Jay Cooke State Park closed indefinitelyby Dan Kraker, Minnesota Public Radio
DULUTH, Minn. — In front of the iconic swinging bridge at Jay Cooke State Park, or what's left of it following the heavy flooding which last week devastated northern Minnesota, a twisted metal fence marks where the water surged 20 feet.
Stone pillars on each side of the St. Louis River are all that remains of the original structure built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. That's a key reason state Department of Natural Resources officials decided to close the park south of Duluth, at least until the end of October.
"I think the water at its highest was 3 or 4 feet over the deck of the bridge," said Courtland Nelson, DNR Director of Parks and Trails. "So that gives you an idea of the depth and the power of the water. It was a storm of epic proportions."
The closing of the park is a blow to the DNR and the tourism industry in northeast Minnesota, but areas away from the park are encouraging tourists to visit. Officials hope for a big Fourth of July holiday to help reverse a post-flood slump in visitors.
But the damage was substantial. The pillars held up a lot better than sections of State Highway 210, the only road leading into the park. Flash floods washed out the road in four places. One left a gaping chasm in the highway nearly 100 feet deep and nearly 600 feet across.
A quarter mile away, an embankment of a small reservoir washed out, sending a towering wall of water cascading downhill, cleaving the highway in two, park manager Gary Hoeft said.
"One big rush of water coming through here, that's what stripped the bark off of the trees up about 20 feet on some of those white pines," he said.
It completely wiped out a stretch of forest 200 yards wide, shearing off trees at the base of their trunks. State Department of Transportation engineer Duane Hill said it will cost up to $40 million to repair just that small section of highway. Officials aim to reopen it by October.
In the meantime, the DNR is refunding 3,300 nights of cancelled camping reservations at Jay Cooke. The agency anticipates losing $175,000 in revenue while the park is closed.
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A half hour away in Duluth, employees at the Comfort Suites in Canal Park are busy checking in guests and answering phones. Unlike the state park, Duluth is open for business. But General Manager Janell Mussman said after the flood it was tough convincing tourists of that.
"It was like we hit a brick wall," Mussman said. "All of a sudden people were calling, asking if we had fallen into the lake. They thought all of Duluth had been wiped off the face of the earth. We had to do a lot of educating, and even then people were nervous about coming to stay with us."
Mussman said some people didn't even believe her when she told them the hotel was open and that the vast majority of flood damage occurred in residential areas. She said her business has been off about 30 percent the past couple weeks. Typically during the summer months, the hotel is booked solid.
"We bank on acquiring more revenue during these high season months, so during winter time we can afford to keep going," she said.
But Mussman feels she's turned a corner this week. She said reservations are picking up. The hotel is full for the Fourth of July, as are many others across the city. Duluth typically packs 20,000 people into Bayfront Park for its annual fireworks show. Another 80,000 people watch from different vantage points around town.
"We need to turn this summer around, and what happens in the next five to ten days I think will be real telling," said Terry Mattson, CEO of Visit Duluth, the group that promotes tourism for the city.
Mattson said tourism-related businesses lost about $3 million in the wake of the flood. Even though there are signs of a turn-around, he said businesses are still nervous.
But Mattson is hopeful that funding for a new ad campaign approved by the City Council on Monday will help further erase lingering misconceptions that Duluth is underwater. The commercials, which will air in the Twin Cities, will show images of Duluth after the flood.
"We're still here; nothing has changed," Mattson said. "It's as beautiful as ever."
One thing that has changed is the language Duluth officials use to describe the flood. They now refer to it as a flash flood, emphasizing that while the water did cause extensive damage in some areas, it left most of the city unscathed.
The challenge is to get that message across to the rest of the state, during Duluth's busiest tourism month.
More from MPRFlood-damaged Duluth counting on Fourth of July business jolt
July 3, 2012
Flood damage to public infrastructure tops $108M
June 29, 2012
NE Minn. now dealing with a flood of trash
June 29, 2012
- All Things Considered, 07/03/2012, 5:24 p.m.