Cher’s Travel Tips: Minnesota, USA
19 May 2021
Swede Hollow, Minneapolis: Then & Now
Exploring my Neighborhood. Exploring my Roots.
As we move from pandemic imposed isolation and fear into more freedom to move about, I encourage us to begin with the discovery and exploration of the world around us in our own neighborhoods. This week, two friends journeyed with me to Swede Hollow Park, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. It is tucked away in a lush valley between and beneath major streets and highways we travel on every day, invisible to the uninformed traveler!
Swede Hollow was a real place, home to real people in the past; people from another country, another culture. In many ways, it could be a story written by millions of immigrant people today. The novel “Swede Hollow” invites questions that echo the larger challenges of immigration in the twentieth century – and today.
Swede Hollow: Then
Swedish Immigrants to Minnesota
Being the great-and granddaughter of Swedish immigrants to Minnesota, I am always interested in their stories and history. Swede Hollow is one such place, although my ancestors first settled on the Minneapolis side of the Mississippi River in The Flats. (More on this in another blog!)
Swede Hollow was a neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota – one of a large group of neighborhoods collectively known still today as the East Side. East of the near-downtown Railroad Island neighborhood, at the northwestern base of Dayton’s bluff, it was capped on the north by the sprawling Hamm’s Brewery with its imposing Hamm family mansion. The historic Seventh Street Improvement Arches were on the south.
P.C. MKVDL 18 May 2021
It began with a man named Phalen
This little piece of land has a rich history. A small, steep, wooded ravine, it is cut through by Phalen Creek, named after Edward Phalen, the first European settler who moved there in 1841.
Amidst controversy, Phalen moved out in 1850. He was replaced by Swedish immigrants, among the earliest inhabitants to settle permanently in the isolated spot. They named their new home “Svenska Dalen” (the Swedish Valley). As time moved on, Poles, Italians and Mexicans at one point all called the valley home.
Note the “Swede Henge” notation at the top of the map and the arches under the E. 7th Street road. More on both of these later in this blog.
Shantytown & Slums
As each wave of immigrants settled in the valley, it remained arguably the poorest settlement in the area. Although remembered with a certain nostalgia, it was a true slum. People and industries occupying the surrounding “upper” neighborhoods used the Hollow as a makeshift dump, which the inhabitants below routinely scavenged for clothing, metals, building materials and even shoe repair needs.
The Mills, the Railroads & the Brewery
Several gristmills operated on the creek by the 1850’s . In 1865, railroad tracks were build along the creek because the creek bed provided an easier grade up from the Mississippi than bluffs elsewhere.
Along with the Hamm’s Brewery, the railroad provided opportunities for work for the men in the hollow whose goal was to move their families to safer, better homes and neighborhoods. There is some indication that the Swede Hollow people helped build James J. Hill’s house.
Life in Swede Hollow
Swede Hollow was a village within a town. Residents paid no taxes, had no city services. It was never electrified, and plumbing was primitive. Residences were constructed almost entirely out of removed and scrapped building materials and serviced by a single dirt road. Toilets consisted of outhouses constructed directly over Phalen Creek. Original inhabitants got their water from springs and used Phalen Creek as their sewer, leading to sanitation problems.
Destruction of the Hollow Homes
In 1905, an estimated 1,000 people called the Hollow their home. By 1956, conditions in the Hollow were so squalid that the city declared the entire neighborhood a health hazard. The few remaining 14 families were forcibly evicted. On December 11th, 1956, the entire house stock was burnt to the ground.
The cleared out Hollow soon became a dumping ground as well as a place for the homeless to gather for a couple of decades. It was declared a menace to the health of not only the residents but also to the community at large.
For those of us living in the Twin Cities during this time, “Swede Hollow” was synonymous with DO NOT ENTER, certainly not for a leisurely stroll in the park as it is today.
Swede Hollow: Today
A Walk in the Park Today
The park was cleaned up in the 1970s and in 1976 was designated a nature center. It has been returned to its original woodland state and tarred paths have been laid for walking and biking. The creek has been partially restored, although it is heavily dependent on rainfall.
