Samuel Hill

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Sketch of Hill in 1889, the year after he married

Samuel Hill (May 13, 1857 – February 26, 1931),[1] usually known as Sam Hill, was an American businessman, lawyer, railroad executive and advocate of good roads in the Pacific Northwest. He substantially influenced the region's economic development in the early 20th century.

His projects include the Peace Arch, a monument to 100 years of peace between the United States and Canada, on the border between Blaine, Washington and Surrey, British Columbia; the Maryhill Museum of Art, a building originally conceived as a residence; and Maryhill Stonehenge, a replica of Stonehenge in Maryhill, Washington, a memorial to fallen World War I soldiers from Klickitat County, Washington.


Hill's 1910 concrete mansion in Seattle, designed by Washington, D.C. architects Hornblower and Marshall
Hill's mansion on the Columbia River, now the Maryhill Museum
A plaque honoring Samuel Hill, mounted on the Peace Arch
Tombstone of Samuel Hill near Maryhill Stonehenge

Sam Hill was born into a Quaker family in Deep River, North Carolina.[2] Displaced by the American Civil War, he grew up after the war in Minneapolis, Minnesota.[3] After graduating from Haverford College in 1878 and Harvard University in 1879, he returned to Minneapolis, where he practiced law.[4] A number of successful lawsuits against the Great Northern Railway attracted the attention of the railway's general manager James J. Hill, who hired him to represent the railway.[5] They also became family in 1888, when Sam Hill married J. J. Hill's eldest daughter Mary.[6]

For over a decade, Hill played an important role in his father-in-law's enterprises, both at the Great Northern and as president of the Minneapolis Trust Company.[7] However, around 1900 they had some type of falling out, the nature and degree of which is not clear. Indeed, it is not even clear whether the falling out was primarily over business matters, over some possible early symptoms of the manic tendencies Sam would show late in life, or over Sam and Mary's apparently increasingly fractious marriage.[8] In any event, the break was not a sharp one: the two men continued a friendly correspondence in business matters.[9]

After a 1901 journey across Russia on the then not-quite-completed Trans-Siberian Railway,[10] Hill settled in 1902 in Seattle, Washington, where he had major interests in the Seattle Gas and Electric Company, which was focused mainly in the coal gas business.[11] Hill had already announced his intention to settle in Seattle in December 1900.[12] His wife Mary did not take well to the Northwest, and moved back to Minneapolis with their two children without him after six months. Hill stayed in Seattle and embarked on a number of ventures in the Northwest.[13]

Sam Hill devoted much attention to advocating good roads in Washington and Oregon.[14] He also advocated the use of convict labor to build roads.[15] Hill created the Washington State Good Roads Association in September 1899,[16] which association persuaded the Washington State Legislature to create the Washington State Department of Transportation in 1905.[17] In 1907, Hill persuaded the University of Washington to establish the United States' first chair in highway engineering.[18] After failing to convince Washington State to build a highway on the north bank of the Columbia River,[18] he convinced Oregon officials to build the scenic Columbia River Highway, which linked coastal Astoria, Oregon and The Dalles, Oregon.[19] He was also a strong advocate of better roads for Japan and of Japanese-American friendship, which earned him the Third Class Order of the Sacred Treasure in 1922.[20]

Starting in 1907, Sam Hill bought land in Klickitat County, Washington near the Columbia River, envisioning a new community in the Inland Empire. He bought up most of what had been a small settlement known as "Columbia" or "Columbus" and named the parcel Maryhill, after his wife and his daughter Mary (who never actually lived there). His original plan was to develop it as a community of Quaker farmers, but he was the only Quaker to ever reside there.[21] The land proved useful for his transportation advocacy. Between 1909 and 1913 he built, at his own $100,000 expense, the first macadam asphalt-paved road in the Pacific Northwest, experimenting over its 10-mile (16 km) length with seven different paving techniques.[22] Part of this road (now called the Maryhill Loops Road) is still open to pedestrians and bicyclists.[23] As part of Hill's advocacy for good roads, Oregon governor Oswald West and the Oregon Legislative Assembly visited Maryhill in 1913.[24] Hill also began to build a mansion at Maryhill, but the project was not completed in his lifetime, due to a combination of financial reversals and his frustration at the State of Washington's failure to build a road on the north bank of the Columbia or to otherwise make the area readily accessible. He eventually decided—at the urging of his friend Loie Fuller—to convert the building into an art museum. The museum was dedicated by Queen Marie of Romania in 1926, but did not open to the public until 1940, nine years after Hill's death.[25]

Hill constructed two notable monuments. The replica of Stonehenge, at Maryhill, commemorates the dead of World War I, while the Peace Arch, where today's Interstate 5 highway crosses the U.S.–Canada border, celebrates peaceful relations and the open border between the two nations.[26]

Hill died in 1931 from natural causes, diagnosed as "an abscess of the lesser peritoneal cavity which had ruptured into the stomach, producing 'fatal terminal hemorrhages'."[27] At the time he became acutely ill with the disease, he was on his way to address the Oregon state legislature on the subject of the need to regulate trucks in order to protect the condition of highways, and was hoping to follow this with a similar address to the Washington legislature.[28] Hill chose a ledge below his Stonehenge replica for his burial site, and designed his own monument; but that monument did not last, and has since been replaced.[29]

