Lake Erie, mayflies, and Jay Cooke: A Yellowstone connection in Ohio
When I went on vacation to visit family in Ohio, I did not expect to undertake any touring that in any way related to my studies of Yellowstone National Park. However, on Saturday morning while sitting down in my brother's dining room in the Cleveland suburb of Parma, I received an email from Tom Bremer, who is researching a history of religion in Yellowstone National Park. In Tom's email, he told me that I should visit Cooke Castle on Gibraltar Island near Sandusky, suggesting that I should because Jay Cooke, the financier of the Northern Pacific Railroad (at least until he went bankrupt and helped cause the Panic of 1873), was probably the person most responsible for the creation of Yellowstone National Park. Cooke, though he lived in Philadelphia, was originally from Sandusky and later bought Gibraltar Island, where he would summer the rest of his life (except for the years following his bankruptcy when he lost control of the property).
Tom's email excited me. In the last year, I read a recent biography (Jay Cooke's Gamble: The Northern Pacific Railroad, The Sioux, And the Panic of 1873 by M. John Lubetkin) about Jay Cooke and Northern Pacific surveyors. That Cooke had owned Gibraltar Island had slipped my mind, but I wasn't aware of any islands right off the coast of Sandusky (Cedar Point, famous for its roller coasters, is not an island). A quick internet search turned up something remarkable (at least in respect to my travels). Gibraltar Island is actually in the harbor of Put-in-Bay, which is most identified with South Bass Island, a larger island that hosts Perry's Monument. As noted in my previous entry prior to going to Lakeside to visit my family, Genevieve and I already had plans to visit South Bass Island. Now, I wondered if it would be possible for us to take a visit to Gibraltar Island, see Cooke Castle, and learn more about the capitalist entrepreneur who raised $1 billion for the Union Army and probably suggested and certainly put himself behind the lobbying effort that created Yellowstone.
I kept searching, and soon I discovered that Gibraltar Island was owned by Ohio State University as a research laboratory. Stone Laboratory has existed since 1895, though it has existed on Gibraltar Island since 1925 when the island was donated by its owner - now Julius Stone (who had purchased the island from Jay Cooke's daughter and son-in-law). Though I was not that interested in the current biological research laboratory, I wondered if they had information on how to get to Gibraltar Island. They did, though I did not read it very carefully. Only a lot of luck ultimately got us to the island last Wednesday.
Genevieve and I chose to go to Put-in-Bay on Wednesday mostly because of the weather. The first couple of days in Lakeside proved to be unseasonably hot, and I did not want a repeat of my only other trip to South Bass Island. On a July 4 back in 1988, my family took a trip to Put-in-Bay in record-breaking 100-degree heat. We were so utterly miserable, and it's funny how memories live on. We chose to go to the island on Wednesday because that was the first day of cool temperatures without a threat of rain.
Because I had been away from Lakeside so long, I had not experienced a phenomenon that has returned to the area in recent years. Everything was covered in insects called mayflies. Showing you a picture of one of these large aquatic insects could not possibly express to you how many millions of these things were around. They covered cars and roads. I am not exaggerating to say that the roads looked like they were close to being dirt trails. You could see tire tracks through the endless fields of mayflies. Besides being rather sticky, they were harmless. We had both heard of their existence, but we did not give them a second thought until we found ourselves in this strange new environment. Indeed, environment and ecology would not be distinct from historical inquisitiveness the rest of the day. Mayflies have their own special connection with our day on Gibraltar Island and the subsequent thoughts I'll be sharing.
Fast forwarding a bit to our actual trip to Gibraltar Island, Genevieve and I almost never got to see it except from a distance. The directions I looked at from the Stone Laboratory Web site had told us to go to the office on South Bass Island in order to arrange transportation. When we got to the office, we could only hear a couple people talking in another room. I was almost too shy to ask where we might get a water taxi to the small 6-acre island. When I finally asked, the people at the office told us that all we had to do was go back into town and go to the end of a particular boardwalk where a boat would take us over at 11 AM. What was odd about that was that the sign on the door had a completely different time while the time on the Web site said 10:45 AM. Also, it was not clear why we had to go all the way to one point on the island just for them to turn us almost all the way back from where we had started. When we reached the dock, there were no signs telling us where to pick up the boat. When Genevieve finally asked someone, they thought that the boat was picked up all the way back by the office. She and I got lost from each other at one point, and I could see no sign of a boat that was taking people to Gibraltar except that I could see a small boat parked on the island and thought that perhaps it would come to get us. Then, at 10:45, we saw one of the boats that we had seen full of people and speeding off toward Gibraltar Island. Oh no! We had missed it! I was so upset and couldn't believe my bad luck. I was upset that we had been told 11 AM and that it was so hard to locate the place where we were supposed to find the boat.
