THE IMMIGRANT TRAINS
Trains were a fat artery coursing with people and money, pulsing from the Twin Cities to Chicago on iron rails. Boxcars, mail cars, first class sleepers and dim immigrant cars raced back and forth in clouds of dust and cinders. Before World War I, 98 percent of inter-city transportation was by train. Today the trip takes about eight hours, passengers curl in cozy recliners and watch a world of crumbling brick buildings and new tin corrugated warehouses, of wet soybean fields and casino parking lots.
In Minnesota, railroads were almost synonymous with their most visible architect--James J. Hill. Hill loathed a "string of empties": a train of empty rail cars, usually on a return trip. In Hill's equation, if wheat, lumber, and coal were going to Chicago, then something, or someone, was coming back. Immigrants made perfect return-trip cargo.
Agents, primed by sales commissions, promised anything--cheap land without winter, without disease, heady with social mobility and wealth. A Vermont newspaper article titled "The Star of the North--Minnesota," guaranteed "in going to Minnesota [Vermonters] go to a land of promise, to where there are openings for all, and where all will succeed who go there... in that health giving State, with such a clime and such openings, there is no such word as fail." The State of Minnesota agreed, publishing a Dutch pamphlet "Minnesota, Its Advantages to Settlers," and the Norwegian-language "The Fatherland and the Emigrant," wherein Minnesota "will become one of the richest and most beautiful regions in America. The soil is fertile and easy to cultivate, for there is not so much as a stone or a stump in the way of the plow." In fact, the land was nothing but stumps--the remains of lumbering cut-overs. Families who spent their life savings on the trip had to stick it out. (Some did get away. Thirty-four Belgians abandoned their appalling Marshall County site the very day they arrived.)
Nevertheless, Hill's allies, both mighty and humble, kept the immigrants coming. Among the mightiest was Bishop John Ireland, an agent for Hill and the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (later the Great Northern) who was personally responsible for settling 369,000 Minnesota acres, earning 10 percent on all sales. Bishop Ireland didn't always have the best interests of his settlers in mind: A colony of Irish fishermen from Connemara, County Galway nearly starved to death trying to learn to farm near Graceville, MN. Minnesota lore holds St. Paul's Cathedral, seeded with Hill money, was an expression of Hill piety--or was it merely Minnesota's biggest kick-back?
The U.S. Government gave railroads land to encourage settlement. Hill sold the land at a profit to hopeful people, some of whom did very well, and some of whom never did. Farmers had but one route to market: through Hill's rails, and he hiked up prices in good years, erasing farmers' profits. Alternately, Hill allocated cars for schemes more profitable than agriculture, like sending steel rails or cotton to the coast, and from there to Japan. This left farmers stranded at the depot, their goods rotting in the sun. But Hill's was the only game around. No wonder even Jim Hill's biographer reported that children jumped rope singing:
"Twixt Hill and Hell there's just one letter;
Were Hill in Hell we'd feel much better."
One of Currier & Ives's most popular prints showed a group of men digging a locomotive out of snow--and a bearded man leaning on a shovel, watching. The slacker was popularly called Jim Hill. Farmers considered his name an expletive: "By Jesus H. Kee-ryst and Jim Jam Hill...." (Maybe the cumulative effect of these curses brought about Hill's painful and unusual death--from hemorrhoids. Gangrenous hemorrhoids.)
Jim Hill's nickname was The Empire Builder. Today, The Empire Builder is an Amtrak train running from Chicago to Seattle. It leaves Minneapolis for Chicago every morning, and returns late every night. It's the same route that the Germans, French Canadians, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians, Finns, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Russians, Italians and Romanians once took here. The sparkling vista of water is the same one seen by Italian stonemasons come to build the Twin Cities. The old stationhouse at Winona is the same one seen by a Czech mother, awake all night beside her china barrel in an immigrant car. The impressive view up the St. Paul Bluffs to Jim Hill's Summit Avenue house is the same one seen by Norwegian children in wool stockings and tiny short-brimmed caps.
But today the empire is built. The Midway Amtrak station is dull and formica filled. The dining car offers ham and cheese croissanwiches in cellophane microwave bags. Immigrants have been replaced by low-budget travelers: students, families, and people who like to look out the windows. Kids bury their faces in Gameboys, swallowtails dart around the Prairie Island Nuclear Power Plant. In Milwaukee, an old woman helpfully points out Jeffrey Dahmer's street.
Jim Hill said the railroad would remain long after he himself was forgotten. He was almost right. The rails do keep on, but are less frequently travelled, an artery plaquey and atrophied, carrying very little, hardly noticed. *
It must have been a quiet week at St. Cloud State University. Ten years ago the college hosted a Sinclair Lewis symposium, and, having exhausted the subject matter, a couple scholars presented treatises on GARRISON KIELLOR'S RADIO MONOLOGUES. Thus, a new field of study was born. In the intervening years, reams of scholarly discourse on the Bard of Lake Wobegon have appeared in print. We present this abbreviated survey of the literature in hopes that some institution of higher learning launches a Department of Keillor Studies.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.