Jay Cooke’s Rare Visits to Duluth

Jay Cooke some time in the late 1890s or early 1900s, fishing along a stream in northern Pennsylvania. Fishing was one of Cooke’s favorite past times. (Image: Public Domain)

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 Cooke—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 and 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.

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