Nestled into a small valley between the mansions of Dayton's Bluff and St. Paul proper, Swede Hollow was a bustling community tucked away from the prying eyes of the city above. It lacked more than it offered; houses had no plumbing, electricity, or yards, and there were no roads or businesses. In spite of this, it provided a home to the poorest immigrants in St. Paul for nearly a century.
Euro-American use of Swede Hollow dates as far back as 1839, when resident Edward Phelan (sometimes spelled Phalen) built a small cabin on the spot where the Hamm's Beer building was later built. Its birth as a community is attributed to the trappers, lumbermen, and laborers who built "hovels" in the area, taking advantage of the ravine landscape to remain comfortable in the winter and cool in the summer.
In the late 1850s Swedish immigrants moved into the vacant structures and made a life for themselves in the area. They paid the city a small rental fee for the right to live in the modest shanties. It became the first Swedish settlement in the city—a barebones place bisected by a spring-water creek and teeming with single-story houses. The Swedes called their new home "Svenska Dalen" (Swedish Dale). It would become more commonly known as Swede Hollow.
Throughout its history the Hollow was a melting pot of nationalities. It was home to many of the first Swedish, Polish, Italian, and Mexican immigrants who came to St. Paul. While the names of residents changed, the spirit of community remained. Swede Hollow gave immigrants a chance to transition into American society together while retaining the values and traditions of their homelands.
Immigrants walked along the railroad tracks from the Union Depot to Swede Hollow upon their arrival in St. Paul. Notes pinned to their shirts helped residents direct them toward family members. Others moved into the first vacant house they could find.
Many of them took jobs in the milling and brewing industries at the top of the hill. Those companies looked to the Hollow for unskilled and semi-skilled labor. Immigrants also worked for the railroads and streetcar lines, and when they were financially able they left the Hollow for life "up on the street." As a result, many families started in the Hollow, expanded there, and moved away. They were then replaced by new families that hoped to do the same. Homes were generally not owned in the Hollow, so empty ones were used by new residents.
Phalen Creek, the creek that ran through the valley, was important to life in the Hollow. It provided water for small gardens, washing clothes, and carrying waste into the Mississippi River below. Outhouses built on stilts above the creek were used as bathrooms. Considerations for a sewage system began in 1900, after the city health department received numerous complaints about the odor emanating from the area. The cost was seen as "prohibitive" and those plans were soon scrapped.
For all of its problems in the eyes of outsiders, the community lined with outhouses was home to the people who lived there. Residents rarely lacked for necessities and a sense of togetherness prevailed. Children played baseball and fished for northern pike and crappie in the pool beneath the brewery.
After World War II the city of St. Paul, like cities throughout the United States, began to take steps to modernize. Officials longed to remove blight and improve living standards in their city. The Hollow, still nothing more than a collection of shacks, was deemed an unsafe place to live. The area that had supported the poorest immigrants was under threat.
The absence of proper heating and plumbing, as well as a contaminated water supply, were the last straw. The city's health department, worried about living conditions in the area, deemed the Hollow a health hazard and forced the sixteen families living there to move out. On December 11, 1956, the thirteen houses still standing were burned to the ground by the fire department. The neighborhood of Swede Hollow was no more. Twenty years later, the land was turned into a nature preserve by the City of St. Paul.
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In the late 1850s Swedish immigrants move into structures vacated by laborers, trappers, and lumbermen at the base of Dayton's Bluff. They begin to make a life for themselves in the area that will in a short time be known as Swede Hollow.
St. Paul resident Edward Phelan builds a cabin at the top of a spring-water creek and makes a claim for the land below.
First-wave Swedish immigrants settle into structures vacated by trappers, lumbermen, and laborers. They call their new community "Svenska Dalen" (Swedish Dale); it comes to be called Swede Hollow.
Italian immigrants make their way into Swede Hollow and create a life for themselves in the community.
The Minnesota State Census records over one thousand people living in Swede Hollow.
Mexican immigrants, working in nearby sugar beet fields, move into Swede Hollow.
Phalen Creek is diverted underground through a conduit.
On December 11, the remaining thirteen houses of Swede Hollow are burned to the ground by local firemen.
In October, Swede Hollow is dedicated as a nature center.