A photo archived at the Duluth Public Library purportedly shows Jay Cooke meeting with Duluth business leaders inside Duluth’s Clark House hotel in the early 1870s. While Cooke had a great deal to do with the Clark House—he paid for its construction, and its name came from the E. W. Clark brokerage firm in Philadelphia, where Cooke began his career in finance—he actually never set foot in the place. In fact, Cooke spent very little time in the town it is said he resurrected from a “lifeless corpse.”
Jay Cooke was born in Sandusky, Ohio, in 1821, to Martha and Eleutheros Cooke. His father was a lawyer and a member of the Whig party who served in the Ohio legislature and was a congressman in the early 1830s. In 1839, at just 19 years old, Jay Cooke went to work for E. W. Clark and Co., a Philadelphia banking house; just three years later he became a partner in the firm. His work for E. W. Clark ended in 1861, when Cooke established his own bank, Jay Cooke & Co. One of the bank’s first moves was to lend the state of Pennsylvania $3 million ($74 million today) for its part of the war effort . For the rest of the war he organized the sale of $500 million ($11 billion today) in bonds for the federal government. For this he was said to be “the man who financed the Civil War” for the Union.
After the war, Cooke turned his interests in part to building a railroad from the head of the lakes to Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast: the Northern Pacific Railway. And so naturally he looked to Superior or Duluth for a future eastern terminus for his transcontinental railroad. Meanwhile, pioneers were struggling in what would become Duluth. The Financial Panic of 1857 followed by the onset of the Civil War nearly wiped out the entire population on the Minnesota Side of Lake Superior, as historian Walter Van Brunt described in 1922: “A few remained on duty at Superior, and George R. Stuntz, [William] Nettleton, [J. D.] Ray, [Commodore Horace] Saxton, [John] Carey, [Sidney] Luce, and [Luke] Marvin kept vigil over the lifeless corpse of Duluth.”
Cooke Visits the Head of the Lakes
According to documented evidence (including Cooke’s own travel journal), Cooke first visited the head of the lakes in 1868. According to the St. Paul Daily Press of June 13, 1868, Cooke “and his party” left Detroit on June 11, steaming to Lake Superior “on business connected with the eastern terminus of the St. Paul and Lake Superior Railroad.” That railroad was designed as a “portage” railway, which connected large population centers with rail service otherwise unavailable. Residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul would take the St. Paul & Lake Superior Railroad to Duluth and then west as far as the Pacific Ocean (the railroad would be renamed the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad).
Cooke’s stop at the head of the lakes was recorded by pioneer George Smith, who was a teenager at the time of Cooke’s visit—and an able boatsman. The proprietor of the Superior Hotel engaged Smith to be Cooke’s squire during his visit; Smith transported Cook around Duluth and Superior in a rowboat. But Smith recalls the trip being in 1866 or 1867, not 1868. He recorded his experience long after the events took place and could easily have the dates wrong; there are no reports of such a visit in newspapers or in Cooke’s personal diaries, which recorded all his travels.
The first morning Smith and Cooke took to the rowboat they stopped at an Ojibwe village on Minnesota Point. According to Smith:
“Mr. Cooke stepped upon a large stump, and, taking off his silk hat and holding it in his hand, made a little speech to the Indians. He told them…he was going to build a railroad from the Mississippi River to the head of Lake Superior; that he was going to build a railroad from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean, and many other items of interest.
“The Indians called him the “Great Father,” and would not listen to any other name for him. They were greatly excited and talked and jabbered continuously after the speech had been interpreted to them, bowing down before Mr. Cooke and waving their hands wildly over their heads, and back and forth in their wild enthusiasm and admiration….
“After Mr. Cooke had finished his talk to the Indians, he…gave each one of the adult bucks and squaws a bright shining new 25-cent piece. To those who were younger, he gave a new silver dime, and to each of the little tots and papooses a 5-cent piece.”
Smith also relates this odd event of Cooke’s visit:
“After we had reached the Duluth end of the bay, Mr. Cooke discovered the numerous islands toward the Rice’s Point shore, and inquiries, as to what they were, what they were doing there, etc., came thick and fast.
“Suddenly he conceived the idea that he owned these islands, and intimated that he wanted to get out of the boat onto one of the islands, so that he might stand on his own land, way up in the far northern country. This notion of his brought on quite an argument. I endeavored to explain that the islands were but floating muck, on which grass bushes and some trees were growing, but on which a man could not stand. Mr. Cooke would not listen to any objections, but insisted that he must get out on one of the islands, regardless of the consequences.
“Finding him bent on his project, I rowed alongside one of the larger islands, took a pair of oars and laid them parallel to each other, about two feet apart, on the soft muck and roots, then laid a second pair of oars at right angles, and placed the rudder of the boat on top of the oars, thus making a temporary standing place, to which I assisted Mr. Cooke. When the latter was firmly on his feet, he removed his silk hat and made me a speech, which I look back upon as one of the most eventful speeches of my life.”
