileage rapidly without land grants or government subsidies of any kind, other than the original grant of the Minnesota & Pacific. In September 1889, the name of the railroad was changed to the Great Northern Railway Company. At the close of 1892, only a seven-mile gap remained in what was once referred to as "Hill's Folly." On Jan. 6, 1893, in the towering Cascades near Scenic, Wash., the final spike was driven, and the Great Northern became the second railroad to link Puget Sound with the upper Midwest.

In 1896, Hill...negotiated an agreement with Nippon Yusen Kaisha, then the largest steamship line in the Pacific, resulting in the establishment of service between Seattle and [Asian] ports. It was a bold challenge to the established commerce between Europe and [Asia], and marked the beginning of Seattle's ascendancy as a world port. The Great Northern, through the years to the merger that created BN, continued to earn recognition as one of the preeminently progressive railroads in the nation.

From the Burlington Northern Santa Fe website, copyright, 2004.

Fun Facts
  • James J. Hill lost the vision in one eye in a childhood bow-and-arrow game.
  • His formal education ended at age 14 when his father died and he took various clerk jobs to help his family.
  • Hill was the son of a Baptist father and a Methodist mother, but his wife was a devout Roman Catholic. The Hill mansion was donated to the Archdiocese of St. Paul after Mary Hill's death.
  • The huge basement of the Hill House contained servants' quarters, a kitchen featuring a dumb-waiter (to bring food to the dining room above it), laundry, boiler room, and hand-pumped bellows for the 1,006-pipe organ in the skylit gallery above. The floor is inlaid marble.
  • The dining room features a walk-in safe entered through a hidden door in the room's paneling.
  • The two-story gallery was built for Hill's magnificent art collection, consisting mainly of Barbizon School of mid-19th century landscape painters. Retractable iron grilles on the windows and doors provided security for the collection and the family's other valuable possessions. Much of the art collection was later given to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which Hill helped found in 1915.
  • Master carver John Kirchmayer, a Bavarian immigrant, was paid $1 per hour for his intricate carving of the home's grand staircase. General laborers earned $1.75 per day.
  • Best-known for founding the Great Northern Railway, Hill also owned experimental farms where he bred livestock and developed superior crop varieties (his farm, called North Oaks, is now the site of an upscale suburb of St. Paul), a steamboat business, banks and mills.
  • Hill's philanthropy included the building and endowment of the Hill Reference Library, a Florentine structure adjacent to the St. Paul Public Library. He also founded the St. Paul Seminary and contributed substantially to the College (now University) of St. Thomas.
  • Don't expect red and green holiday decorations at the Hill House during holiday tours. It is decorated instead in pink and yellow ribbons with pink roses according to Hill family tradition.
  • The Saint Paul Winter Carnival, which had lapsed for years after its founding in 1886, was reinstated in 1916 by Hill's son Louis. Its slogan was "Make it a Hot One."
  • The fourth floor of the Hill House features a stage in a room that could seat 200 people, a grand piano and gymnastic equipment. The Hill children used the room as a playroom.
  • Hill House architects Peabody, Stearns and Furber also designed Duluth's Union Depot, now the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center in 1892.

Sept. 16, 1838 James J. Hill is born to a Scotts-Irish farming family in southern Ontario, Canada.

July 21, 1856 Seventeen-year-old Hill arrives in St. Paul by riverboat and begins his career as a shipping clerk.

1864 Hill meets 18-year-old waitress Mary Theresa Mehegan at the Merchants Hotel. They are married in 1867 and go on to have 10 children and a very happy personal life.

1878 Hill and four others invest in the bankrupt St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. It was renamed the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railroad and, as general manager, Hill began to expand to Canada and later to the Pacific Ocean.

1888 Construction begins on an elaborate new home for the Hill family on fashionable Summit Avenue. Built in the Richardson Romanesque style popular at the time, the massive red sandstone mansion features 42 rooms, 13 fireplaces, 22 fireplaces, 16 crystal chandeliers, a 100-foot reception hall and a two-story skylit art gallery. It is completed in 1891 at a cost of $931,275.01. At 36,000 square feet, it is the largest private home in the state.

1893 The newly named Great Northern Railway is completed across the continent to Puget Sound in Washington. Hill becomes known as the "Empire Builder," a term coined by financier J. Pierpont Morgan. He is also called less complimentary names, including the "Oregon Robber," the "Scourge of the Orient," and the "One-eyed bandit," due to a boyhood eye injury.

