The Recollections of George M. Smith

George M. Smith, agent in Duluth of the Omaha railroad, is one of the city’s old settlers whose recollections run back to boyhood days. To be exact, Mr. Smith when a boy lived with his parents in Superior, but he probably spent as much time in Duluth as he did in his own town. Young Smith was known as one of the most careful and skilful boatmen at the head of the lake. He was at home in any kind of craft, and spent much of his time navigating the bay between the two towns. Occasionally he would be engaged by strangers coming to Superior to ferry them over to Duluth, and would pick up a few dollars for his troubles. He tells the following story of an experience he had with the great war-time banker, Jay Cooke, during his boyhood days.


During the summer of 1867 Jay Cooke and his wife arrived at Superior, via steamer, and took a room at the old Superior hotel. That-evening the proprietor of the hotel sent for me, told me that Mr. Cooke wanted to make a boat trip to Duluth, and that he had recommended me to Mr. Cooke as the best person to take him over. He also said that Mr. Cooke wanted to see me about it. I was a lad in my ‘teens then, and I gladly hailed this opportunity to see the great man. I was taken to Mr. Cooke’s room, we made satisfactory arrangements for the trip, and at 5 o’clock the next morning I called at Mr. Cooke’s room and found him in readiness to leave at once, even to the wearing of his invariable light colored silk hat.

Just before we left the room Mr. Cooke went to a trunk and took therefrom several small rolls of specie and carelessly dropped them into his outside overcoat pocket. We then wended our way down the bank to the shore of the bay, and after seating Mr. Cooke in the stern of the boat, I took up the oars and started to row up the bay. It was a most beautiful morning, the water was still, and Mr. Cooke appeared to enjoy the ride immensely.

He had hundreds of questions to ask and nothing seemed to escape his attention. He ‘pumped’ me for about all that I knew, but in return he told me many stories of his travels and other experiences which he knew would interest a boy.

As we rowed up the bay we gradually neared Minnesota Point and skirted along its shore, and in the stillness of the early morning the ride was as beautiful as one can imagine. When we were about three miles below Duluth Mr. Cooke noticed the birch bark wigwams of the Indians, who at that season of the year always camped on the Point, and devoted their time to picking blueberries and fishing. The berries and fish were sold to the residents of Superior.

Immediately Mr. Cooke wanted to know what they were and if there were any Indians there. When I gave him an affirmative answer he insisted upon going ashore to see them. This was about 6 o’clock in the morning and the Indians had not yet made their appearance. This didn’t make any difference to me and I routed them out. Then I explained to them, as well as my limited knowledge of the subject would permit, just who their distinguished and early visitor was, talking to them in the Chippewa language. Mr. Cooke stepped upon a large stump, and taking off his silk hat and holding it in his hand made the Indians a little speech. He told them that he was the man who had negotiated the sale of the United States Government bonds during the Civil War; that 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 of the noted gentleman who had favored them with this early morning call.

After Mr. Cooke had finished his talk to the Indians he took out of his pocket a roll of the specie and 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 pappooses a silver 5-cent piece. This was the occasion for more wild demonstrations on the part of the Indians. Mr. Cooke then shook hands with each one of them and we started for the boat. As we reached the shore an Indian, who had been out to lift his nets came up in his canoe. Mr. Cooke shook hands with him and gave him one of the silver 25-cent pieces. Then, noticing a whitefish which was lying in the canoe, Mr. Cooke asked the Indian how much he would take for it, and offered him 25 cents for it, which you may be sure the Indian took without any further parley. I ventured to expostulate with Mr. Cooke for paying such an exorbitant price and explained to him that he could have bought as many whitefish as he wanted for the regular price of 5 cents each, but my remonstrances only brought a smile to Mr. Cooke’s face. He carefully placed the fish in the bottom of the boat and we started again toward Duluth.

Click on “2” for the rest of the story….


  • Woodbridge, Dwight and John Pardee, eds. History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company, Chicago: 1922.
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