I thought at that point that there might be a chance to catch a boat in a couple of hours, and I was pretty much resigned to wait it out. We saw the boat returning from the nearby island, and we walked over there. A couple of other people saw the boat as well and stopped the boat operator to ask when the next boat would be going over. The boat operator said, "That was the boat for the day." They responded, "But, they told us at the office the boat would leave at 11?" At that point, I chimed in, "That's what we were told." The boat operator at first seemed a bit frustrated but then opened the boat for us and some others who soon came over to get on his boat. Then, I began to realize that we were far more lucky than unlucky. The operator said, "This is the first tour of the season, and so there are bound to be some glitches." What? First tour of the season? Don't they do this every day as long as it's warm? In fact, they don't give these tours every day. They only give them every Wednesday beginning this very week, which is in fact what the Web site says, though I had missed that part in a quick attempt to get at the details of how to get there. If we had come on a Tuesday or any other day, we would not have made it. If we had come a week earlier, we would not have made it. If we thought we could have caught a later boat, we would have been out of luck. Now, somehow, we were on our way to Gibraltar Island and able to make the one tangible Yellowstone history connection that I knew could be made on this trip.
On the shore of Gibraltar Island, the Stone Laboratory director, John Hageman, had just begun his tour of the small island. Unlike the famous rock of Gibraltar, this island as you could see in the photograph wasn't especially Gibraltar-like. There was a stony quality to it, but what made it a bit like Gibraltar was the fortress feel of the island. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry apparently used one point on the island as a lookout so that he could see the British fleet during the Battle of Lake Erie. On this gorgeous day, we could see many of the Lake Erie islands, including Pelee Island, which belongs to Canada. Hageman's tour was heavy on ecology and light on history as one might expect from the director of a biological research lab. All the same, he took us to the place I expected to see.
Cooke Castle was finished by Jay Cooke at the end of the Civil War. While much of the country, especially the South, was destroyed by bitter warfare that Cooke had done the most to help finance, Cooke made a lot of money off the war. That money made him extremely wealthy and allowed him to spend the money to construct this "castle." In the castle, Cooke hosted many people, often mixing business with pleasure. He was especially fond of hosting clergy, whom he liked to have around and for whom he would often pay their way and all of their expenses.
Cooke Castle itself has seen better days. I have no pictures from inside of it because we were not allowed inside despite the fact that $1 million has been spent in the past ten years in attempts to restore it. Some of the work done to the porch is already rotting again, and it has been deemed extremely unsafe for passage. One thinks that Ohio State has not done well with the money appropriated to it, and it seemed pretty clear that Hageman wasn't particularly interested in the historical restoration. If he is, he was not convincing. There was a historical marker about Jay Cooke that was barely visible inside of one of the windows. Some of the tourists with us were eager to see it and could not understand why it was buried inside of the house. Hageman explained that the house for years had been used as a dormitory for students at the laboratory, though that obviously stopped when the home came into such disrepair.
How appropriate that Cooke Castle had gone by the wayside the way that Cooke's and the country's fortune did in 1873. That year, the Northern Pacific Railroad came to a momentary halt. It bought time for Plains Indians tribes trying to maintain their traditional ways of life. It may have bought some time that was crucial in keeping Yellowstone itself from being overrun by railroads. Everything from the Battle of Little Bighorn to the Nez Perce War might never have happened had Jay Cooke made different decisions. Now, Cooke Castle was an afterthought of a university team devoted to studying the ecology of Lake Erie.
The ecology of Lake Erie was in fact the star of the day, and now it is impossible to think of Cooke Castle without thinking of mayflies, zebra mussels, plankton, walleye, and dead zones. For the ecologist/tour guide Hageman - and in the literature that Ohio State put out - Jay Cooke was simply the man who financed the Civil War, but Lake Erie to him was clearly so much more than the fourth largest Great Lake in surface area. Most people still probably think of Lake Erie as relatively dead, but the lake is anything but even if it faces significant threats, especially as a result of global trade.
John Hageman spent much of his time educating us about Lake Erie ecology. He pointed to a bunch of reddish looking water out in the lake. The lake was full of these swarms of what turned out to be mayfly skins. He explained that mayflies cannot launch out of the water until there are sufficient number of those skins to serve as a launching pad. The mayflies, he explained, are an indicator species. They will only survive in water where the bacteria level of the lake is low. The return of mayflies to Lake Erie is an indication that pollution levels in the lake are low enough to support that and consequently other life in the lake. Besides mayflies, the lake is home to a large number of fish. In fact, he made the amazing claim that there is more fish in Lake Erie than all of the other Great Lakes combined, a claim I either misheard or is simply stunning given the size and depth of the lake. However, there are also threats to the life of the lake in the name of exotic species, namely zebra mussels and the similar quagga mussels, of which recent population estimates show there are more of now than zebra mussels. These mussels, which probably came into Lake Erie from the water of ships' ballasts, are extremely numerous. They eat pollutants, but they also eat a lot of algae that smaller and developing fish need to survive. We learned that clear water is not indicative of water that is alive with life. While nearby residents are pushing for herbicidal treatment to rid themselves of lake grasses and seaweed that get in their boats, Hageman and other scientists are arguing that the herbicides are hurting the aquatic life of the lake by taking away food sources, especially for the fish that also serve as a revenue stream for the tourist-minded industry of the Lake Erie islands.
