Review: The Empire Builder

The Empire Builder is a new four-part documentary on James J. Hill, the founder of the Great Northern Railway and a huge figure in the history of railroads in the northwestern USA (and parts of Canada). I was recently offered a chance to view the documentary. So far I’ve watched two of the four parts and I am very impressed.

I am not being compensated for this review – other than a free view of the film – and I do not earn anything if you choose to buy the documentary.

The Great Northern (GN) Railway was a transcontinental railway that ran from St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington through Marias Pass. Much of that railway is still in use today as part of BNSF, and Amtrak’s Empire Builder train runs over a portion of the ex GN route.

James J. Hill was the founder and driving force behind the GN. He acquired the fledgling St. Paul and Pacific Railroad and grew it westward, in stages. What was remarkable about the GN was that it was built without the federal land subsidies given to the Union Pacific, Central Pacific and other railways that went before it. Hill and the GN encouraged settlement along its lines to build traffic, and Hill managed the business prudently to finance expansion without bankruptcy. He earned the nickname “The Empire Builder” and the GN’s premiere passenger train was named after him.

This documentary by Great Northern Filmworks is meticulously researched and professionally produced, and provides an engrossing look into the life and works of James J. Hill. It is narrated by Clay Jenkinson and features interviews with many historians, including Terry Gainer (I’ve reviewed his books When Trains Ruled the Rockies and When Trains Ruled the Kootenays).

There’s not a lot of video available from Hill’s time period, so the documentary switches between interviews and still photos of Hill, the railroad and others in his era. I listened to a lot of it while puttering around the house, much like a podcast.

I was a little disappointed that The Empire Builder didn’t spend much time on the Canadian aspect of the Great Northern. The GN had lines into Canada in Manitoba (to Portage la Prairie, Morden and Brandon, as described on David Gagnon’s blog Rolly Martin Country) and into British Columbia at numerous places.

I really enjoyed The Empire Builder and I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the Great Northern and its successors Burlington Northern and BNSF.

You can buy the two DVD set or rent the documentary online at Great Northern Filmworks.