“That it is possible in spending a single dollar to stimulate the flow of many more or to fulfill several purposes was the precious lesson Hill learned in witnessing his many business and civic efforts achieve bold transformations.”
– Louis W. Hill, 1872–1948

Wisdom, Vision and Compassion

Louis W. Hill had a lifetime interest in education, research, health, welfare and the arts. His intellectual curiosity, his concern for his fellowman and his belief in and support of thoughtfully conceived pioneering in all fields were evident throughout his entire life. Hill had that rare ability to perceive the potentials inherent in this nation’s human and natural resources.

Hill and his wife, Maud, looked hard at what existed and were able to see beneath the surface—to the possibility, the animating dream.  Their way of perceiving the world around them, combined with the wisdom they evidenced in the way they used their wealth, constitutes their legacy as much as do the funds that comprise the Foundation’s resources.  It is the challenge felt by those who work every day to invest those funds in changes for better living worthy of the public trust in private initiative.

Family Life 

Louis W. Hill was born in Saint Paul on May 19, 1872, the son of “Empire Builder” James Jerome and Mary Theresa (Mehegan) Hill. He was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Sheffield Scientific School, Yale University, in 1893. 

On June 5, 1902, Hill married Maud Van Cortlandt Taylor, daughter of Cortlandt M. Taylor, in New York City. They had four children: Louis Warren, Jr.; Maud Van Cortlandt; James Jerome II; and Cortlandt Taylor Hill.

From Yale to Rail

After Yale, Hill began his career in the Great Northern Railway accounting department under his father’s tutelage. He progressed up the ranks as a mechanic in the Great Northern ships, later as a clerk to a section foreman and master carpenter, finally ending up in the general offices learning how to administer the ever-growing business.

In 1895, Hill became a billing clerk in Duluth. His engineering and geological training at Yale enabled him to see Northeastern Minnesota’s great iron ore potential, not only as railroad freight, but to the total national economy. His initial purchase of 25,000 acres of land from Michigan timber interests on June 22, 1898, was followed by additional purchases and leases, culminating in the creation of the Great Northern Iron Ore Properties Trust in 1906. He was its founding president and board chairman until 1945, remaining as a trustee until his death in 1948.

By 1898, Hill was an executive in the railroad, and he became the president of the Great Northern system in 1907 upon his father’s retirement, succeeding him as chairman of the board in 1912. He served as both president and board chairman from 1914 to 1919, and continued as board chairman until his retirement on October 10, 1929.

Late in life, Hill’s father commented to his close friend, George Macpherson, “If I could do L.W. over, I wouldn’t change a thing.” Louis Hill’s power to achieve success was demonstrated time and again. Three years after his father purchased the First National Bank of Saint Paul (the original office location for the Foundation), Louis Hill had made it the second largest bank west of the Mississippi. His friend, Judge Charles N. Pray, Montana Congressman, said, “L. W. was a better salesman on his knees than most people were on both feet.”

Catalyst for Progress

Louis Warren Hill’s sagacity, combined with the power of his dollars, allowed him to act as a catalyst for progress and the advancement of economic and social well-being of his community and country. His ability to see potential and to underwrite its development was coupled with commitment, skill and hard. Louis’ father, James J. Hill, once remarked to a friend, “Shares of stock are nothing more than the man behind them – for of what avail are all the equipment and assets of a railroad or any other institution unless there are men in control who know how to run it?”

A Love of the West, the Foresight to Invest

Hill had a great love for the West and concern for its people. During his frequent business trips, he explored it on horseback, by wagon and automobile, sleeping on the prairies, in ranch houses and primitive communities, studying the land, talking and listening to the people. It was said that he knew more people of more kinds west of the Mississippi than any other man. He believed that the basic wealth and prosperity of the nation came from the soil, and his business sense was keen enough not only to encourage the development of mining and agriculture, but also to carry it, once developed, as freight on the railroad.

Farming in Montana

Hill was especially interested in Montana’s farming potential. At first people laughed at his dream of turning 93 million acres of semiarid land into wheat-producing country. But in seven years, under his discerning leadership in irrigation and reclamation, Montana was shipping 25 million bushels of wheat instead of 2.5 million, and it was being shipped via the Great Northern. Thanks to Hill, Montana’s farmers had greater financial stability.

Glacier National Park

Hill knew the lands through which the railway tracks were laid. He studied its history, the flora and fauna, and especially the Indian tales. One of his favorite places was the area that became Glacier National Park – largely through his efforts. He worked with legislators and conservationists to preserve its beauty, and designed and constructed hotels and chalets so that visitors from other parts of the nation could enjoy its beauty. These hotels and chalets were organized into the Glacier Park Hotel Company in 1914. Hill outfitted two open-air flat cars so that the railway passengers could get a breathtaking view as they crossed the Continental Divide.

Beyond Railroads, Banking and Mining

Railroads, banking and mining were Hill’s prime interests, but this energetic man also found time for many other activities. He realized that railroads needed good access to roads for shipping freight, and this led to his interest in automobiles and road building. He served as chairman to the Minnesota State Highway Commission from 1917 to 1920.

In addition to being an accomplished painter and art collector, he also had a great love for music. He was president of the Saint Paul Orchestral Association for a number of years.

In an effort to make Saint Paul the most popular winter resort in America, he promoted the Saint Paul Winter Carnival in 1916 and 1917. The colorful costumes, ice palace, sporting events and parades were a time for great festivities; the event is still a winter highlight to this today.

He also was interested in developing the 4-H program and arranged for special Great Northern Railway cars to transport children and their animals through rural Minnesota during the late 1920s.

Hill and his wife supported not only business ventures and civic programs on which they themselves were working, but also others’ endeavors, contributing to health and cultural institutions and projects, in particular. When the Depression-engendered unemployment crisis sent thousands in search of help in 1932, the Hills’ interest in and commitment to others’ welfare deepened. Concerned with the grave unemployment situation not only as it affected individual lives that came to his attention, but also as it was the outgrowth of an unhealthy system, Hill turned to A.A. Heckman—who had headed United Charities of Saint Paul and was then serving as director of Family Services—for advice on how he might provide short-term relief and for discussion on how to bring about fundamental changes in the system. Because there was little public welfare money available then, the primary responsibility for relief was falling on the private sector. 

Grocery staples, carrots, apples, packed in what came to be called “L.W. Hill Barrels 1 and 2,” brought in from the West aboard the Great Northern Railway and dispersed with Heckman’s aid, became Hill’s short-term relief. Long-term relief came a few years later, with the Lexington Foundation.

Establishing the Foundation

Hill studied and observed the structure and performance of a number of foundations, trusts and endowments before he decided to establish a philanthropic foundation. In 1934, the Lexington Foundation Inc. was founded in accordance with Hill’s desire for anonymity. In 1950, several years after Hill died, the trustees renamed the Foundation the “Louis W. and Maud Hill Family Foundation” in recognition of Hill and his wife’s gifts and to reaffirm the continuing interest of succeeding family generations in the founder’s objectives.

Today, in what is now known as the Northwest Area Foundation, the capital funds consist principally of gifts made and caused to be made by Louis W. Hill during his lifetime and the bequest of the residue of his estate.

Information for this history on Louis W. Hill originated from the 1972 and 1974 Louis W. and Maud Hill Family Foundation annual reports.