A Short History of Swede Hollow

(Swede Hollow, St. Paul - MNHS)
The area now known as Swede Hollow dates as far back as 1839 (predating the incorporation of the city of Saint Paul) when early settler Edward Phelan built a small, crude log cabin on the spot where the Hamm’s building now stands. Its growth into a community can be attributed to the early hunters, trappers and lumbermen that built “hovels” to rest in. First wave Swedish immigrants came to the area, and moved into the empty structures, in the late 1850s.

Sometime around 1890 the area saw a change. As many as ninety Swedish families began to make their way into the creek to call it their home. They affectionately called it “Svenska Dale” 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.

(Swede Hollow, St. Paul - MNHS)
As the city traveled further into the twentieth century and began to modernize, concerns started to spring up about the small community located in the ravine.  The city wanted to “improve living standards” and “prevent blight and deterioration” and the Hollow, nothing more than a collection of shacks without electricity and running water was deemed an unsafe place to live. Late in December of 1956 the homes that had seen the growth of many families and contributed to the growth of a city would be no more.

On December 11, 1956 the thirteen houses still left standing were burned to the ground by local firemen. The city’s health department, concerned about the living conditions in the area, 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 found to be contaminated.

Interestingly, in spite of the conditions, research by the city showed that the sixteen families that lived in the Hollow at the time were doing so because the genuinely enjoyed it. While its residents probably remained in the Hollow in part due to the $5 per month rent, finances weren’t necessarily an issue. By the time of the fires, five of the 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.
(Burning of Swede Hollow - MNHS)

Years later, people that talk about the the Hollow do so affectionately. For all of its problems to the people on the outside, the community lined by outhouses was absolutely a home to the people that lived there. It was a place where children played baseball and fished for pike, crappie and northerns from the pool, a place where kids could get all the white and yellow sand they wanted from the nearby mushroom caves. The people of the Hollow contributed to the growth of the Saint Paul, coming “up on the street” from the ravine to work. Families began in the Hollow, grew up and left, and were replaced by new families looking to do the same. This went on for many years.

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 wonderful glimpse of what one of the most historically rich parts of the city used to be.

Works Cited:

Dec 9, 1956 edition of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press

Dec 11, 1956 edition of the Saint Paul Dispatch

Swedes in the Twin Cities: Immigrant Life and Minnesota's Urban Frontier Edited by Philip J. Anderson and Dag Blanck

Lost Twin Cities II video
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