Jay Cooke’s Rare Visits to Duluth

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

Cooke’s Visits to the Zenith City

While Cooke had lost all his interests in Duluth, he never lost interest in Duluth. In 1883 a letter he wrote to a friend in Duluth praised what he had been reading about the Zenith City. He said that neither Chicago nor St. Louis “has greater resources behind them than has Duluth.”

But one line of Cooke’s letter adds ambiguity to the idea that he visited the head of the lakes once in the 1868. He wrote that “If I was to go as I went in 1866, and with a canoe, and with an Indian as a guide, and a quiet fishing time generally, I would go and see the changes that have taken place.” So Cooke places his trip in 1866, which agrees with Smith, Marvin, and Luce and again conflicts with newspaper reports and his own journal. Cooke’s mention of an “Indian as a guide” and Marvin and Luce’s stories of Cooke fishing on the Lester further adds to the theory that George Smith was not Cooke’s only guide during his first visit.

He closed by telling his friend, “I shall not be able I fear to visit Duluth this year, but will ‘drop in’ quietly on you some time before I get too old and before my enthusiasm dies out.”

Cooke kept his promise and visited Duluth in August, 1885. The Duluth Weekly Tribune reported that “a great deal of interest was felt in Mr. Cooke’s visit and the citizens of the town were very anxious to do him honor.” Obviously Duluth had no hard feelings over Cooke’s apparent abandonment of the Zenith City—they couldn’t blame him for trying. He spent part of the trip touring the city with his old friend and fellow Ohioan, J. D. Ray, and even made a brief trip to Ashland.

His visit included a stop at Duluth’s Board of Trade, where business was suspended and Cooke addressed the trading floor. He spoke of Duluth’s great promise, and how he had visited last when the city was still “a wilderness.” He received applause for stating he was a “western man,” and offered proof: “I was born in the shores of Lake Erie,” he said. He claimed to keep up with Duluth by reading all of its daily and weekly newspapers, keeping up with “the names of your people” and the issues that faced them and that he was “delighted to witness the progress of your city.”

The loudest applause came when he talked about the Northern Pacific Railroad, which he no longer owned—and which was not yet complete from Tacoma to Duluth as he had intended. The road stopped about 200 miles short of Tacoma and connected to a portage railway that led to Portland, Oregon. It wouldn’t go directly from Duluth to Tacoma until 1888. Cooke’s said that the railroad’s owners had “offered special cars and urged to go over the Northern Pacific.” He told Duluthians he refused the offers. “When I can go from here in a first-class train…,” Cooke said, “from Duluth to Tacoma, then I shall go across the Northern Pacific.” He wouldn’t take that trip until 1891.

The Worthington, Minnesota, Globe reported on Cooke’s visit, reminding readers that Cooke’s investment in the head of the lakes was at first criticized. In fact, the story suggested that Cooke’s investment had spurred Proctor Knott’s infamous speech ridiculing Duluth. The paper went on to note that Duluth now had nearly 20,000 citizens, far more than when Cooke first invested in the Zenith City. The paper mocked Knott, turning his own words on him by stating that, “It is a pity Proctor Knott does not accompany [Cooke] and learn for himself ‘what fools we mortals be.’”

Cooke visited the Zenith City again in September, 1891, where according to Woodbridge “Cooke and family…were received by the old-timers. His reception was a royal one.” Indeed. His old friends, some of whom had travelled from Minneapolis, met him at the Union Depot, where he had arrived by train along with his son Jay Jr., his daughter-in-law, two grandchildren (including Jay Cooke III) and a son-in-law. The reception committee included Ray, Judge John Carey, Commodore Saxton, and Roger Munger. Munger put Cooke in a carriage and the first thing they did was tour Boulevard Drive (Skyline Parkway). They later travelled up the St. Louis River before attending a reception at the Spalding Hotel.

Cooke, who was 72 at the time, stayed at the Spalding, then Duluth’s swankiest hotel. The Duluth Herald wrote of him that despite his “patriarchal beard,” Cooke looked “hale and hearty and good for many more years of usefulness.” Cooke himself expressed that he was “not surprised by Duluth’s greatness, for I knew before a person lived here as well as I know now that this at some time will be a large city. As large as Chicago? Yes, and larger. Duluth’s future is assured by her position. The wonder to me is that Duluth is not twice as large as she is today.”

Dinner at the Spalding that night included 25 guests of the Cooke’s, most of them old friends. After kind words by Judge Carey, Cooke addressed the crowd, stating that, “This is my third visit to the Zenith City,” a statement that all but verifies the idea that the various tales of his 1860s visits all concerned the 1868 that newspapers accounted. He went on to describe what first attracted him to Duluth before saying that, “I have reason to believe, after the most careful examination, that the west end of Lake Superior will be the greatest point in the West. It has nothing to fear. If I was a young man, I would come out here and engage in the development of the great power on the St. Louis River, which will…add more than anything to its prosperity.”

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