May 29, 1916 James J. Hill dies in his bedroom at the age of 77. Mary Hill lives in the house until her death on Nov. 21, 1921. Although the Hill fortune was estimated at $63 million, neither leaves a will. The Hill children donate the home to the Catholic Church, which uses it for 53 years as a teachers' college and office building, among other purposes.

1961 The Hill House is recognized as a National Historic Landmark.

1978 The Minnesota Historical Society acquires the Hill House and restores it as a historic site.


James J. Hill House Images

James J. Hill House Images

James J. Hill House

James J. Hill House

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James J. Hill House vertical

James J. Hill House vertical

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James J. Hill House interior

James J. Hill House interior

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James J. Hill House Construction Crew, 1891, photo by Schuyler M. Taylor

James J. Hill House Construction Crew, 1891, photo by Schuyler M. Taylor

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James J. Hill, 1863

James J. Hill, 1863

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B-Roll Video
News Releases

April 11, 2018 $100,000+ Project Brings New Life to James J. Hill House’s Historic Pipe Organ
January 24, 2018 New Exhibit Explores the Legacy of the Saint Paul Winter Carnival
August 21, 2017 “Attack on New Ulm: One Painting, Many Perspectives” Opens at James J. Hill House Sept. 16
May 31, 2017 New Exhibit Showcases the Creative Voices of Minnesota’s Early 20th-Century Art Scene
January 25, 2017 New Exhibit Opens February 11 in James J. Hill House Art Gallery
October 4, 2016 MEDIA ALERT: Explore Eugene McCarthy’s Historic 1968 Presidential Campaign in a New Exhibit
June 1, 2016 ALERT: New Art Exhibit Explores Minnesota Artist Bettye Olson's Career
December 10, 2015 New Art Exhibit to Open Jan. 15 in James J. Hill House Art Gallery
March 25, 2015 Exhibit of Intricate Hmong Textiles Opens April 10 at James J. Hill House
November 5, 2014 Experience an Authentic Gilded Age Christmas at the James J. Hill House this December
November 5, 2014 Minnesota Modern Featured in Exhibit at James J. Hill House Opening Nov. 22
September 3, 2014 Hill House Presents 29th Season of Chamber Concerts Oct. 20 and 27
August 13, 2014 James J. Hill House Introduces New Sensory Tour for People with Memory Loss
August 6, 2014 September Tours at the James J. Hill House Provide Unique View of Minnesota's Gilded Age and Literary History
May 7, 2014 Recent Acquisitions: Art Since 1985' Champions Contemporary Art, Opens May 15 at the James J. Hill House
April 30, 2014 UPDATE: Music and Tours Offered at James J. Hill House in June
March 26, 2014 The Return of Summit Avenue Walking Tours and Other May Programs Usher in Spring at the James J. Hill House
March 12, 2014 Annual Easter Egg Hunt and a Chamber Concert at James J. Hill House This April
February 12, 2014 Celebrate Irish Heritage with Special Tours at the James J. Hill House in March
January 15, 2014 Celebrate the Month of Love with Romance and Culture for all ages at the James J. Hill House
December 18, 2013 Celebrate Winter on the Hill at James J. Hill House, Two Weekends Only
November 6, 2013 James J. Hill House Hosts Victorian Holiday Tours, Stories and Carols in December
October 9, 2013 MEDIA ALERT: Exhibit of St. Paul Artist, Paul S. Kramer, Closes Oct. 13
October 2, 2013 Minnesota and its Waterways Focus of James J. Hill House Exhibit to Open Oct. 26
June 5, 2013 Explore Historic Summit Avenue and the James J. Hill House this July
May 1, 2013 Explore the Historic Summit Avenue Neighborhood and Discover Hidden History at the James J. Hill House this June
April 3, 2013 Return of Popular Summit Avenue Walking Tours Part of May Offerings at James J. Hill House
February 13, 2013 Irish Heritage and Easter Egg Hunt Offered in March at the James J. Hill House
January 16, 2013 Hill House Chamber Concerts 27th Season Continues in February
January 16, 2013 Romance and Relaxation Tour, Victorian Poetry Slam and Teddy Bear Story Time and the James J. Hill House
September 20, 2011 Pipe Organ at James J. Hill House Chosen to Compete for $1 Million in Preservation Funding
James J. Hill House Images