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Who was Jay Cooke? (Jay Cooke State Park)

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Podcasts
Who was Jay Cooke? (Jay Cooke State Park): Tracks .mp3 (2.33 Mb) 11/1/07

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Kristine Hiller:

Hi, this is Kristine Hiller, Interpretive Naturalist at Jay Cooke State Park.

One of the most common questions we get is how the park was developed and who it's named after. Many Minnesota State Parks are named after local people or landmarks, but if you search for Jay Cooke on the internet, you'll find that he wasn't even from the area. The park is named after a banker from Philadelphia who lived from 1821 until 1905. So you might wonder how in the world does a man from Pennsylvania get a Minnesota State Park named after him? Well, you have to go pretty far back in history to find the answer. Many people might recognize Jay Cooke from his connection with the Civil War. As a banker he sold war bonds to help raise almost a billion dollars to fund the Union, or government, side of the war. In the process he also became a millionaire himself and he made quite a few new influential friends.

After the war, Jay Cooke became interested in developing the western frontier and looked for projects to invest his money into. One of the projects was the Northern Pacific Railroad, a railway that would start in Carlton, MN and head west towards Tacoma, WA. If you check out Carlton, MN on a map you'll find that this town is right outside the boundaries of the park. The answer to where the park came from is hopefully becoming clearer.

In 1868 Jay Cooke sailed by steamer ship along Lake Superior into Duluth, MN so that he could see where his new railroad would start from. At the time, Duluth was just a small town with less than 300 people living along the shore. To get around, he traveled by small boat, walked, or rode a horse along an extremely rough military road. So Jay Cooke started up the St. Louis River by boat until dangerous rapids forced him to continue the rest of his journey on land. Finally he reached the dalles of the St. Louis River between Thomson and Carlton, MN. As he stood along the banks he was so impressed with the power of the St. Louis that he decided to buy up land along to river with the idea that someday he could harness that power for industry. It took quite a while before that idea would actually be developed. It wasn't until 1891 that he built the St. Louis River Brick and Slate Factory. Although it was only in production for a few years, this factory used the power of the river water to operate the machinery inside the factory to produce slate bricks. Many of these bricks were used to construct buildings of the growing towns in the area. Today if you go to the site of the Thomson Dam, you can still find the crumbling foundation of this factory and maybe even one of the bricks that it produced.

In 1905, at the age of 83, Jay Cooke died at his home in Ogontz, PA. He died just a few days after the second phase of his river development project was started. On February 12th of that year, work began on the construction of the Thomson Hydroelectric Project, which would use the power of the river to generate electricity for the growing city of Duluth. On September the 13th, 1907, the second largest hydroelectric plant in the world produced its first spark of electricity. More than 100 years later this power plant is still in operation and occasionally during the summer the park conducts tours of the facilities.

Now let's see, so far he's funded the Civil War, he's built railroad, a brick factory, and a power plant. We're getting closer to figuring out how the park came to be. See, after the power plant was built Jay Cooke's heirs and the owners of the power company realized that they had a lot of left over land that wasn't needed for the project. So, in 1915 they decided to donate the land to the State of Minnesota to make a state park. There was one little problem though – the land had $18,000 in back taxes that needed to be paid off before we could accept the land donation. Several local businessmen got together to raise the money needed to pay off these taxes. One of those men was Henry Oldenburg and if we hadn't named the park after Jay Cooke we probably would have named it after him. But if you take a look at the park map you'll find Oldenburg Point, which is a popular picnic area that has an incredible view of the St. Louis River Valley. And while you're out at the point, take a hike along the Ogantz Trail, which is named after a childhood friend of Jay Cooke's. This is yet another connection to the man from Pennsylvania who managed to get a Minnesota State Park named after him.

For more information on Jay Cooke State Park, attend one of our many naturalist programs held year-round, or stop in the Visitor Center to view the interpretive displays.