We also learned about the dead zones in Lake Erie, namely the layer of water where there is little oxygen. When calm waters - especially in July - warm up, the water becomes too warm for many species to survive. They swim to colder waters that in parts of the lake have very little oxygen. Species moving to these areas die and float back up to the surface. In Lake Erie's central basin, east of where we were, this creates a dead zone, which turns out to be part of the nature of life in the lake, not nearly so worrisome as the mussels and other exotic and invasive species, which in the case of the mussels no one can do anything about.
Hageman showed us in one of the island's laboratory classrooms a drop of Lake Erie water under a microscope. In one drop of water, you would be astounded by the amount of life. We could see so much; however, over and over again, Hageman pounded home his belief that Lake Erie is threatened by the lack of shipping ballast regulation, which is introducing exotic species into the Great Lakes and from the Great Lakes into other parts of the world. He said that the cheap goods at Wal-Mart are in some sense being subsidized by the enormous costs that invasive species are costing people who live in coastal areas. Boats and docks must be treated, rivers are being poisoned, and millions and millions of dollars are spent in often losing battles to adjust to the reality of new species in the water just so people could shop at what he called "Junk Mart."
In proportion to the indifference that Hageman seemed to have about Jay Cooke, he expressed great passion toward the plankton in the water and the overall diversity of life in the lake. What puzzled me, however, is why there wasn't a greater attempt to connect the life of this one man to the reality of Great Lakes shipping today.
Jay Cooke was a railroad and banking magnate, a capitalist who built railroads, one of whose main purposes was extractive industries like mining and lumber. To build the railroad through Lakota, Crow, and other indigenous lands required the government to force Indians into reservations. Enforcing that policy required elimination of the main food source for Indians, the buffalo. The destruction of the buffalo is directly related to the expansionist policies that the railroads helped to push and to facilitate. Jay Cooke was in the business of making money by building a railroad, settling people, extracting goods and resources, and where it fit his interests, setting up places like Yellowstone National Park so that people would ride his railroad again and again and sleep in the hotels and lodges that would later become part of the Grand Tour of Yellowstone National Park. Nineteenth century industrialism, banking, and trade practices are key ingredients of the American place in today's global economy. Ships coming from China, whose ballasts are not being regulated, relate directly to the world that Jay Cooke helped to finance and push. Ironically, places like Yellowstone and Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island are also part of Cooke's legacy. Yellowstone has become a place of capitalist exploitation of a different sort, just as the fee I paid to Ohio State University along with other tourists has become part of the reality of the Lake Erie islands. Those who work to protect the life of the islands and Lake Erie in particular come from the same heritage as those who have introduced all the mussels and other kinds of exotic species into Lake Erie.
To me, as someone who has studied these issues and thought about them, the connection of Jay Cooke's world and the world of John Hageman and the staff at the Stone Laboratory is quite obvious. I am a little alarmed that Cooke has simply become a quaint Civil War financier rather than the force he was in the American economy of his time and the world that exists today. While he is not the only force, he is directly related to the world around the Lake Erie islands just as he is for any student of the national parks, especially Yellowstone. It's not enough to go after shipping ballasts without understanding the context in which the shipping and trade happens. That one change might spare further damage of that type to Lake Erie, but it won't address the herbicides, it won't address poverty, it won't address centuries of racism and genocide, it won't address the full extent of the current reality. Cooke Castle should not be simply a historical aside on an ecological tour. That's not to say I think another dime should be spent on restoring it; it's not a terribly interesting place, and I don't understand how $1 million more thrown at it will make much difference. It is to say that I think we should understand the relationship of Jay Cooke to mayflies, Lake, Erie, and Yellowstone. Our world is framed by the world he was imaginative enough to exploit.
That aside, I learned an awful lot that I did not know before about Lake Erie even as I learned virtually nothing I did not already know about Jay Cooke. What I appreciated the most was the personal opportunity to make the connections and to note the ironies. Now, scientific researchers look under microscopes on the small piece of land that Jay Cooke used to build homages to Commodore Perry and dine with business partners and clergy. On the face of it, that's a world turned upside down. Looking more closely under the microscope, we see a world fully integrated by these different types of lives. The contradictions of global capitalism are alive and well. What cleans the lake is also the same force that destroys it, and no one has a shared understanding of what any of that means. The world is so utterly complicated that far off Yellowstone was not mentioned even once in either context.
The only thing that seems to march on is human vanity. Thankfully, at this stage of human vanity, the mayflies have found a way to return to the lake just as one day I will return to Yellowstone to live what I hope will be the most substantial chapters of my life.