JAY COOKE STATE PARK - One hundred years ago the company that eventually became Minnesota Power decided it didn't need 2,350 acres of land along a scenic gorge of the St. Louis River near Carlton.

Their reservoir and hydroelectric dam network on the river was complete, and they hadn't paid the taxes on the unneeded parcel - so officials from the Great Northern Power Company offered the hardscrabble land along the river to the state, free of charge.

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The effort was pushed by a group of local citizens who even paid the back taxes before the state would accept the land that became Jay Cooke State Park.

Now covering nearly 9,000 acres and one of the state's most-visited parks, Jay Cooke is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, with the largest of several events set for Saturday highlighting the park's natural resources, history and recreational opportunities.

The park is named for the famous entrepreneur who made his fortune in Philadelphia during the Civil War and then came to the Duluth area to invest in land, railroads and timber - including the land where the park is now located - only to go bankrupt in 1873.

Cooke appears to have originated the idea of harnessing the St. Louis River here to generate electricity, but he died in 1905, a few years before the first generators started spinning and a decade before the park opened.

The anniversary event Saturday is a chance for park regulars to visit with a new sense of history, and for newcomers to get a lesson in how this special place came to be protected.

But on a sun-dappled morning this week, sitting on a flat-topped rock overlooking the river, Michelle Carlson of New Richland, Minn., wasn't thinking about history. She was alone, reading a novel, soaking up the rays and listening to birds singing against the backdrop of the ever-present roar of the river below.

Her smile spoke volumes.

"It's beautiful here. I love the sound of the river. We don't have anything like this where I'm from," she said.

"My husband is at a meeting in Cloquet so I decided to come over and check it out. I've never been here before. I can't believe how beautiful it is," Carlson said.

Kris Hiller, the park's head naturalist, hears that a lot. Every summer people stumble into the area and land on a "hidden jewel they didn't know existed," Hiller said.

"We're one of the top 10 popular state parks, but a lot of people outside the area still don't know about us," Hiller said.

Then again there are visitors like Mark and Allison Bergman of Blaine, Minn. The retired couple has a cabin near Duluth and they come to Jay Cooke several times each year, mostly to photograph wildflowers. Earlier this week they found a gorgeous patch of yellow lady's slipper flowers in full bloom, off a trail in the heart of the park's forest.

"It's one of our favorite places," Mark said.

"It's an awesome place," said Allison. "We've been coming here for years, really, since our first child was six weeks old ... but we keep coming back. There is so much to see here if you come at the right time."

The Bergmans try for weekdays, when there are fewer people on the trails.

"We have a lot of people come from Duluth, from right here in Carlton, who even camp here. And a lot of day trips. We also have a lot of people come up from the Twin Cities, for the day and overnight," Hiller said, noting the park is just 15 minutes outside of Duluth. "We are very accessible, but we also have a big enough place that people can find a spot where they don't see or hear anyone, where they are alone in the woods."

After the flood, record crowds

Like at all Minnesota state parks, the staff at Jay Cooke is trying to keep up with the demands of new visitors, especially young people. Geocaching has tied kids' love for electronics, in this case GPS navigation units, with outdoor exploration. There are now more than 400 naturalist outreach events per year in the park, including back-to-basic talks added for people who may not know an aspen from a maple.

In the winter, the park is open with fat-tire bike trails, snowshoe-building lessons and popular cross-country ski trails.

"We fit in pretty well with the Duluth theme of being a fantastic outdoor recreation destination," said Lisa Angelos, the park's new manager.

Jay Cooke also is part of the state park system's "I Can!" program, in which newcomers can learn to paddle, fish, camp and use a bow and arrow - all with equipment provided free of charge.

"It's a big part of our mission now to reach out to the generation, or maybe two generations now, that don't have that strong connection to the outdoors," Hiller said.

The efforts appear to be paying off.

Jay Cooke State Park drew 378,000 visitors in 2014, the most ever and well up from an average 320,000, even as the park rebounded from the devastating June 2012 flood. That rainstorm and ensuing flood set records for the river's flow, wiped out trails, filled the river gorge with debris and destroyed the park's iconic Swinging Bridge across the St. Louis River.

With the park a mess, 2012 was a washout for visitors, too. But by 2013, campers, hikers, sightseers and kayakers started coming back. In 2014, with a new Swinging Bridge in place, crowds thronged to the park.

It was a lengthy and expensive rebuilding effort. The Minnesota Conservation Corps youth group helped in the cleanup.

"When the bridge was out people assumed the park was closed, as if that was all we had," Hiller said with a laugh. "When we got the bridge back, the people came back and brought more people with them."

Most of the park's trails have been fixed and reopened - more than 45 miles now, although a few remain off-limits. The last major reminder of the 2012 flood is the dead-end closure of Minnesota Highway 210, which now ends just past Oldenburg Point. The roadway into western Duluth washed away in the downpour.

"Work to rebuild the highway starts this summer and will go through summer 2016," Angelos said. "That's going to make a lot of people happy. For a lot of Duluth visitors, that was really their entrance to the park."

Long history

After the state took over the land on Oct. 18, 1915 and designated Jay Cooke State Park, not much was done at the site until 1933, when a Civilian Conservation Corps camp opened in the park and crews began building structures, including a rustic Swinging Bridge. That CCC camp disbanded in 1935, but a second one opened in 1939. They built a better Swinging Bridge and built the River Inn, a main lodge structure that serves today as the park visitors center and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1945 the state began to buy additional acres around the site, and small purchases of private land within the park boundaries continue today when sellers are willing.

The river that runs through the park is still in its natural state, although some of the water that used to run across the slate rock here is diverted into a canal around the park and used to generate electricity at the Fond du Lac dam, before the water is returned to the river downstream of the park.

Long before the dam and park, however, the river was a highway of sorts for early Native American cultures, dating back hundreds of years. By the 1700s, voyageurs trading furs used the river as a highway to connect the Great Lakes to northern Minnesota and Ontario, portaging around the falls and gorge where Jay Cooke State Park is now. Archaeologists recently unearthed old trails in the park that were heavily used in the 1700s.

"There's an incredible story to be told here," Hiller said. "We aren't just a pretty place. It's a really interesting place in history,"

If you go

100th anniversary celebration for Jay Cooke State Park

Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., formal program at 1 p.m.

Free: All Minnesota state parks will offer free admission on Saturday as part of National Get Outdoors Day, with no permit required for entry. (Camping fees still apply.)

From Carlton, go 3 miles east on state Highway 210.

Events include a cake-cutting, refreshments and activities. Visitors will have an opportunity to participate in activity stations that explore plants, animals, history, recreation, invasive species and water quality. Activities will be ongoing, and visitors can visit the stations of interest to them. There also will be an Ojibwe culture puppet show highlighting native ties to the region.

Still to come: More activities are planned in July, August, September and on Oct. 18, the official 100th anniversary of the park.

For more information call (218) 384-4610, ext. 227, email kris.hiller@state.mn.us or go to mndnr.gov/jaycooke.

Fast facts

Jay Cooke State Park...

• Has 46 species of animals, including deer, wolves and bear. There are 181 species of birds that visit or live in the park, and 16 species of reptiles.

• Has an 83-site campground and several camper cabins. But many sites are booked far in advance - sometimes a full year in advance. Call ahead or check early in the day for the best chances at a site.

• Has more than 45 miles of trail open to the public, although some other trails remain closed from the 2012 flood. The Superior Hiking Trail runs through the park and the Willard Munger State Trail is just outside park boundaries.

• Is dominated by slate and graywacke some 2 billion years old, along with 10,000-year-old red clay deposited by glacial Lake Duluth.