A glimpse into the family of railway baron J.J. Hill of Rockwood

Back about five years this column outlined the early life of James J. Hill, the American railway baron who was born near Rockwood in 1838.

After the death of his father, young Jim Hill left home in 1852, at the age of 14, and began his illustrious career in the United States. When he died in 1916 Hill had built the Great Northern Railway, and had a variety of other rail interests and was involved in banking as well.

Jim’s brother, Alexander S.D. Hill, was about a year younger. He remained in the Rockwood area, and carried on the family farming operation that his brother had loathed and had run away from.

When he left home, Jim Hill dropped all contact with his family back in Wellington County. There was obviously some sort of animosity between him and the rest of the family. He made no secret of the fact that he loathed farming, and perhaps felt guilty about abandoning the rest of his family and placing much of the burden of managing the family farm on his younger brother.

Nevertheless, Alexander made a success of farming. In 1860, out of the blue, Jim Hill showed up at the front gate for a visit. By then he had enjoyed modest success in the land of the free. Still, the reunion of the brothers did not produce a close relationship. Jim never again came for an extended stay, though he met briefly with his relatives several times when his train was passing through Guelph.

Alexander, it seems, did not care for farming much more than his brother. In his early 20s he continued his education in order to qualify as a teacher. He gained his certificate in 1862, and for the next 20 years devoted himself to the classroom, first in Erin village, and later in Guelph Township and Rockwood. During his lifetime he was well regarded as a teacher, and several of his students went on to distinguished careers.

During his teaching years, A.S.D. Hill retained the farm, employing hired hands to do the most of the physical work. During the summer vacations he enjoyed pitching in with the cultivating and harvesting chores.

Alexander’s first wife died early. He married, for the second time, in 1867 to Emma Day. The couple had three children: Wilfrid, in his teens, secured a position with his uncle’s railway, and later became the freight superintendent of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. The two younger brothers embraced farming.

Norm farmed in Guelph Township, and James J. Junior eventually succeeded to his father’s farm in Eramosa, which became known as Cranberry Farm, and eventually consisted of a 340-acre spread.

Alexander Hill was a member of Speedside Church in Eramosa Township, which was, at the time, a Congregational Church. As part of a series of extensive renovations to the building in 1890, Hill donated a pair of stained glass windows to the church.

Also in the 1890s, Alexander came to the assistance of his only sister, who had fallen into financial difficulties, and it appears that brother Jim may have helped out as well. If he did, it was a rare event. By this time in his life J.J. Hill was many times over a millionaire, but he does not appear to have been particularly generous with his relatives back in Canada.

Nevertheless, the frosty relationship between Alexander and Jim seemed to thaw a little following their sister’s difficulties. In 1898 Alexander took a trip to St. Paul, Minnesota to visit his brother at his estate there. A picture survives, in the J.J. Hill Papers, of Alex and other members of the family at Jim’s residence.

Though there was a notable thaw in the relationship of the two brothers, they never became close. That is not surprising, as Jim was something of a publicity hound, enjoying having his name appear in the papers, and relishing his role and reputation as a gruff, hard-nosed, penny-pinching railroad baron. Alexander, on the other hand, preferred to live quietly, tending to farming chores or presiding in the classroom.

Though he was a shy man, Alexander had a reputation as a skilled and impressive speaker. He was well-read and knowledgeable, and could draw on those qualities when speaking. Alex was a life-long staunch Conservative, and party organizers invariably called on him to give a few public addresses during election campaigns. He invariably complied with the requests, though he never expressed any interest or willingness to seek public office himself.

J.J. Hill died at his home in St. Paul in 1916 at the age of 79. He was hailed as the last, and perhaps the greatest, of the old-time railway barons, and had been nicknamed “The Empire Builder” for many years. He left a legacy worth some $50,000,000, but no part went to his old home town or to his relatives still there.

Alexander continued to farm in Eramosa until 1919. After the death of his brother he co-operated with author J.G. Pyle, who produced a biography of J.J. Hill in 1917. It was the first of many biographical treatments of the man whose reputation puts him in the front row of Wellington County expatriates.

When Alexander left the farm he retired to a house in Fergus. He was then 80 years old.

As he had all his life, he lived quietly, though everyone in the town was aware of his famous and wealthy late brother. His son James J. Junior also retired to Fergus in the 1920s.

Alexander S.D. Hill died on November 5, 1929, two months past his 90th birthday, an age very few achieved at that time. He was survived by his youngest son, and his wife, Emma.

The Hill family could be termed, in modern language, as at least slightly dysfunctional. J.J. Hill’s flight to the United States at the age of 14 was perhaps the key event. He was certainly running away from the family, a fact reinforced by his eight years of disappearance before he resurfaced suddenly in 1860. Late in life he tried to downplay his actions, claiming that he wrote home on a number of occasions, and could not understand why his letters were not received by the family.

Even after the 1860 reunion he never developed close relations with any of the family. He reunited with his brother at most a half dozen times, and only a couple of those at any length. Alexander’s visit to St. Paul in 1898 seems to have been a unique event.

On the other hand, the relationships among members of the Hill family are not unique for the time. It was not at all unusual for families to disperse and have little of even no contact with one another afterward.

With so little remaining evidence it is impossible today to examine the family dynamics of the Hill family. Still, it is interesting to glimpse some of the personal life of one of Wellington County’s most famous sons. And of a family that was once so well known locally, but today is unknown to the vast majority of local residents. 


Stephen Thorning