Some of the original building foundations remain but most are overgrown. One exception is the wooden stairs (photo on left)
The trail running along the west edge is the Bruce Vento* Regional Trail, paved on the former right-of-way of the Northern Pacific Railway’s Sally Line that ran from St. Paul to Duluth.
(*Bruce Vento was an American politician, a DFL member of the United States House of Representatives from 1977 until his death in 2000, representing Minnesota’s 4th congressional district which includes St. Paul and most of Ramsey County.)
Swede Hollow Park: The Entrances
There are three entrances to Swede Hollow Park today. Two are adaptable for anyone, including wheelchairs. As with all adventures, PLAN AHEAD!
The East Entry has 150 stairs so be sure to check them out before you go. There are no restrooms either in the park or at the entrances. A few benches are available for seating along the path. Parking is available at all entrances. The South Entry (Vento) has a small parking lot; the East and North Entries are mostly street parking in residential ares.
This photo is from the top going down the 150 steps into the valley. Remember that if you park here, to get back to your vehicle you will have to climb UP the 150 stairs!
This entry is just a short walking distance from the Swede Hollow Cafe. We had lunch at the cafe, took our “top of the stairs” photo, and drove to the North Entry to park for a much more amicable entrance into the park.
Swede Hollow Park: East Entry
This is the entrance you will find if you Google Map directions to “Swede Hollow Park.” Be sure to check out the other options before you visit!
The East Entry has limited street parking and you must descent 150 steps into this lush, hidden valley. A cool entry, but not for the unfit. (Despite being fit, MaryKay, Karen and I decided to utilize our actual steps to circle the park using the trail, not on the 150 steps!)
View from the bottom of the East Entry stairs, looking up at the 150 steps and the steep hill where people once built their homes.
Swede Hollow Park: North Entry
The North / Main Entry is at East Side Heritage Park, technically across the park from the East Entry but with much easier accessibility. It is at the intersection of Phalen Boulevard and Arcade Street.
This is where we entered, and given the other options, it is the one I would recommend. There is ample of street parking and an easy walk through a short tunnel into the clearing opening up into Swede Hollow Henge.
Once inside, we could cross the park to the bottom of the 150 stairs at the East Entrance and hike the tarred paths in a circle around the park.
Mystery at Swede Hollow Henge
Every destination includes a good mystery! Through history, Swede Hollow Henge has provided this for the area.
It is an is an open space on a slight hilly mound between the East and North Entry points (see top part of the hand drawn map above). It has provided speculation and intrigue over the decades, much like the circular stone henges in Europe (think Stonehenge). No one is sure where it came from or its function. There is nothing to explain their significance or the identity of their creators. Some of the stones are decorative, some appear to have had a functional use at one time, including the fence-post shape in the center.
The Seventh Street Improvement Arches
These arches originally separated – and connected – Swede Hollow from Connemara Patch, a lesser-known Irish neighborhood. Like Swede Hollow, it was eventually cleared of its inhabitants. The heavily trafficked 7th Street runs overhead and Interstate 94 currently occupies most of the old enclave. The South Entry is just a short ways on the other side of these arches. (For perspective, note the two lovely women in the center, dwarfed by the massive arches!) See these arches on the map above.
Swede Hollow Park: South Entry
The South Entry is at the intersection of E7th and Payne Avenue. It is a longer but beautiful walk from there to the North end of the park. It goes in a circle so you cannot get lost if you do not wander off of the trail!
Bruce Vento Regional Trail (South) Entrance
This entrance is accessible by foot but has a small parking lot. It provides a great view of the St. Paul skyline. The visitor has two options: go left to access the walking and bike trails of the restful park or go right and access the trails that go by noisy, but interesting railroad tracks and views of the St. Paul skyline.
Art at Swede Hollow
East Entry “Painted Ladies”
Art does not always have to be in the form of paintings and sculpture. As we drove through the neighborhoods, houses that reminded me of San Francisco’s “painted ladies” popped up all over in some of these turn-of-the-century homes. This one is just at the top of the hill near the East Entry.
Historically, the houses on top of the hill where occupied by the families with wealth. Women and girls who lived in the immigrant homes of Swede Hollow often found housekeeping work in these homes.
