Cooke’s firm managed over $1.6 billion in bond sales during the Civil War.
Deeply religious, strongly anti-slavery, and a patriot, Jay Cooke was committed to the Union cause but also an astute businessman. In the immediate post-Civil War period, he was probably one of the richest men in America.
In addition to a mansion in Philadelphia, Cooke bought Gibraltar Island in Lake Erie and built a magnificent summer home on the island called Cooke’s Castle. Cooke and his extended family spent 40 summers on Gibraltar, which is now owned by Ohio State University.
Always a believer in the country’s western destiny, in 1870 Cooke’s bank took the lead in financing the Northern Pacific Railway, a railroad line that would run from Duluth, Minnesota to Tacoma, Washington, connecting the Great Lakes to Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. There were numerous problems, including conflicts with Sioux Indians, construction and management issues, and low demand for rail services in what was still near wilderness. Cooke’s problems helped precipitate the Panic of 1873, the biggest economic downturn of the 19th century. Cooke was overextended and lost his railroad and his fortune.
However, Cooke did recover much of his resources through investments in a silver mine, but by the mid-1880s he had largely retired from business.
His railroad line, which became the Northern Pacific Railroad, was completed by others and formally opened in 1883.
Cooke died in Philadelphia in 1905 at the age of 84.