This morning, Jaime Donegan, director at the Numerica PAC heard my usual phrase “What in the Sam Hill is going on!???”  He mentioned the local tale that the “What in the Sam Hill…” Is a phrase referencing a famous Washington resident named Samuel Hill.

Here’s what my research found:

According to Wikipedia:

“What in the Sam Hill" is an American English slang phrase, a euphemism or minced oath for "the devil" or "hell" personified (as in, "What in the Sam Hill is that?")

Quirky railroad executive Samuel Hill (not to be confused with James J. Hill, his father-in-law, for whom he worked).

PHOTO CREDIT: Sunset vol. 31, Public domain/Wikimedia Commons
PHOTO CREDIT: Sunset vol. 31, Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

Samuel was best known for his public-service projects: 

* The Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway

* The Maryhill Museum (and its adjacent Stonehenge replica) Some publications credit the naming of Maryhill after his wife and daughter ~ Neither actually lived there. The Maryhill Museum states that it was named after Sam Hill's daughter.

* The Peace Arch at Blaine, WA (along the Canadian border)

In the late 1800s, Samuel Hill married Mary Hill. They along with their two children moved to Seattle in 1902. Mary, not fond of Seattle (I'm blaming the drizzle and overcast skies) took her two children and moved back to Minnesota, leaving Samuel alone in Seattle.

Sam was passionate about creating high quality, modern roads.

This attention to detail drew the attention of the Oregon Governor, Oswald West. In 1913, Governor West, along with key members of the Oregon Legislature, saw his paved roads in person. Impressed, they approved the construction of the scenic Columbia River Highway - linking the Oregon Coast (Astoria, Oregon) to the Columbia Gorge (The Dalles.)

Now back to the question of who began the SAM HILL phrase.

The saying was established in American culture, in the 1830s (as per The Word Detective) well before the birth (1857) of Washington State’s Samuel Hill.

So why does he get credit around here? The Sam Hill phrase was attributed to him in a 1926 Time Magazine article.  So it's understood why some Pacific Northwesterners still give him credit for inspiring “WHAT IN THE SAM HILL


INFO: Word Detective, Sam Hill “The Prince of Castle Nowhere” (1983, Tuhy, John E.Timber Press)

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