Cherokee Park: James J. Hill’s gift to Saint Paul

CherokeeParkRealized as a potential recreational and natural green space in the early 1900s, Cherokee Regional Park has since developed into one of Saint Paul’s most visited parks, bringing in over 300,000 visitors a year.

(City of Saint Paul website)



James J. Hill is known as the Empire Builder for his vast network of railway, extending from Saint Paul, Minnesota to the Pacific Northwest, which created prosperous towns and cities along the way, changing lives and offering opportunities. Emphasis on Hill’s personal financial success overshadows what he gave back to build communities – gifts to institutions, groups, and individuals, along the railway, throughout the country, and especially at home in Saint Paul.

In October 1905, James J. Hill gave $13,000 ($335,364 in 2016 dollars) to the City of Saint Paul. Hill donated the money for the express purpose of “…acquiring by purchase or condemnation, for park and parkway purposes, a certain strip of land lying…west of the High Bridge, east of Chippewa Avenue, and between Cherokee Avenue and the foot of the bluff on the south side of the Mississippi River.”

A donation letter, dated October 23, 1905, outlines the specifications of the gift. Hill kept precise records of all financial transactions – taking as much care to document a ten-cent travel reimbursement as he did for a $13,000 donation. It is fascinating to see the “rough draft” of this letter, with handwritten edits and notes in Hill’s own hand, as well as that of Hill’s private secretary, John Toomey. If the City of Saint Paul Board of Park Commissioners was unable to secure the site and establish a park within two years, the money would need to be returned to Hill.

This would not be necessary. Fresh air and open space welcomed the citizens of Saint Paul to Cherokee Park. The original park plan included camping areas, a bathhouse, picnic shelter and plenty of trees. Later improvements to the park included basketball and tennis courts, a playground, two large picnic shelters and walking trails.

Storm hits High Bridge, 1904. (
Storm hits High Bridge, 1904. (

The spectacular views from the Mississippi River bluff are a focal point of Cherokee Park. These views existed long before James J. Hill sent his check to the Board of Park Commissioners, and they are the same views visitors enjoy today. The City of Saint Paul was important to Hill. He was committed to giving back to the town which had given him so much. Cherokee Park stands today as tangible evidence of Hill’s dedication to the city and her residents.

The donation acceptance letter from the Board of Park Commissioners sums up the importance of the both the gift and the giver:

RESOLVED, That it is the confident expectation of the Board that, with the help of this generous donation, the land in question will be soon acquired for a parkway; and that thus, this portion of the west side bluff, which is one of the most conspicuous of the natural beauties of St. Paul, will be preserved to its people for all time to come; and add one more to the many benefactions which owe to the bountiful good will of Mr. Hill towards the City, which has been so long his home, and the primary center of his activities in building up the northwest; and which have so greatly benefited this City as the terminus of his great Continental Railway System.

(Hill Family Collection, Minnesota Historical Society)



  • Click here for current information on amenities and facilities of Cherokee Park.
  • To see a lovely photograph of present-day Cherokee Park, as well as photos of other Saint Paul parks, click here.
  • For the fascinating history of the Smith Avenue High Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River near Cherokee Park, click here.

Robert C. Minor

Robert Clark Minor


Robert Minor, 1912, Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.
Robert Minor, 1912, Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

Born…July 29, 1863, Houma, Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana

Married…Addie Mae Crawford on April 15, 1896, in Chicago, Illinois

Children…Clinton Hill & Robert Hill – twins born August 13, 1902, Leah Mae – born January 4, 1904, Walter Jerome – born August 12, 1905

Career…An employee of the Great Northern Railway for much of his adult life.  First as a dining and sleeping car worker, later as the steward on railway president James J. Hill’s private car (number A-18, also known as the “President’s Special”). For over twenty years Minor managed operations of the private car, keeping the highest standards when in use by Hill, his family, and business associates. A-18 was a symbol of the power and influence of the railroad and its president.

Minor also worked on Hill’s yacht, the Wacouta, and assisted Hill at the Great Northern offices in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Minor was a respected and valued employee of the Great Northern Railway.

Walter and Bob Minor
Walter and Robert Minor, Private Collection.

Member of…Mason’s Pioneer Lodge No. 1 (Saint Paul, MN), St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church (St. Paul, MN)

Where Robert Minor lived in Saint Paul…

  • 93 Summit Avenue (1890)
  • 300 Carroll Avenue (1893)
  • 324 Farrington Street (1896)
  • 471 West Central Avenue (1908)

Died…May 11, 1947, Asheville, North Carolina, buried in St. Paul

JJH Trivia…After James J. Hill’s death on May 29, 1916, Mary Hill named Robert Minor as one of the pallbearers for her husband.


