SEATTLE, Wash. – “If Gatsby had lived, he would have been a great man. A man like James J. Hill. He had helped build the country.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.
While Jay Gatsby’s portrait is widely known in the United States, the actual individual to whom Fitzgerald compared him has nearly disappeared from the pages of history.
After 21 years of production, Great Northern Filmworks is trying to change all that with the release of its four-part documentary series, “The Empire Builder: James J. Hill and the Great Northern Railway.”
Produced and directed by filmmakers Stephen Sadis and Kyle Kegley, the documentary captures the epic life of one of America’s greatest entrepreneurs. As transport historian Carlos Schwantes states in the film’s opening, “I think what he did can only be described in one word: bold.”
To bring this production to life, Sadis first wrote a one-hour script in 2001, but was unable to raise production funds through grants. In 2008 he began underwriting the film himself, and with Kegley’s help a two-hour script was written and nine interviews with scholars and historians were filmed. The project was put on hold again until 2017 when they established Great Northern Filmworks, a non-profit organization. Over the next five years, a small budget was raised, the script evolved into a four-hour series, and another 17 interviews were filmed. Thousands of hours of editing later, the documentary was finished and released on September 30.
Nationally recognized historian and resident of Bismark, Clay Jenkinson was the
When the railroad ushered in one of the most transformative eras in American history, James J. Hill became its unrivaled leader. Building a shipping empire that stretched across North America and into the Orient, he was a catalyst for the farming, forestry, and mining industries of the West.
“He didn’t just change jobs; » said American economics professor Burton Folsom, “he changed the way the world worked.”
Hill was unlike any other railroad owner of his day. He was deeply interested in the development of the United States and, surprisingly, was an early advocate for the sustainable use of our nation’s resources, even mentioning “climate change” in a speech in 1909.
In 1878, Hill organized a syndicate to buy a local Minnesota railroad that had gone bankrupt three times. Within 15 years, he covered the Red River Valley of the Midwest with lines, then pointed his tracks west, crossing the Rockies and the Cascades to reach Seattle. What was once considered “two streaks of rust and a right of way,” Hill built into an extensive transportation network that continues today as the BNSF Railway.
Without the benefit of federal land grants, Hill had to build his transcontinental differently from other railroad barons. Seeking to take advantage of efficiencies, he demanded “the lowest slope, the least curvature and the shortest distance possible.” He also had to create the market to feed his railroad, scattering agents across the country and across Europe to lure tens of thousands of immigrants and settlers west. Hill viewed farmers as the “the backbone of prosperity” and used his influence and personal wealth to teach them the latest practices, encourage better harvests and provide farmers with essential short-term loans.
As the pendulum swung from the Golden Age into the Progressive Era, Hill was a lightning rod for the most impactful issues of the day: immigration, government regulations, market manipulation, the destruction of Trust, Native American Displacement, Environmental Stewardship, and Funding America. allies during the Great War.
The trailer and information on how to stream or purchase the documentary DVD are available at: www.greatnorthernfilmworks.com.
ND stories in the documentary
Stories included in the documentary regarding North Dakota include:
• James J. Hill blanketed the Red River Valley with branch lines connecting dozens of towns, allowing farmers to get their crops to market.
• Out of spite, Hill bypassed the city of Caledonia and built in Comstock which was later renamed Hillsboro
• In 1883, Hill’s line reached Devil’s Lake.
• Agents from the Far North sent to Germany and the Scandinavian countries brought a wave of immigrants to the region. Brochures presenting the region as the “Northern Nile”, attracted thousands of settlers.
• From 1870 to 1890, a period known as the Great Dakota Boom, the population of Dakota Territory grew from 2,000 to 190,000, more than half of whom were immigrants.
• In 1890, Germans and Scandinavians made up 44% of the population of the Midwest, forever changing the ethnic mix of the region.
• At the end of the 1886 construction season, Hill’s line was built 120 miles from North Central Dakota Territory.
• The 600-man construction team set up camp there, calling their tent village, “The Magic Town.” Over the next five months, the tents were replaced with houses and buildings, the population grew to 5,000, and the town was named Minot after Hill’s second vice-president, Henry Minot.