They called him the Empire Builder.
James Jerome Hill was born in 1838 in a log house about 50 miles west of what we now call Toronto, coincidentally right about the time that the barely existent railroad industry kicked off its very first developments in the then-untouched wilderness of British Canada. Hill and the Canadian railroad system grew up together, and by the time Hill reached adulthood, the industry was well established but ripe for expansion. It would be the way he’d make his great fortune—and how Seattle’s grand transportation depot King Street Station would come to exist.
In the decades following the Lewis and Clark expedition, Washington was a wild, mountainous, largely unexplored (by white settlers, at least) part of the Oregon Territory that wasn’t even finished being mapped out yet, much less connected by roads or railways. The Puget Sound region in particular was almost totally isolated by the Cascade mountain range, accessible only by wagon or inland waterways. But in 1879, the St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway Company formed with the express goal of expanding its routes in general—and Hill, its general manager and later its president, had his mind set on a new transcontinental route. It would be called the Great Northern Railroad.
This plan was initially hatched a few years earlier, in 1873, by Philadelphia financier Jay Cooke, who pledged his fortune to a different company, the Northern Pacific Railroad, to build a route from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, ending in Tacoma. But Cooke’s fortune dissipated in the Great Panic of 1873—Cooke’s fortune suddenly dissipated, and the project was no longer bankrolled. However, the railroad had socked hundreds of thousands of dollars into investments in Tacoma’s Commencement Bay port, and they had no option but to stick to the plan. On December 16, 1874, the first steam train pulled into a lackluster new station in Tacoma, and the Northern Pacific railroad filed for bankruptcy (but survived) in 1875, for the first of several times.
Hill saw an opportunity to compete with the Northern Pacific by building his own railway from St. Paul to Seattle, not Tacoma (although he also openly teased Everett and Bellingham with feigned interest). Hill’s route would run nearer to the Canadian border, an extension of the mining route that he’d already built, which ran from St. Paul, Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin and through South Dakota before ending in Butte, Montana.
Hill busied himself with route planning, traveling by horseback along the proposed railway routes to check them out personally, despite being blind in one eye from a childhood accident. But Hill was not the most popular dude and had plenty of detractors in this endeavor. Tacoma resident E. G. Griggs, whose father had been a business partner of Hill’s back in Minnesota, told the Tacoma Daily News of Hill, ”He had the reputation of being an exacting man and hard to get along with, but at the same time it was recognized these qualities made him the forceful man he was, a man brilliant in large achievements.”
Perhaps thanks to his temperament, or just the enormity of the task, his critics called the project “Hill’s Folly.” Hill ignored them, of course, allegedly replying, “Give me Swedes, snuff, and whiskey, and I’ll build a railroad through hell.”
Meanwhile, the only train station serving Seattle until about 1880 was a tiny wooden shack set among the sawmills in the Elliott Bay tidelands, on Railroad Avenue, which we now call Alaskan Way. A slightly larger clapboard station, sometimes called the Columbia Street Depot, was wiped out by the Great Seattle Fire in 1889, along with most of downtown. Neither of these buildings were passenger-friendly; the idea was to load and unload freight, not people. The year following the fire, the Northern Pacific Railroad bought out the station and the tracks, replacing the station with one more accommodating to passengers, replete with benches and magazine vendors. But the station was small, the area was dirty, and Seattle was growing fast.
Hill’s Great Northern Railroad purchased the troubled, cash-poor Northern Pacific in 1901. The following year, a large plat of muddled tidelands at King and Jackson Streets were filled in preparation for development, and construction on the new train depot began in 1904, intended to support both the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railways. The L-shaped, steel-framed, brick-and-granite King Street Station opened to passengers on May 10, 1906. Designed by St. Paul–based architects Charles Reed and Allen Stem, who would go on to design New York’s City’s Grand Central Station, the lavish, palatial building contrasted starkly with all transit stations that Seattle had seen to date and would prove to be instrumental in the city’s evolution.
The architectural style was a mishmash of what’s now called Railroad Italianate, patterned after stations in King’s Cross and Paddington in London. John Caldbick describes it in over on Historylink.org in detail:
The ground floor was reinforced concrete with granite facing on the exterior and the upper two floors were solid brick masonry faced with pressed brick. A thick terra cotta entablature ringed the building where the walls met the roof, and additional terra cotta detailing framed the windows. Other decorative elements were of both terra cotta and cast stone. All was topped by a tile-covered hipped roof, and at the building’s rear long shed roofs gave shelter to those getting on and off the trains.
Right away, King Street Station was best known across the city for its iconic 242-foot clock tower (or campanile), featuring four 14-foot-wide clock faces made by Boston’s E. Howard & Co., which also created the clocks for San Francisco’s Ferry Building and Chicago’s Wrigley Building. The campanile itself is modeled after the one at Piazza San Marco in Venice and was the tallest structure in Seattle until the Smith Tower was finished in 1914. When the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railways later merged into Burlington Northern Railroad, the campanile served as a microwave tower—one of more than 100 such towers that formed a nationwide communications skyway beginning in 1951.
After the tower, the waiting areas were the most appreciated features of the new station. In comparison to Columbia Street Depot, where passengers were required to cross the muddy, dusty train tracks on foot and subject to all the noises and stenches of the trains themselves, King Street Station offered a grand, elegant, sanitary waiting space that made the previous station look like a bus stop. A heavily ornamented, coffered three-story ceiling hosted a second-floor gallery with a balcony that looks out over the crowd. Other original details included fluted Corinthian columns, white marble column accented with glass mosaic tiles, a colossal bronze chandelier, and inlaid square mosaic tiles on the terrazzo floor.
As time marched on and air travel became more common and passenger trains fell out of vogue, the station fell into disrepair. According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, “A series of renovations in the 1940s, 50s and 60s ... removed the plaster and marble walls, glass mosaic tiles and covered the plaster ceiling with acoustical tiles. The historic light fixtures were replaced with fluorescent lights. The terrazzo floor was cracked and in disrepair.”
Fortunately, the once-glorious station was still a priority for the city in the 1990s, with interest being stirred up in 1991, and by 1998, the SDOT had kicked off a plan for restoration. The city purchased the station for $10 (as it was unable to cut a check for $1) in 2008, and sank $56 million into the project via a number of sources, including $16.7 million from the Federal Transit Administration. The overhaul was designed by Portland firm ZGF Architects.
On April 24, 2013, after more than 20 years of slow-going progress, King Street Station’s refurbished passenger waiting hall reopened to a crowd of 500 and a celebratory brass band, showcasing improvements such as the restored super-ornate plaster ceiling—once marred by bolts and cables used to suspend the drop ceiling from the 1950s. The makeover featured replaced marble panels that had been previously missing, a huge new chandelier, a retiled and highly polished terrazzo floor, and a fresh new steel skeleton to hold it all up, unseen to the public eye.
Upon retiring in 1912, James J. Hill wrote about the Great Northern railway: “Most men who have really lived have had, in some shape, their great adventure.This railway is mine.” Seattle’s—and by extension Washington State’s—destiny was shaped enormously by Hill’s contributions in the form of that railway and the magnificent King Street Station he built along with it. Although Hill was memorialized in countless ways by prominent and ordinary citizens alike, through statues, museums, and newspaper tributes ,perhaps the most appropriate one is Amtrak’s busiest long-distance route: The Empire Builder, a passenger train connecting Seattle and Chicago, which is named in his honor.