There is much more to Robert Minor’s story – read my article in the Winter 2015 issue of Ramsey County History magazine. Some great illustrations and insight into the important role Robert Minor played in his community and the personal connection with James J. Hill, his family, and business associates.

Please contact me if you are interested in learning more about Robert Minor or the history of Saint Paul, Minnesota. 




1867 Mary Mehegan Hill. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.
1867 Mary Mehegan Hill. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.

The Minnesota Historical Society offers a fantastic resource for anyone interested in Minnesota history. MNopedia is an online encyclopedia dedicated to exploring the important people, places, and events in Minnesota history.

I contributed two articles to MNopedia: Mary Theresa Mehegan Hill (1846-1921) and Founding of Clontarf. Check them out and let me know what you think. Mary Hill is my favorite St. Paul pioneer and my great-grandparents were among the founders of Clontarf, Minnesota.

Any connection between the two articles? Why, yes…James J. Hill and the Great Northern Railway figure into both stories. This photograph is from my personal family collection. My grandfather loading hay into a Great Northern freight car during Clontarf’s reign as the “Hay Capital of the World” in the 1920s.

Thomas McMahon loading hay about 1915 (Photo: Private Collection)
Thomas McMahon loading hay about 1915 (Photo: Private Collection)

I am planning a series of posts on the people, places, and events important in the rich history of Saint Paul, Minnesota. First entry coming later this week…Robert C. Minor: Steward on James J. Hill’s Private Railway Car.


Mary T. Hill and Saint Mary’s Parish

1867 Mary Mehegan Hill. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.
1867 Mary Mehegan Hill. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.

By Eileen R. McCormack


c. 1875 Saint Mary’s Church, Saint Paul. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.
c. 1875 Saint Mary’s Church, Saint Paul. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.

In 1865, the downtown area of Saint Paul had two Catholic parishes, the Cathedral, at Sixth & Saint Peter Streets, and Assumption Church built in 1856 to serve the city’s German Catholic members.  As the residential area in Saint Paul’s Lowertown grew its Catholic inhabitants asked for a new parish.  Bishop Grace agreed, and plans went forward for a new church, to be built at the northeast corner of Ninth and Locust Streets. The cornerstone of Saint Mary’s, blessed on May 20th, 1866, was an important event in the city.  The Great Western Band led the procession from the Cathedral to the Lowertown site, and many of Saint Paul’s 7000 Catholics attended the ceremony. Contributions to Saint Mary’s building fund came from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and included a number of the city’s most prominent citizens; Rice, Sibley, Prince, McQuillan, Merrriam, Borup, Davidson, Thompson, Wilder, Sheehy, Markoe, and James Hill.

1883 Gertrude Hill in christening gown, Mary Mehegan Hill. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.
1883 Gertrude Hill in christening gown, Mary Mehegan Hill. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society.

Construction of the church was completed in 1867, the same year James J. Hill and Mary Theresa Mehegan married and moved to their first home in Lowertown.  Father Louis Caillet, Mary Hill’s old friend, was named the pastor of Saint Mary’s, and the first Mass was said on July 28, 1867. The ten children born to the Hills were baptized and received their First Holy Communion in Father Caillet’s church. The first parish school was opened in 1869 with a new building constructed in 1887 and high school classes added in 1896.

Saint Mary’s was a very active community from its inception, and Mary Hill and other women were involved in not only the parish organizations and activities, but also in raising funds and administering some of the institutions associated with the church.  In 1882 the women presented Father Caillet with $12,000 to pay off the church debt (Mary Hill $5000.) and in 1884 Saint Mary’s Home for Girls was opened under the direction of a Board consisting of parish women, with Mary as president. On May 19, 1884 Mary Hill’s diary entry read, “Opened St. Mary’s home today informally.” The Home provided lodging and industrial classes, such as sewing instruction, for young women who came to the city to work. A day nursery to care for the children of working mothers was added and both institutions were under the supervision of the Daughters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

In 1891, after 24 years in Lowertown, the Hill family moved to their new home on Summit Avenue, joining the movement of other neighbors whose homes were being encroached on by railroad and industrial development. Mary continued her involvement with Saint Mary’s and attended services there until old age and fragile health necessitated her attending Mass closer to her home although she returned for funerals of old friends and special occasions. “We went to closing of St. Mary’s School exercises at Opera House this afternoon. The exercises were creditable indeed.” Over the years James and Mary Hill donated over $16,000 (about $290,000 in 2014 dollars) to Saint Mary’s not including “pew rent” that Mary continued to pay until her death in 1921.

