Some called him “The Empire Builder,” while detractors snubbed him as the “Robber Baron.” James J. Hill was inextricably linked to Lake Minnetonka and helped establish its pristine waters as a playground for the well-to-do.
Hill began his career in earnest by buying up the floundering St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, formerly the Minnesota & Pacific Railroad, saving the company from bankruptcy. With the huge purchase, Hill acquired the first locomotive maintenance center in the state that had been set up on St. Paul’s Jackson Street in 1862.
As Hill expanded his railroad, he wielded his power mercilessly by threatening to bypass Minnesota towns unless they gave him their best real estate for free. Rather than risk being left to obscurity, the town of Wayzata battled the powerful businessman, but finally surrendered to Hill’s tactics and donated prime downtown Lake Minnetonka property to Hill. To be unconnected to the burgeoning railroad system was economic suicide for a town.
The Homestead Act of 1862 opened up the land to homesteaders, but some settlers had already squatted on the land that the U.S. government had essentially given to the railroads. Minnesota alone gave an estimated $51 million worth of land and grants to the railroads—mostly J.J. Hill.
Hill celebrated the completion of his railway at his fabulous Hotel Lafayette at Minnetonka Beach, which cost him $815,000 to complete in 1882. Guests included many generals, governors, senators and ambassadors from prominent European countries who were carried by Hill’s own train right to the door of the fabulous hotel with 300 rooms overlooking Lake Minnetonka.
By 1897, Hill was losing money on the fabulous Hotel Lafayette and planned to tear it down the next year to avoid further losses. Right after the water was turned off for the winter to avoid pipes bursting, a blaze ripped through the building and burned to the ground the extensive five-story building.
The hotel was small potatoes for the Hill, though, who focused on his ever-expanding railroad that he renamed the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba and eventually the Great Northern Railroad. Because of his shrewd business deals, Hill formed the largest railway system in the world at the time with its center in St. Paul. Every year, Wayzata celebrates James J. Hill Days in September at the most beautiful station on that line that Hill built once he made peace with the town that dared challenge his might.