You cannot copy content of this page

How Jay Cooke resurrected Duluth’s ‘lifeless corpse’

Jay Cooke. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Duluth in the 1860s had been described as a “lifeless corpse,” and that February 1869 fewer than 200 people lived in town. That’s when financier Jay Cooke announced he would bring his Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad to Duluth instead of Superior, Wisconsin—and that when Duluth rose from the grave to become the Zenith City.

Why did Cooke ultimately choose Duluth? Find out in ZCP publisher Tony Dierckins’s fourth of eight installments on Duluth’s early history for the Duluth News Tribune, “How Jay Cooke resurrected Duluth’s ‘lifeless corpse’”, here.

And you can catch up on the series by following these links:

“How Duluth became ‘Duluth’”

“The Many Birthdays of the Zenith City”

“Duluth’s First Boom—and Bust: 1856–1868”

Happy 150th Birthday, City of Duluth!


  1. wayne dupuis on February 27, 2020 at 10:49 am

    I think this weeks article is fake history, imagine how imperialism and colonialism have impacted on our Mother Earth. Instead of a headline “How Jay Cooke resurrected Duluth’s ‘lifeless corpse’, how about “How Jay Cooke ignited the blaze that scorched the Earth.” There were people who lived in the area that became known as Duluth and these people most likely lived with their surroundings. A quote from one of the early speculators to this area describing what he viewed at that time. Alfred Merritt and family “arrived October, 1856 at Stuntz’ dock at the end of the Point and were ferried to the town of Superior in a Mackinaw boat. [He wrote]: `I wish you could have seen how beautiful the Head of the Lakes looked at that time. It was practically in a state of nature. The Indians were there, with their wigwams scattered up and down Minnesota and Wisconsin Points, with the smoke curling from the top of the wigwams, and their canoes skimming along the waters of the bay or hauled up on shore. Fish and game were in abundance. Tall pines and hard wood trees were growing on the hill sides, and down to the water’s edge, and with the leaves of the hard wood trees turned as they were in the fall, what a beautiful sight it was. I have many times wished, that I had a picture as it looked then, or a gift of language to describe the beauty of the Head of the Lakes as I saw it as a boy of nine years old.’ The history told from this paradigm or world view is what fogs our ability to realize the anthropomorphic climate change scorching our Mother Earth today.

    • Tony Dierckins on February 27, 2020 at 12:50 pm

      Hi Wayne: Thanks for the note. This story is part of a series that itself is adapted from a much larger work, a book specifically designed to be an “urban biography” of Duluth. The book is focused on telling the story of the municipality of Duluth, 1856–today, so while I do not dismiss your points, I feel your criticism isn’t exactly on target. The book indeed discusses the native peoples who populated the region long before any Europeans arrived and does not ignore them while telling the story of Duluth. The research that informed passages on native history was informed by the FdL Band’s own work (including the “Onigamiinsing Dibaajimowinan/Duluth Stories” website), works by Anton Treuer, and more recent newspaper accounts of today’s issues. The book does not ignore indigenous history as you suggest, but it also does not focus on it because that is not the book’s subject. The book also does not pretend nor even attempt to be a statement, critique, nor celebration of imperialism nor colonialism. So while it’s not the story you wish to be told, it is also not “fake history” because it is indeed what happened. I don’t mind if people don’t think my apple is a good apple—that’s subjective—but it’s not right to criticize an apple for not being the orange you want it to be. I am happy to discuss this with you further if you like, but if so let’s continue by email:

Leave a Comment