Saint Paul, MN

The Story of Swede Hollow: a Former Immigrant Community in St. Paul, Minnesota

Matt Reicher

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Swede Hollow, looking north from East Seventh Street before creek was enclosedWikimedia Commons

The story of Swede Hollow predates the incorporation of the city of St. Paul, Minnesota. Its first white settler was Edward Phelan, who built a small, crude log cabin near the former Hamm's Brewery brew house. During the 1850s, the first waves of Swedish immigrants arrived in the area and settled in shanties that had been abandoned by hunters, trappers, and loggers.

Although the ravine is a part of St. Paul, it has a history all its own. Time stood still in the half mile long hovel as the city above grew and matured. It remained a squatter settlement throughout its history. Families living in the modest frame shanties had no electricity or municipal services. Water was provided by nearby springs, and sewage was disposed of in Phelan Creek.

It was a world away from the hustle-and-bustle of life on the street.

Around 1890 the area became a true community of Swedish residents. As many as ninety families called the group of tiny hovels their home. They affectionately called it “Svenska Dalen” for Swedish Dale, but it would become more commonly known as Swede Hollow.

Soon after, the area would become a melting pot for many different nationalities, Italian and Mexican groups among the new residents. Whenever a family would leave the house for a life outside of the Hollow, a new one would take its place. By 1905 city records showed over one thousand people living in the area.

The families of the Hollow contributed to the growth of St. Paul, going “up on the street” from the ravine to work, and then returning home at the end of the day. Over time, many of the families that began in the Hollow found life in the city. They left their home in the ravine and were replaced by new families looking to do the same.

Houses were never for sale or rent. If a family went into Swede Hollow and a home was empty, they moved in. Nobody asked any questions. This cycle continued for years.

As the city traveled further into the twentieth century and began to modernize, officials became concerned about the small community living in the ravine. The city wanted to improve the living standards of its residents and get rid of ongoing blight and deterioration. Once considered an idyllic hamlet of old-time living, the collection of shacks in the Hollow was now seen as a squatter settlement. In December 1956, the homes that had been an integral part of the lives of many local families were to be no more.

Interestingly, despite the poor conditions, research by the city showed that the sixteen families living in the Hollow in 1956 did so because they genuinely enjoyed it. While residents probably remained in the ravine due to the low $5 per month rent, finances weren’t necessarily the issue. It didn’t matter to the city, which felt that progress meant the community had to leave.

On December 11, 1956, the thirteen tiny houses still standing were burned to the ground by local firemen. The city’s health department, concerned about the living conditions in the area, had deemed it a health hazard and forced the residents to move out. The last straw came when the spring that supplied water to those living in the Hollow was contaminated.

By the time of the fires, five families had already purchased homes outside of the Hollow, and two more were renting homes in other parts of the city. Those that hadn’t yet found a place to live were placed in the McDonough and Roosevelt public housing developments.

Years later, people that talk about the Hollow continue to do so affectionately.

People outside of the Hollow thought it was a slum, but residents of the neighborhood lines with outhouses believed there was no better way to live. They had the things they needed, and a sense of community always prevailed. Children played baseball together and fished for northern pike and crappie in the pool beneath the brewery.

Everyone looked out for one another.

Today Swede Hollow is a beautiful park near the heart of downtown Saint Paul. A paved trail encircles the ravine, and while it doesn’t offer the entire picture of what the area once was, it gives a beautiful glimpse of what one of the most historically rich locations in the city used to be.

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