Wayzata’s big celebration, James J. Hill Days, kicks off Friday. Since 1975, the town has celebrated the railroad mogul and his impact on Wayzata.

“The handsomest and best built structure of its kind on the Great Northern System”. That’s how James J. Hill described the newly erected Wayzata train depot in 1906. The depot stands as a reminder of the city’s past, but also a symbol of peace between Hill and Wayzata — an olive branch offered following a tumultuous relationship.

Hill was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1838. At the age of 18, he settled in St. Paul. In 1866, he joined St. Paul Pacific Railroad Company. One year later, the railroad arrived in Wayzata. Hill didn’t have a hand in the new stretch of track as he was only an agent at the time, but his impact on the community would be felt later.

A financial panic gripped the country and crippled both St. Paul Pacific and Northern Pacific in 1873. Both went bankrupt and Hill saw an opportunity. He and two other investors would later purchase St. Paul Pacific.

Wayzata was incorporated as a village in 1883 and one of the first actions it took was to demand that the tracks of Hill’s Great Northern Railroad (previously St. Paul Pacific) be moved 300 feet back from the lake. Businesses were concerned with the smoke and sparks from the engines.

Hill then built a depot about a mile east of town. It was not easy for people to get there. Hill’s relationship with Wayzata was strained at best.

But the grudge wouldn’t last forever. Hill had a change of heart and built a Tudor-style depot complete with platform canopies, steam heat, gas lights and indoor bathrooms. Electricity would come a year later. In addition to all of the bells and whistles, the depot was much more convenient — that familiar spot near the corner of Lake Street and Barry Avenue. Hill was on hand to christen the train stop with an opening ceremony on Aug. 5, 1906. Hill and Wayzata’s past disagreements were now water under the railroad bridge.

James J. Hill Days is the unofficial end to summer fun along the shores of Lake Minnetonka. There is food, music, a street market and parade. Amid all the festivities, it’s important to know the history of a man who helped change a sleepy little village into a true gateway to Lake Minnetonka.

Nate Leding grew up in Wayzata and now lives in Plymouth with his wife, daughter and two dogs. He’s a board member with the Wayzata Historical Society, the chair of the Wayzata Heritage Preservation Board and an officer at the Wayzata American Legion Post 118. The Wayzata Historical Society’s website is wayzatahistoricalsociety.org.


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