New ‘Empire Builder’ documentary is about more than just railroad history

Sep 21, 2022, 10:55 AM | Updated: 11:28 am

After more than two decades of work, a new documentary about James J. Hill, the founder of the Great Northern Railway, will premiere online later this month. Hill, whose nickname is “Empire Builder, ” is considered by many to be one of the most consequential figures in Northwest history.

You can’t really overstate the importance of railroads in the 19th century in terms of economic expansion and linking the country together culturally and politically. The economic part is still true to this day, as the recent threat of a railroad strike showed just last week. But this new four-hour documentary – “The Empire Builder: James J. Hill and The Great Northern Railway” – is about far more than just tracks, ties, and spikes.

Seattle filmmaker Stephen Sadis has made a number of local history documentaries, focusing on such topics as the Seattle Rainiers baseball team and the old Interurban railroad.

Hill is a complex figure who is still understandably revered by many, but who also had his fair share of detractors. After farmers suffered from crop failures that weren’t exactly Hill’s fault, Hill was easy to blame, says Stephen Sadis.

“There are weeds named after Hill,” Sadis told KIRO Newsradio. “There’s a famous poem about him, ‘Twixt Hill and Hell there’s just one letter, were Hill in Hell we’d feel much better.’ I mean, there was some real acrimony towards James J. Hill, which is such a cruel irony in terms of what he tried to do to make their lives so much better.”

It can be reductive and downright silly when someone tries to compare people from different eras – saying that “Rupert Murdoch is the Genghis Khan of the 2000s” or some other dubious pairing.

Asked by a reductive and downright silly radio historian to compare James J. Hill to some modern figure, Sadis first names Bill Gates, then reconsiders when the founder of Amazon is suggested as an alternative.

“You know, actually that might be a better analog,” Sadis said. “Bezos went in with the idea that we’re going to lose money for the first 25 years, but he’s going to build market share. And Hill was a big advocate of seeing different markets, finding out if there are rate-pooling or price-fixing agreements among railroad and steamship companies, and he would go in there and figure out if he could undercut them.”

“And that is what [Hill] did, time after time after time,” Sadis continued. “And so he was all about volume, he was all about greater tonnage [and] lower fares” – and being in business for the long haul, regardless of the ups and downs of the daily market.”

In the past few decades, the so-called “Great Men of History” model – where major history-changing events are attributed to the actions of a sole (typically) white male of European descent – has come to be discredited for the way it oversimplifies stories about the past. Somehow, James J. Hill seems to be an exception.

Hill was born in Canada in 1838. He founded what ultimately became the Great Northern Railway in the 1870s. That railroad built the cross-country route that came over Stevens Pass, and which boosted Seattle’s fortunes by choosing it for the Great Northern’s terminus. Tacoma and the Northern Pacific be damned.

It’s a complex story – Sadis’ “Empire Builder” documentary does clock in at four hours long – from Hill’s modest upbringing in Ontario to his rise in Minnesota as a young shipping clerk, all the way to creating the Great Northern Railway and building a route across the country without government subsidy, and being the only transcontinental railroad to never declare bankruptcy.

Sadis says Hill impacted the Northwest in many diverse ways. He did things like helping develop the apple industry in Wenatchee, and lowering eastbound shipping rates to create a market for Northwest lumber on the other side of the country (and, not incidentally, reducing the number of empty boxcars being hauled on those eastbound trips).

Hill and his lieutenants, including people like Seattle Judge Thomas Burke, altered the built environment in ways that still affect where we live.

Hill gets credit for the 1904 railroad tunnel under downtown Seattle, and how it cleaned up and reorganized the waterfront, making it easier for rail and the growing urban core to co-exist. The Great Northern also built the 1914 Salmon Bay Bridge west of the Ballard Locks – which is in the process of being preserved and rebuilt by BNSF, the ultimate successor to the Great Northern.

Stephen Sadis has his own favorite James J. Hill landmark.

“King Street Station down at the south end of the city was built in 1906,” Sadis said. “And while I was reading about it, I had no idea that it’s almost an exact duplicate of the Campanile in Venice. And I also didn’t know that it used to be the tallest structure in the whole city before the Smith Tower.”

Sadis says King Street Station was the tallest building in Seattle for eight years before the Smith Tower was built in 1914. Incidentally, it took until the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair for the Space Needle to end the Smith Tower’s reign as the city’s tallest structure.

And it was during an earlier Seattle World’s Fair – the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition held on the University of Washington campus – when Hill demonstrated his progressive thinking and pure brilliance.

Stephen Sadis says it was there and then that Hill gave an ahead-of-its-time speech.

“He tells the people of the Northwest, he says this is the last bastion of natural resources this country has,” Sadis said. Hill, he continued, asked “’What are you going to do with your soil? What are you going to do with your salmon? What are you going to do with your timber? What you going to do to preserve these things?’ because his experience was that he’d seen the Midwest be devastated.”

“And the crazy thing about it is in 1909 he mentions climate change as a result of these clear-cutting practices,” Sadis continued. “And so this is a fellow who had access to a lot of data. He had a photographic memory and absorbed all of this stuff translated it and forecasted it better than anyone.”

And though it’s not as tall as the Smith Tower – or King Street Station – there’s still a big statue of James J. Hill on campus left over from that 1909 fair.

While Sadis didn’t begin work on his “Empire Builder” documentary in 1909, its origins can be traced back pretty far: more than 25 years.

“In 1996 I interviewed a fellow named Warren Wing who was a railroad historian,” Sadis said. “We did a documentary on the Seattle-Tacoma Interurban, and I asked him casually what other railroads he found interesting and he mentioned the Great Northern. So I pursued that as an interest, and then in 2001 I wrote a script and tried to raise money for it, and that didn’t go so well.”

In “fits and spurts” Sadis says, he and his small team worked on what eventually became the film being released this month, with the pandemic at least partially to blame for the final two years of delay.

Maybe it’s fitting that a film about James J. Hill took as long as it did to produce. More than a century after Hill died, Sadis’ “Empire Builder” shows how Hill is still justifiably considered to be a larger than life character. So large, in fact, he even found his way into one of the greatest works of American literature.

After the new film was done, Sadis rode by rail – on the Empire Builder, the cross-country train named after Hill, from St. Paul to Portland – along with 20 of Hill’s descendants. Along the way, Sadis presented an in-motion private preview of the entire production.

“After watching one of the episodes which has the quote on it from F. Scott Fitzgerald that says, ‘if Gatsby had lived, he would have been a great man, he’d have been like James J. Hill and would have built up this country,’” Sadis said, “this kid comes up to a relative of his and he said, ‘I just finished reading The Great Gatsby and I had no idea that my great-great-grandfather is being compared to Jay Gatsby.”

“For him to put that together, that was kind of rewarding,” Sadis said.

DVDs of “The Empire Builder: James J. Hill and The Great Northern Railway” are available for purchase now; streaming begins Sept. 30.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or questions, please email Feliks here.

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New ‘Empire Builder’ documentary is about more than just railroad history