A four-part documentary about The Great Northern Railway will be released on September 30, telling the story of the man who built it.
“The Empire Builder: James J. Hill and The Great Northern Railway” ran for 21 years, its creators at Great Northern Filmworks said.
It was produced and directed by Stephen Sadis and Kyle Kegley.
The documentary captures the life of someone Sadis and Kegley describe as one of America’s greatest entrepreneurs. Hill County, Montana, where the Empire Builder, now operated by Amtrak, passes is named after him.
The movie took a few twists.
“It started with the idea of being a drama about an unscrupulous robber baron and turned into admiration for someone of incredible integrity,” Sadis said.
When the railroad ushered in one of the most transformative eras in American history, Hill built a transportation empire that stretched across North America and into the Orient.
He was seen as a catalyst for the agricultural, 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, who was born in Canada and died in Minnesota, was interested in the development of the United States and was an early advocate for the sustainable use of the country’s resources, even mentioning “climate change” in a speech in 1909.
In 1878 Hill organized a syndicate to buy a 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 derided as “two streaks of rust and a right of way”, Hill incorporated an extensive transportation network that continues today as the BNSF Railway.
“He kind of became a Forest Gump of his day for being a lightning rod for all of this evolving stuff,” Sadis said, adding that the story was more about the evolution of America.
Hill built the Montana Central Railway from Butte to Great Falls, where it connected to the Great Northern. Without the benefit of federal land grants, Hill had to build his transcontinental differently from other railroad barons. 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.
A considerable portion of the Far North now operates as the BNSF Railroad. Amtrak continues to offer service on the Empire Builder passenger train.
Paris Gibson, founder of the town of Great Falls, introduced Hill to the area.
Hill brought investors to Great Falls to build a hydroelectric plant to power future smelters. These investors included: Indiana Senator Benjamin Harrison, meatpacker Philip Armour, retail magnate Marshall Field, investor John Forbes, and Charles Perkins, chairman of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.
In Episode 2 there is also a nice mention of Helena and the arrival of Hill and his wife Mary in 1887 to celebrate the arrival of the railroad:
“Today the arrival of the special Hill train was greeted in royal fashion. A motorcade of 5,000 marched to the depot to meet the train with flags flying and marching band music. Turnout was huge, and when the procession left the depot it was at least two miles long.
Sadis said that Hill, despite all his accomplishments, was somehow placed on the fringes of history.
“His life has been filled with a handful of presidents, kings and prime ministers… He should be as well known as Rockefeller, Carnegie or Morgan. He’s kind of been pulled from the pages of history.”
Sadis hopes that PBS or something like Netflix will pick up the documentary, but for now it will be available for purchase on DVD or video-on-demand.
A four-minute trailer and information on how to stream or purchase the DVD are available at: www.greatnorthernfilmworks.com. The two-DVD set is $99.99 and the video-on-demand is $79.99.
Sadis said he first wrote a one-hour screenplay 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 minimal budget was raised, the script evolved into a four-hour series, and another 17 interviews were filmed, he said in a press release.
Emily Mayer, director of the H. Earl Clack Museum in Havre, the county seat of Hill County, was unaware of the documentary, but was excited to see it — for several reasons.
“I think it’s fabulous,” she said, adding that James Hill was not only important to Hill County, but also to his family.
She said her grandfather, John Mayer, was Hill’s “right hand man” and had worked for Hill for years. John Mayer died of a work-related injury, and Hill named a small town in Minnesota after him.
Mayer said she knew there were several books on Hill, but hadn’t heard of a documentary.
“It’s going to be interesting,” she said.