Despite the lack of evidence to support them, pioneer Luke Marvin’s recollections of the 1860s have Cooke at the head of the Lakes in 1866—which is in agreement with Smith’s memories but conflicts with newspaper reports and Cooke’s own journal. Young Marvin (his father was the Luke Marvin mentioned as one of those who “kept vigil over the lifeless corpse of Duluth.”) had been sent to St. Paul for his education, and a year later received a letter from his father that Cooke was in Duluth and that young Marvin should keep an eye open for Cook—who was headed for St. Paul—while he travelled home on the old military road. Indeed, Marvin encountered the famous banker:
“Our coach met him one day about half-way from St. Paul at one of the relay houses. Mr. Cooke came up to me and asked if I were ‘young Marvin.’ When I answered that I was he said that he knew my father well, and as we had a little time to wait, he suggested a stroll in the woods while the coaches were being got ready. He wanted to know all about my studies, whether I went to church and Sunday School, and then gave me some advice on Christian living which I have never forgotten. He told me always to stick to my church and Sunday School, and never to be ashamed of them under any circumstances. He talked without affectation or pretension, and as easily as if I were a man of his own age, or he were a boy of mine.
“While we were walking along he put his hand in the pocket of his coat and pulled out some fishhooks.
“‘Do you ever fish?’ he asked, and then laughed. ‘That’s a foolish question to ask,’ he said. ‘Who ever heard of a boy that didn’t fish ?’ Then he gave me the fishhooks and continued: ‘I’m going to give you another piece of advice. Don’t go fishing in Lester river, because there are no fish there. I know, because I fished there for two or three hours and never got a bite.’ By this time we had got back to the relay house, and as Mr. Cooke’s coach was ready, he again shook hands with me and was off. I mention this meeting, as it was a memorable event in my life, and also illustrates the geniality and cheerfulness of spirit that were so characteristic of that great man. There are not many great financiers who will bother to talk to and advise a little boy.”
Another Duluth pioneer, Sidney Luce, seems to support Marvin’s tale—even the poor fishing on the Lester:
“Jay Cooke and an associate friend visited Duluth, I should say in the summer of 1866. He had previously sent here a friend of his from Sandusky, Ohio, for the purpose of locating pine lands…. He located quite a large quantity on the Cloquet and Nemadji rivers, the locations being made from an examination of the field notes of the surveyor in the land office.
“Mr. Cooke was about to assume the task of floating the bonds of the Lake Superior and Mississippi River Railroad Company. I inferred that his visit was for the purpose of satisfying himself as to the proposed routes, terminus, cost and prospective earnings of the road. During the visit I think he tried his hand at fishing with poor success.”
It is interesting that While Marvin and Luce both recall the fishing expedition on the Lester River, George Smith never mentions it—so perhaps Smith wasn’t the only one to help Cooke tour the head of the lakes. The associate friend who accompanied Cooke was his banking partner and brother-in-law, W. G. Moorhead. The “pine lands” Cooke purchased included land along the St. Louis River up and beyond the Dalles (much of it is now part of the Minnesota state park that bears his name). He saw the river as a great source of hydro-energy and hoped to one day turn his investment into a power plant, so he purchased Riparian rights on both banks of the river near what Cooke thought to be sites for a dam or power plants power sites. He financed the St. Louis River Water Power Company, formed to prosecute the project of developing hydraulic power above Fond du Lac. That company never attempted to harness the St. Louis but Cooke and later his estate held onto the property until 1904, when it was sold to the newly formed Great Northern Power Company. Bidders frequently appeared, but none reached the mark set by the Cooke family.
Despite his 1868 visit to the head of the lakes (and no matter if the dates may not have been recalled correctly—or if an 1866 or 1867 visit was not recorded by Cooke or newspapers) and his investment in the lower St. Louis River, Cooke seemed to need more convincing on the question of whether to terminate his railroad in Superior or Duluth. More of his agents visited the region, including George Sargent, who met with Superior pioneer and government surveyor George Stuntz. In 1869 Sargent convinced Stuntz to travel to Philadelphia to meet with Cooke. There the surveyor lobbied the Duluth cause, and that same year Cooke announced Duluth would be the terminus of the Northern Pacific railway. Stuntz became a Duluth citizen that year as well.
Another story about a Cooke visit takes place in 1869. He supposedly travelled to Duluth with Moorhead and his wife. Mrs Moorhead had previously been married to Samuel Badger, an attorney who had abandoned her many years before. Badger eventually settled in Superior and fathered children with an Ojibwe companion; he died in Superior in 1865. The story details how Mrs. Moorhead found Badger’s two half-native daughters living on Rice’s Point and tried to get them to return to the east with her to get a “proper” education. Yet the Minnesotian was in operation at the time, and its—editor Dr. Thomas Foster—made no mention of the country’s most widely known financier visiting the Zenith City. Yet nearly every agent of Cooke’s who passed through town received plenty of ink from the local press. Perhaps Luce misremembered the year and his story of Cooke and the Moorhead’s purchase and the story of Mrs. Moorhead and her ex-husband’s children were both mistakenly in reference to the documented 1868 visit.
