Jay Cooke’s Rare Visits to Duluth

He ended with, “I am perfectly astonished and delighted to see your marvelous prosperity. I take your papers and thought I was as thoroughly acquainted with your city as you are yourselves. I really consider myself a Duluth citizen.”

The trip to Duluth was part of a larger excursion by the Cooke family. They were on their way to Puget Sound, where Jay Cooke III would board a ship for “a trip around the Globe.” They were taking a private car on the Northern Pacific; it would be Cooke’s first trip on the railroad he began building in the 1860s.

Two years later he was back, visiting his son-in-law’s quarries in nearby Thomson, Minnesota. During his visit Cooke was described as “a man of almost heroic build, … quite gray, but retained a heavy head of hair and an ample beard.” Cooke told reporters that “I visited Lakeside and Lester Park today and I was never so surprised in my life. Nothing I have been told of Duluth had prepared me for the marvels I saw…I don’t believe any city in the country can show such growth as Duluth…. I feel now that every hope I have had for Duluth will be realized.”

It was another Cooke prophecy about the Zenith City that would fail to come to fruition. Later that year same another financial depression, known as the Panic of 1893. Duluth would survive the panic, just as it had twice before and would again in the 1930s, but it would never reach, let alone eclipse, St. Louis or Chicago.

Cooke, nor anyone else, lived to see Duluth grow to the level so many expected. He died in Philadelphia on February 16, 1905, at 83 years of age. While he complained of failing health, doctors found nothing specific wrong with him and chalked up his death to “old age.”

In Duluth, the News Tribune ran a biography-like obituary, as if its readers had to be informed as to just who Cooke was and why he was important to Duluth. An editorial the following day sung his praises, saying in part that “His was the foresight of a prophet and though at the outset disappointments came, he lived to see the practical fulfillment of his predictions of more than a third of a century ago.” It went on to say that after the 1873 crash, “Mr. Cooke did not yield to despair, but went bravely back to work…and in his declining years could look back upon a career rich in achievements and appreciated by his countrymen.”

It wasn’t until 1913 that someone first proposed erecting a monument to Cooke. That year Mayor William Prince announced that J. Horace Harding—Cooke’s business associate, son-in-law, and the executor of his will—was donating to the city $5,000 toward a bronze statue of the “Famous Civil War Financier.” Visiting Duluth with Jay Cooke III, Harding—director of the New York Municipal Railways System—spent October 13 of that year with Prince, scouting a proper location for the monument, which was to be “made by one of the leading sculptors of the world, and mounted on a granite pedestal.” It was expected to cost $25,000.

Harding said that “While recognizing that Mr. Cooke, through his patriotic services to this country, belonged not only to Duluth but also to the northwest and the entire United States, I feel it’s most fitting that the city of Duluth should be the proper place to honor his memory.”

But little effort went into the idea until 1920, when Harding again offered to donate a statue that would stand in a triangular park near the Kitchi Gammi Club at Ninth Street, where Superior Street and London Road converged until the 1980s. The city council accepted the offer, and the next day the News Tribune editorialized that “nothing could be more appropriate than a statue of Jay Cooke prominently placed in Duluth.”

The statue, executed by artist Henry Shrady, was erected in 1921. (Shrady, a New York artist, created the U. S. Grant Memorial that stands in front of the U. S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.). There was some delay as an inscription was placed on the wrong side of the pedestal, but it was ready to go by September 16. The grand unveiling was delayed until October 15 so that light poles could be installed and landscaping completed. The bronze statue, placed on a granite base, depicts Cooke sitting contemplatively on a bench, an unnamed collie at his side. His hat is on his knee and his cane at his side, and there is room on the bench at Cooke’s right side, as if he is waiting for a companion to join him.

Mayor Sam Snively presided over the unveiling on October 15, 1921—the 100th anniversary of Cooke’s bioth. The festivities included public addresses, “vocal solos and musical selections.” Speakers included Harding, Northern Pacific Railroad chairman Howard Elliott, and Oscar Mitchell, once the Duluth city attorney and at that time president of the Great Northern Power Company—and a close friend of Harding’s. They all praised Cooke for his accomplishments and, as the man they were honoring did so often, made lofty predictions of Duluth’s future.

After construction rerouted London Road in the 1980s, the statue was moved a short distance, but still sits in front of the Kitchi Gammi Club just west of Ninth Avenue East. Besides the statue, Cooke is honored in Duluth in the names of two roads, Jay Street and Cooke Street. Pitt Street is named for his brother and one-time business partner.

Much of the land Cooke once owned along the St. Louis River is now part of Jay Cooke State Park along the St. Louis River in Carlton County, established in 1915 with the donation of 2,350 acres by the power company who realized Cooke’s dream of turning the power of the St. Louis river into electricity. The park was vastly improved in the 1930s by the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps, who built the park’s famous swinging bridge as part of its efforts. Today the park has grown to 8,818 acres, but unfortunately the swinging bridge was destroyed during the great flood of the summer of 2012. Plans are already underway to resurrect the bridge, as Cooke once did for the “lifeless” corpse of the Zenith City.

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Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.