Brother of railway mogul from area lived quietly in Fergus

The career of James J. Hill, the noted railway mogul who was born in Eramosa Town­ship, has been mentioned in this column on several occa­sions. Invariably, each time at least one reader asks whether there were other members of the family who achieved fame, either locally or elsewhere.

Jim Hill was the son of Baptist and Methodist parents, who came to Eramosa in 1829, settling in an area that was dominated by Quakers. The father, also named James, was a native of Armagh, Ireland, and his mother was a Dunbar, a family prominent in Eramosa and Guelph history. The couple farmed at Lot 6, Con. 7 of Eramosa. The original Hill homestead there has been gone for many decades. Weary of trying to scratch out a living from the land, in 1848 James took his wife and young family, consisting of Mary, then aged 13, Jim, who was 10, and Alex­ander, 9, to Rockwood, where he operated a tavern.

Young Jim attended the famous Rockwood Academy for four years, though not in the surviving building, but in the original modest log school. He partially offset the fees by doing chores around the school. Jim quickly fell under the influence of the headmaster, William Wetherald, who instill­ed a passion for reading and learning that Hill retained the rest of his life. In old age, Hill would invariably speak of his old teacher, but would mention his own family much less often.

Brother Alec joined Jim at Wetherald’s school. The two boys, only a year apart in age, became inseparable. On one of their adventures Jim lost the sight of an eye through an ac­cident with a bow and arrow.

Jim Hill ended his formal education in 1852, on the death of his father. Anne continued to operate the tavern on her own.

To help support the family, Jim, who  was then 14, took a job as a clerk in Passmore’s Gen­eral Store in Rockwood. Mary, his sister, married a farmer named John Brooks of Eramosa in 1853. She was only 18, but soon had charge of a growing family that would eventually number 11 children. Young Alec also left the Rock­wood Academy on the death of his father. He assisted his moth­er at the tavern. Anne Hill soon tired of the tavern and the endless work. She moved to Guelph in 1854, along with her two sons.

It appears that young Jim Hill worked in at least one store in Guelph. In his later recollec­tions he gave contradictory accounts of the next two years of his life, and none of his versions coincide with those of his brother. In any case, Jim Hill left Guelph in January 1856, bound for New York.

The next few months were something of a travel adven­ture. Jim went from New York to Philadelphia, Baltimore, then south to Charleston and Savannah, before returning to New York. Not finding any em­ployment that appealed to him, in July 1856 he headed back home. He got as far as Toronto, but for some reason changed his mind, and decided to head west. Instead of a train to Guelph, he boarded one to Ham­il­ton, and then went on to Detroit. A week later he was in St. Paul, Minnesota. A couple of chums from his school days were there, and that may have played a role in his decision to go to St. Paul. 

He immediately found work as a clerk in a wholesaling busi­ness, and soon became involved in shipping on the Up­per Mississippi with an older partner, Norman Kittson. After that, the partners purchased a short railway that Hill expand­ed over the years. His business activities put him in contact with Donald Smith and George Stephen, organizers of the Cana­dian Pacific Railway. Hill was part of the original CPR consortium in the 1870s, but quit over the decision to build through the wilderness of nor­thern Ontario, rather than south of the Great Lakes via Chicago.

After arriving in St. Paul, Jim maintained some contact with his grandmother, but little with other members of his family until the 1860s. None were doing well. His sister Mary, saddled with a large family and a husband who could not earn enough by farm­ing or anything else to support them, appealed for help, and Jim began sending money reg­u­larly to her. His mother was also in difficulty, due, it ap­pears to her careless spending habits.

Jim sent money for both his sister and mother through Alec, who had managed through self-education to pass the examina­tions to qualify as a teacher. He taught at schools in Erin, and then Rockwood from 1872 un­til 1881, doing a little farming on the side to support his own family. He had married Jane Colelough, of Burford, in 1862. She died a year later. In 1867, he married Emma Day, of Guelph Township. The couple had three sons.

In the fall of 1876, Alec wrote his brother that their mother was in poor health, and had lost the optimistic, carefree spirit of her early and middle years. She had become increas­ingly reckless with money, Alec told his brother, and he had been doling Jim’s money to her as a monthly allowance, which made her furious.

Anne died a few days be­fore Christmas 1876. Jim Hill came home for the funeral, which was held at Everton Christian Church. He spent the evening talking over business affairs with Alec, whose skill with bookkeeping he admired and respected. It was clear that evening that Jim had become a very wealthy man.

The next morning Jim board­ed a train, heading back to St. Paul and his own wife and family. He would never re­turn to Wellington County. He did continue his correspon­dence with his brother, who re­ported on family affairs. Around that time, he sent Alec and his wife a railway pass to St. Paul. Alec enjoyed the trip, and lengthy discussions with his increasingly successful broth­er.

Alec had arranged for sister Mary’s oldest son to learn telegraphy in the mid 1870s, and Jim found a job for him on his railway. The arrangement did not turn out well. Jim had to dismiss his nephew for laziness and poor performance – the boy learned that his relation­ship with the boss gained him no special favours.

Herbert Wilfred Hill, Alec’s oldest son, did much better in his uncle’s employ. Jim placed him as a station agent at a small depot, and the boy performed superbly, rising through the ranks. He later transferred to the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, and held the position of general freight superinten­dent when he died in his early 40s.

Jim Hill was determined to give his own sons a good edu­cation, but was not impressed with the facilities available in St. Paul. He attempted for sev­eral years to lure his old teacher, William Wetherald, to come and act as a private tutor. He even sent a pass to bring Wetherald to see him, and gave him a gift of $500 when he left for home, but Wetherald could not be persuaded.

Alec moved to Guelph in 1881, and a couple of years later decided that teaching was not for him. Jim purchased a farm for him near Speedside, spending $14,000 altogether. Alec lived there until 1919, farming with one of his own sons. Then he retired to Fergus.

Mary, meanwhile, struggled with her family and unsuc­cessful husband, John Brooks. Jim bailed them out repeatedly, and eventually settled them on a farm in the 1870s, so that John Brooks could struggle with the land while his nieces worked at the Harris Woolen Mill in Rockwood. The large family eventually dispersed. Though some of the brood remained close to home. Mary died of cancer in 1905, four years after the death of her hus­band.

Meanwhile, Jim Hill ex­pand­ed his empire quickly. His original railway, the St. Paul and Pacific, extended branches across the prairies. He renamed the railway the Great Northern, and it completed a transcon­tinental line to Seattle in 1893. After that, Hill took over the Northern Pacific, then the Bur­lington, and several smaller lines. When he died in 1916, his rail empire extended from the Canadian border to Galves­ton, Texas. He left an estate of $52,000,000, worth perhaps 40 times that amount in present-day dollars.

Other than two nephews, it appears that no other relatives sought positions on Jim’s rail­ways. If they did they were un­successful. Apart from a few small charitable donations, James J. Hill left no big legacy to his birthplace, nor a major in­heritance to any of his Well­ington County relatives other than the farm he bought for his brother.

Alec’s eldest son worked for the Hill railways, but the other two sons remained close to their birthplace. Norman, the second son, farmed in Guelph Township, near Marden. He died in 1922. The youngest son, James J. Jr., whom Alec named after his brother, farmed with his father at Speedside on the farm that Jim bought for them in the 1880s. Like Alec he re­tired to Fergus, and died in 1960 at the age of 79.

So in answer to the question of J.J. Hill’s relatives: yes, there were a number of them who lived locally, but none achieved any kind of fame or wealth.



Stephen Thorning