The importance of “Old Saint Mary’s” in the lives of the Hill family was demonstrated in 1926, five years after Mary Hill’s death. An almost exact replica of the original Lowertown Saint Mary’s was constructed in White Bear Lake, funded by Mary’s daughters. The Hill family spent summers at their North Oaks farm and attended Mass at Saint Mary’s in White Bear Lake. The new church was dedicated, “In Memory of a Beloved Mother Mary Theresa Hill…”

In 1919, the same factors that had precipitated the move of many of Lowertown’s original residents more than thirty years earlier, now necessitated the move of Saint Mary’s Church itself. The old church property was sold to the Great Northern Railway and property was purchased at Eighth & Rosabel Streets, across Ninth Street from where the Hill home had stood.  The new church was dedicated in May 1922 and Saint Mary’s remains in that location today, and is serving an emerging residential area once more.


St. Mary’s Church today. Photo: Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.




Saturday May 16, 2015

261 E 8th Street in St. Paul’s Lowertown


4:30pm     Mass celebrated by Archbishop Nienstedt with the Saint Mary’s Choir and                                 May Crowning

6-7pm       Social Hour

7-8pm       Buffet Dinner — reservations required, call 651-222-2619

8-10pm     Music by City Vibes



NOTE ON SOURCES: Two books by Rev. James M. Reardon, pastor of Saint Mary’s from 1916-1921, The Catholic Church in the Diocese of St. Paul (St. Paul: 1952) and The Church of St. Mary of Saint Paul (St. Paul: 1935). Excerpts taken from my article in Ramsey County History (Spring 2006) “Lost Neighborhood: Mary Hill’s Lowertown 1867-1891”.

Happy Anniversary MIA!


MIA-Springtime of Life
Springtime of Life, Camille Corot. Donated to MIA by Mrs. Erasmus C. Lindley in memory of her father, James J. Hill. 1949. Photo: Minneapolis Institute of Arts


by Eileen R. McCormack


 In 1913 when the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts began planning for the construction of the present Minneapolis Institute of Arts [MIA] building, trustee and Saint Paul resident and art collector James J. Hill lent his expertise as a significant collector of works of the French Barbizon School.

MIA-Deer in the Forest
Deer in the Forest, Gustave Courbet. Donated to MIA by James J. Hill. 1914. Photo: Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

James Hill did not stop at giving advice. He presented the Society with its first great acquisition, Gustave Courbet’s Deer in the Forest,  When the MIA opened its doors to the public in January 1915, the majority of the art in the new building was on loan. Hill loaned twenty-two paintings by Courbet, Corot, Daubigny, Delacroix, Dupre, Millet, Rousseau and Troyon that were a significant part of the collection viewed by the public in the inaugural exhibition. On that 7th day of January in 1915, Hill’s  speech contained an injunction to:

Set your standard high and live to it. This Institute is to pitch the key for the community. Do not pitch the key too low.

JJH Audibert001
James J. Hill, Paul Raymond Audibert (1912)

James Hill began collecting art in 1880 and continued buying, selling and giving away paintings the rest of his life. He became very knowledgeable and certainly developed a particular fondness for artists of the Barbizon School. He purchased over thirty  paintings by Jacques Camille Corot and many by other Barbizon artists as well as a number of Barye bronze sculpture. His personal papers document his collection and contain inventories, invoices and correspondence with other collectors and his art dealers, Samuel Avery, Julius Oehme, Durand-Ruel family and Knoedler family.  By the turn of the 20th century Hill’s collection was considered the State’s finest and nationally significant. In 1891 a new home at 240 Summit Avenue in Saint Paul was completed and Hill and his family moved in. The home contained a large gallery so the art collection moved in as well. Hill’s collecting accelerated and the walls of the gallery, hallways and public rooms rapidly filled with paintings. The gallery, which had a separate exterior entrance, was open to the public on a limited basis. Application for admittance was made to Hill’s secretary and permission cards were issued for a specific day and time.

James Hill had his dealers resell paintings that he no longer liked. Hill explained:

I began in a modest way to make a collection. I bought a Rousseau, not a large one, fortunately for me a very good one. Then I bought a Corot, a small one. But these pictures were of first-class quality. [They] meant so much to me and so much more than about ten others which I had, that they literally drove the others out of the house, and where they went I do not know.”

And that is the how his collection evolved; he lived with, and loved, his paintings. They were his relaxation and his joy.

After the deaths of James Hill in 1916 and his wife Mary Hill in 1921, the collection’s art work was divided among their nine children. In the almost 100 years since their deaths, many of these pieces, and others from descendants’ personal collections, have a found permanent home at the MIA, including almost all the original loan by James J. Hill for the 1915 inaugural exhibition.



NOTE: James J. Hill quotes contained in The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin (1915). Image of James J. Hill from the Hill Family Collection, Minnesota Historical Society.

Visit for information on the special exhibits and events celebrating the 100th anniversary.