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How Jay Cooke Resurrected Duluth’s “Lifeless Corpse”

The Jay Cooke statue in Duluth, located along Superior Street at the foot of Ninth Avenue East. (Image: Zenith City Press)

The following story—adapted from Tony Dierckins’s Duluth: An Urban Biography (Minnesota Historical Society Press, April 2020)—was first published in the Duluth News Tribune in February, 2020, in celebration of Duluth’s 150th anniversary of first becoming a city on March 6, 1870.

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In 1869 journalist John Trowbridge wrote that “civilization is attracted to the line of a railroad like steel-filings to a magnet.” Duluth in the 1860s had been described as a “lifeless corpse,” and that February fewer than 200 people lived in town. To survive, the community needed to get one heck of a strong magnet.

Specifically, Duluth wanted the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad (LS&M), which would connect the Great Lakes with the Mississippi River at St. Paul. It would also link with the Northern Pacific Railroad (NP), essentially connecting Lake Superior with the Pacific Ocean at Puget Sound.

But the LS&M’s investors ran out of money after building just a few miles of track starting in St. Paul. They turned to Philadelphia financier Jay Cooke. Cooke’s banking house had financed much of the Union Army’s effort during the Civil War, selling bonds to wealthy Europeans.

Cooke, who was also being courted by the NP’s investors, came to the LS&M’s rescue, providing funding that secured its future. But the railroad’s northern terminus hadn’t been determined, and both Duluth and Superior wanted the railroad, as it would surely make its host city a great shipping center, eclipsing Chicago.

Cooke visited the region in June 1868, according to the St. Paul Daily Press, “on business connected with the eastern terminus” of the LS&M and to see for himself timber property he had purchased along the lower St. Louis, Nemadji, and Cloquet Rivers. During his trip Cooke met with local leaders.

George Stuntz. (Duluth Public Library)

Since Cooke controlled the LS&M, Duluth’s founders needed to persuade him to terminate the railroad in Duluth. They had apparently failed to convince Cooke during his visit, so in January 1869 they asked George Stuntz to give it a try.

Stuntz, a surveyor, road builder, and trader, first arrived in 1852 and established a post and dock near the southern end of Minnesota Point. Stuntz’s old boss, former Surveyor General of the United States George Sargent, had spent the war selling bonds for Cooke. He also once predicted that “the undeveloped wealth of the Lake Superior region offers reward beyond calculation to those who have the energy and enterprise to secure it.”

With an introduction from Sargent, Stuntz would try to convince Cooke to bring the LS&M to Duluth. So he traveled east. Sargent not only made the introduction but also purchased twenty lots in Duluth, sight unseen.

In Philadelphia, Stuntz assured Cooke the land along his railroads could be sold as farmland at a healthy profit. He also mentioned northeastern Minnesota’s potential mineral and timber resources and Sargent’s investment.

Shortly after Stuntz’s visit, Cooke not only selected Duluth over Superior but also decided to invest in the NP, which would lease LS&M track east from Carlton, making Duluth the transcontinental railroad’s eastern terminus.

Cooke’s choice is arguably the most significant moment in Duluth’s history. One historian later described the transformation that followed as nothing short of miraculous: “A glorious resurrection took place; the lifeless corpse [of Duluth], touched by the wand of Jay Cooke, sprang full-armed from the tomb.”

What Jay Cooke waved was less a wand than it was a wad of cash. By May 1869 his agents, including Sargent, had arrived in Duluth and began spending his money as well as their own, investing in early enterprises.
They opened the town’s first bank, which everyone called Jay Cooke’s Bank. They financed the construction of Duluth’s first church building, St. Paul’s Episcopal, which locals called Jay Cooke’s Church. Eastern newspapers called Duluth Jay Cooke’s Town.

The Lake Superior & Mississippi’s first freight depot, which stood at the base of Third Avenue East at Lake Superior. (Image: Minnesota Historical Society)

Trowbridge also wrote that Duluth, with its railroad, “appears to be the point of a magnet of more than ordinary power.”

Indeed, with the news of Cooke’s decision, the population boomed. Other investors arrived and built sawmills and merchandise docks, dry goods and grocery stores, boarding houses and brothels. The spring of 1869 brought an army of immigrants, mostly Scandinavians, recruited to help build the railroads.

Construction of the LS&M west from Duluth began in May. The railroad built docks, a warehouse, a freight depot, and a grain elevator along the lakeshore—Duluth’s first steps toward becoming a great shipping center.

By midsummer the population had grown tenfold. A bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature on March 6, 1870, made the town of Duluth a city. The next month’s census recorded 3,129 residents, and that August the LS&M began daily service.

Duluth would continue to boom until its savior, Jay Cooke, ran out of money.

Happy 150th birthday, City of Duluth!

[Learn more about George Stuntz here and Jay Cooke here and Cooke’s rare visits to Duluth here.]
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