WHEN I RODE with my dad to his downtown office in the late 1950s, he drove north along Fourth Avenue. Looming as we approached the nexus of Olive and Stewart, Seattle’s version of Times Square, was an enormous, elevated sign featuring a scaffolded Great Northern Railway mountain goat atop a showy slogan: “EMPIRE BUILDER.” Through the windshield, I and countless others were absorbing a layered message.

“Empire Builder” referenced the passenger train from St. Paul that had crucially connected our city to the rest of the country in 1893, post-Great Fire. The catchphrase also echoed the sobriquet for the railway’s indefatigable founder, who helped turn Seattle into a metropolis — yet whose name is little seen or celebrated today.

Seasoned West Seattle documentarian Stephen Sadis seeks to change that, in a manner as audacious as his subject. His new documentary, “The Empire Builder: James J. Hill and the Great Northern Railway,” is a four-hour tour de force, the result of on-and-off research for 20-plus years, summoning more than 5,000 images, maps and film clips and dozens of interviews to tell its larger-than-life story.

Hill (1838-1916) was a town speculator, agriculturalist, shipping magnate, banker, collector, philanthropist, longtime husband and the father of 10, but his legacy rides with the “Iron Horse” and its inescapable impact, which inspired Sadis’ fascination.

“If I told you,” he says, “that tomorrow when you wake up, you could travel from Seattle to New York in 10 minutes, that’s the kind of change that occurred in the mid-19th century, from a six-month wagon trek across the country to a four-day train ride. That transformation is the key.”


Through Hill’s saga, Sadis and producing partner Kyle Kegley weave the personal (Hill’s right-eye blindness from a bow-and-arrow accident as a child) and the enterprising (an insistence on fashioning efficient and enduring rail lines) while also giving voice to the trains’ displacement of Native Americans.

The tale hits a peak with Hill’s opening-day speech for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition at the University of Washington. For an industrialist, the bent is surprising, as bold and prescient as its source:

“Will you realize what this country will become when stripped of its forests — the washing away of the soil, the inevitable changes in climate when the forests have gone? …

“You have but to raise your eyes and be in the presence of some of the grandest works of God. Soil, climate, resources, all favor you. You will never again know isolation. The spaces once separating you from the rest of the country have been conquered. Remain as you have been, the architects of your own fortunes.”