Several of Cooke’s relatives did visit Duluth in August of 1869 as members of an excursion party representing Jay Cooke & Co. These included Pitt Cooke—Jay’s brother and business partner—who built a dock in Duluth in 1869. Pitt’s wife Mary came along, as did his brother Harry, a Miss Sarah Cooke, and another “Miss Cooke” whose first name was omitted from the newspaper report. Obviously if Cooke and his wife Dorthea had been in Duluth, they would have been mentioned as well. It is possible the writer confused Jay Cooke with his brother Pitt or Harry.
Cooke’s Duluth Investments
After Stuntz convinced Cooke to make Duluth the terminus of his railroad (and after St. Louis County came up with more cash than Wisconsin’s Douglas County), Duluth was revived, as Walter Van Brunt described it so poetically: “A glorious resurrection took place; the lifeless corpse [of Duluth], touched by the wand of Jay Cooke, sprang full-armed from the tomb.” That wand was more like a wad of cash, and most of the money Cooke’s spread around Duluth would be spent by his representatives.
In May, 1869, George Sargent moved to Duluth, bringing with him “funds furnished by E. W. Clark and Company, bankers in Philadelphia, and by Jay Cooke and Company, to build the Clark House, the Bay View House, and the Episcopal Church.” Van Brunt, who called Sargent “the Napoleon of the Northwest,” wrote that the former Civil War general “marched up Minnesota Point on an Indian trail to where the Hayes block now stands, took another trail, leading westerly, on the exact line of what is now Superior Street, and the next day purchased $30,000 worth of real estate from William Nettleton.”
Sargent used more of Cooke’s and Clark’s money to establish the first bank in Duluth. “Jay Cooke’s Bank” as it was often referred to, was run by George C. Stone, another of Cooke’s “Philadelphia Men.” Cooke also invested heavily in the Union Improvement and Elevator Co., which built Duluth’s first grain elevator at the terminus of his Lake Superior & Mississippi railroad at the base of Third Avenue West. He then installed one of his Philadelphia agents, George C. Thomas, as the company’s president.
Cooke also played a heavy role in shaping the future of journalism in Duluth by luring Robert Mitchell of the Superior Tribune across the bay to supplant Dr. Thomas Foster’s Minnesotian. According to Mitchell, “the leading citizens of Duluth, who…had helped Dr. Thomas Foster to establish his paper, the Minnesotian, here, had become very tired of him, as he had become too arrogant and dictatorial and entirely too obstreperous to suit the people of the then-booming city, and they concluded that they must and would have another paper.”
One of those men, Colonel J. B. Culver, asked Cooke to send someone from the east to establish a newspaper in Duluth. Cooke knew of no one to recommend, but he had been reading Mitchell’s work in the Tribune in his offices in Philadelphia. Cooke had noticed that Mitchell “had been giving the people of [Superior] some pretty good advice, and that he seemed to understand the situation at the head of the lakes pretty well, and suggested that if that editor was all right, as a man, it might be a good stroke to import him to run their proposed newspaper.”
And so they did. Mitchell moved across the bay in April, 1870, and wrote later that “his decision incensed the people of Superior, owing to the intensely bitter feeling then existing there towards Duluth; in those days the man from Superior who would cast his lot with Duluth was regarded as a traitor to Superior.” Foster wasn’t too pleased himself, and after Mitchell’s relocation referred to Culver and other Duluth civic leaders as “The Ring” and the Duluth Tribune its “organ” and “pet.”
Cooke invested in many other ventures in Duluth, and his lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad even helped finance the digging of Duluth’s Ship Canal. But not all of Cooke’s Duluth investments were in business ventures or infrastructure improvements. As a devote Episcopalian, Cooke regularly gave a “tithe” or ten percent of his income to religious or charitable concerns. As mentioned, he gave the fund to establish and build Duluth’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church—named for the church Cooke attended in Pennsylvania—which would become known as “Jay Cooke’s Church.” In 1871, when Pilgrim Congregational Church was established in Duluth, “Jay Cooke and other friends” in Philadelphia contributed $1,000 toward the $2,800 building.
In 1872, things were looking pretty good for Duluth. The ship canal had been dug and, thanks to Cooke’s investments, the population had grown to well over 3,000 people. Two years earlier the township had become a city and incorporated several of the surrounding townships, increasing its size. But a set back that would eventually cost Cooke his fortune and Duluth its city charter was looming around the bend.