The Sam Hill Memorial Bridge, which carries U.S. Route 97 across the Columbia River near Maryhill, is named for him.[30] There is also a plaque in his honor at Chanticleer Point.[29]


After leaving the employ of his father-in-law J.J. Hill, Sam Hill undertook a variety of business ventures and other projects, with varied results. His Seattle Gas and Electric Company was continually in hard-fought rivalry with other utilities, most notably head-on competition with the Citizens' Light and Power Company, whose leadership included several defectors from Hill's company. Ultimately, after a price war, he was able to sell the company's gas facilities to the consolidated Seattle Lighting Company in 1904 on favorable terms.[31] Another venture into utilities was less successful: the Home Telephone Company of Portland, Oregon pioneered rotary dial telephones in the region, but ultimately this independent telephone company lost out to the better-integrated Bell System. Its stockholders were wiped out, and bondholders—Hill himself was the largest of these—ultimately received 70 cents on the dollar.[32] Another business failure of his was the Deep Water Coal and Iron Company in Alabama. At the end of his life, the shares in this last enterprise were worthless, due in part to the Great Depression.[33]

A more successful, if more modest, undertaking was a golf course and a large but simple restaurant—basically, an early entry into fast food—at Semiahmoo just north of the U.S.-Canada border and his Peace Arch. It did not hurt that, being on the Canadian side, the restaurant could serve alcoholic beverages during Prohibition in the United States.[34]

Taken as a whole, the attempt to create Maryhill was one of Hill's least successful ventures. Involving an investment of at least US$600,000,[35] it never paid back in any significant measure.[21]

Personal and family life[edit]

Hill married Marie Francis Hill (also known as Mamie Hill and, after their marriage, as Mary Hill Hill) on September 6, 1888. Sam Hill was a Quaker, Mary a Catholic. He agreed that their children—Mary Mendenhall Hill, born July 3, 1889 and James Nathan Branson Hill, born August 23, 1893—would be raised Catholic, and over the next decade or two Sam Hill retained excellent relations, sometimes even close friendships, with various Catholic clergymen. A generous wedding gift from her father placed them immediately into the ranks of the wealthy. However, their marriage was never a love match, and by the time Sam had decided to settle in Seattle, the marriage was coming apart. Mary moved back to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and eventually to Washington, D.C. She never returned to Seattle; he continued to visit her in the Midwest or East at least twice a year until 1907 and even bought an estate at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he hoped they would occasionally stay together, but their relationship became increasingly chilly.[36] Furthermore, Mary increasingly withdrew from the world. By 1921 she was described by the St. Paul Pioneer Press as "virtually an invalid," although she lived until 1947.[37]

Because Mary was a Catholic, divorce was out of the question and the possibility may never even have been discussed.[38] It is not clear whether Sam had been unfaithful to his wife before they drifted apart, but he certainly did not remain faithful afterward: he had at least three children by other women, and he provided for them by setting up trusts in their names, insurance policies etc. One of these is identified by Hill biographer John E. Tuhy, writing in 1983, only as a "son who lives in British Columbia".[39] Another was Elizabeth Ehrens, born December 27, 1914, to Annie Laurie Whelan, Sam's secretary at Home Telephone Company. Elizabeth was legitimized by her mother's marriage of convenience to a German Swiss man named Henry Ehrens; he soon went back permanently to Europe, and a divorce was granted in 1918.[40] Finally, there was Sam B. Hill, born August 1928, his son by the flamboyant reporter Mona Bell, a former bareback rider who may have appeared in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. Some time before they had a child together, Sam bought Mona 35 acres (140,000 m2) on the Columbia River and built her a 22-room house (eventually lost to the construction of the Bonneville Dam).[41] Sam arranged a marriage of convenience for Mona Bell to his cousin Edgar Hill, again allowing his child to be raised as legitimate.[42]

As for his legitimate children, Mary suffered all of her life from emotional and mental problems, and was institutionalized much of her life.[43] James lived the life of a wealthy man, but never made any particular mark on the world.[44]

Scholarly pursuits[edit]

Hill graduated from Haverford College (also his father's alma mater[45]) in 1878 and attended Harvard University for a year to receive a second bachelor's degree in 1879. At Haverford he studied Latin, Greek, French and German as well as math, science, English literature, logic, rhetoric, and political science. At Harvard he continued his Latin and history ("Colonial History of America" under Henry Cabot Lodge) and studied forensics and philosophy ("German Philosophy of the Present Day" and "Advanced Political Economy").[4] Despite attending only one year, he became an extremely active Harvard alumnus, joining (and, at times, leading) Harvard Clubs in several cities both in the U.S. and participating for several years in the Board of Overseers even though it necessitated several transcontinental trips each year to attend meetings.[46]

Hill was fluent in German, French, and Italian.[18] He also learned at least a moderate amount of Russian.[47] In the early 20th century, he was the only American member of the Geographic Society of Germany.[48]

Hill served for a time as vice president of the Minneapolis Athenaeum, and recruited George Putnam as its librarian in 1884. In 1907, he gave them a collection of Chinese prints. He eventually acquired all the stock of the Athenaeum Company, which he donated to the Minneapolis Foundation.[49]

From 1902 to 1914, Hill repeatedly commissioned, and gave as gifts, high-quality globes of German manufacture.[50] He continually gathered harbor soundings (depths) and information about ocean temperatures in order to map ocean currents; he had this information added to custom-made globes.[50]


An "inveterate globetrotter,"[51] Hill visited Japan nine times between 1897 and 1922[52] and made at least fifty separate trips to Europe in the course of his lifetime,[53] all of this in an era when travel was entirely by surface transportation. Among the friends he made in his travels were King Albert I of Belgium, who made him a Commander of the Crown and Honorary Belgian Consul for Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and Queen Marie of Romania, whose 1926 visit to the United States was largely at his behest,[54] and who granted him the Order of the Crown in the Degree of the Grand Cross;[55] and Marshall Joseph Joffre, whom Hill took on a trip around the world in 1922.[56]


Hill identified as a Republican and was, at times, active in the party, but he disliked Teddy Roosevelt's trust-busting, thought William Howard Taft was a disastrous choice for president to the point that he openly backed William Jennings Bryan in 1908 and Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and 1916, though he eventually came to oppose Wilson some time after the end of World War I.[57] He was generally ill-disposed toward labor unions.[58]

Character and mental health[edit]

Hill's biographer John E. Tuhy (Sam Hill: The Prince of Castle Nowhere, 1983) occasionally questions aspects of Hill's own account of his life and doings or finds contradictions in anecdotes told at various times.[59] He believes that Hill was at least somewhat manic-depressive and sees strong signs of a manic, or at least hypomanic, state in his many, often abortive projects in the 1920s[60] and possibly of paranoia in his belief that the Soviet Union was out to harm him.[61] He raises the possibility that some early aspect of this "instability" might have played a part in Hill's parting of ways in business from J.J. Hill.[9] A 1901 letter from Sam to the elder Hill suggests that he believed his father-in-law was at least in some degree disappointed in him: he refers to having "often been an embarrassment to you," although the historical record gives no indication of any important business errors on the younger Hill's part during his association with his father-in-law.[62]


  1. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 13, 16
  2. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 13, 21
  3. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 21–24
  4. ^ a b Tuhy 1983, p. 25
  5. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 28–30
  6. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 30
  7. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 31–50
  8. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 47–50
  9. ^ a b Tuhy 1983, p. 50
  10. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 51–53
  11. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 58, 91–101
  12. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 102
  13. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 57 et. seq.
  14. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 129–156
  15. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 137–139, 148
  16. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 130
  17. ^ David Wilma, Hill, Samuel (1857-1931), HistoryLink, 2003-01-18. Retrieved 2010-08-03
  18. ^ a b c Tuhy 1983, p. 133
  19. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 147–156
  20. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 178
  21. ^ a b Tuhy 1983, pp. 197–212
  22. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 136
  23. ^ The Historic Maryhill Loops Road, Maryhill Museum of Art. Retrieved 2010-08-03
  24. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 110, 140, 142
  25. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 212–217
  26. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 187–190 for Peace Arch; Tuhy 1983, pp. 190–194 for Maryhill Stonehenge
  27. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 277
  28. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 276–277
  29. ^ a b Bullard, Oral (1985). Konapee's Eden. Beaverton, Oregon: TMS Book Service. p. 68. ISBN 0-911518-69-X. 
  30. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 17
  31. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 91–101; p. 94 for the defections
  32. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 118–121, 124–125
  33. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 235, 258–259, 281, 285; p. 281 for the fact that it netted a small liability in the settling of his will
  34. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 227, 247, 256
  35. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 208
  36. ^ Tuhy 1983, passim. p. 33 for date of wedding, p. 82–85 for Stockbridge and Sam's visits
  37. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 87
  38. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 86.
  39. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 282
  40. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 282–286
  41. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 286–289. Tuhy states the Wild West Show connection as fact, but Bell's biographer John A. Harrison was unable ever to substantiate it; see John Terry, Mona Bell won entrepreneur, beat government, stood tall on her own,, 2010-01-31, retrieved 2010-08-04
  42. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 287
  43. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 61–69, 86.
  44. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 73–80
  45. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 22
  46. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 160–161
  47. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 52
  48. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 170
  49. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 36
  50. ^ a b Tuhy 1983, pp. 170–172
  51. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 18
  52. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 172
  53. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 169
  54. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 233–252, especially p. 235 for Hill's prominent role in her coming to America
  55. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 274
  56. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 262–264
  57. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 166–169, 247
  58. ^ Tuhy 1983 passim; see especially p. 44–45
  59. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 24, 111, 183, 185
  60. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 50, 57, 107, 117, 169, 255, 267–268
  61. ^ Tuhy 1983, pp. 107, 264, 273
  62. ^ Tuhy 1983, p. 48


  • Tuhy, John E. (1983), Sam Hill: The Prince of Castle Nowhere, Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, ISBN 0-917304-77-2 

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