Art at the South Entry
Just below the South Entry is a fun and unexpected surprise! In a garden along the main tarred path, we suddenly came upon a side path of cobalt blue, ceramic handcrafted tiles! They had been made by the University of Minnesota Department of Art students and youth interns from the Community Design Center.
Signage at the entrance provides information on this as well as the rain garden at this location.
Food & Spirits at the Edges of Swede Hollow
The patio of this quaint cafe is just a few steps away from the East Entry to Swede Hollow Park (the one with 150 stairs!). We had lunch here, checked out the entrance and the beautiful houses and drove to the North Entry for access to the park.
Swede Hollow Cafe
We enjoyed the patio dining, delighting in their trademark quiche (best quiche ever, I might add!), famous caramel walnut roll (lived up to its reputation), delicious panini sandwich and a refreshing spritzer of the day. Food and service were great, pricing reasonable.
Swede Hollow Cafe does not offer Swedish menu, but specializes in their fabulous quiche, espresso drinks, and fresh bakery items, served at a cafe in a historic building with beautiful gardens and patio seating. (swedehollowcafe.com). It is worth the stop not only for its food – but also a way to support a historical local business.
The stacks from the old brewery can be seen rising above the North side of Swede Hollow.
Saint Paul Brewing
Just a short way from Swede Hollow is the old Hamm’s Brewery, today home to the popular destination of Saint Paul Brewing with indoor and extensive outdoor patio dining and spirits. It was closed when we visited Swede Hollow, but I promised myself I’d check it out later–and I did.
The brewery is on the hill above Swede Hollow. The original brewery provided work for many early immigrants who could just walk up the hill to work.
Unable to travel abroad due to the pandemic restrictions, my husband and I are embarking on a summer of Travel Dates to the World-Class-Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, just out our back door. On this particular Travel Date, we visited the Cathedral of St. Paul and the Minnesota Capitol. Just a short drive away, we wrapped up our day at the St. Paul Brewery. It did feel like we were touring a city in western Europe with Neo-classical architecture and the old-world charm of the brewery. The counter service was good, prices were reasonable, staff were friendly, but we were surprised by the 18% service charge tacked on to our bill; we had not been forewarned or at least had not seen the notices online or on the menu. I would go back, but maybe try it after dark when the strings of overhead lights were lit, casting interesting shadows on the brick walls from all the funky furniture!
We selected this spot because of its Swedish themed colors and flag, fitting for Swede Hollow (and my ancestry) – plus its comfortable chairs!
Atmosphere: When I first saw the outdoor patio through the fence, I was intrigued by the quaint, eclectic, bohemian style setting! Mismatched furniture, flower pots and umbrellas all added to the Fun ambiance!
Pizza: Rustic, 11″ wood oven pizzas were delicious and came with unique titles: “Another Brick on the Wall,” “Outshined,” “Gold on the Ceiling” etc. Gluten-free crust and non-dairy cheese options available.
Taps: Available in 3 sizes: 5 oz/Pint/Crowler, they also came with unique titles: “Angry Planet Pale Ale,” “Space Pirate Juicy IPA,” etc. One I enjoyed, “Crooks Haven Rye Porter,” had “hints of chocolate, rye, roast, and a touch of smoke.” Chocolate flavored beer??? How can it be anything but good??!!
Map and other Travel Date Sites in St. Paul
- Cathedral of St. Paul (left center)
- Minnesota State Capitol (top left)
- Rice Park, Landmark Center, Herbies on the Park (center)
- St. Paul City Hall& Ramsey County Courthouse (center)
- Raspberry Island, Wabasha Bridge, City House and Mississippi River (lower right)
- Swede Hollow & St. Paul Brewing (upper right, just off the map)
TRAVEL TIP for locals in the Minnesota Twin Cities: Check it out! Especially those with ancestral roots who immigrated to Minnesota between 1850-1950 who may have lived in Swede Hollow; it was also home to Poles, Italians, Irish and Mexicans over time. The park has wonderful walking and biking trails and felt very safe. After lunch on a Tuesday afternoon, we encountered a few bicyclists, hikers and joggers. I’m sure that weekends would be busier.
TRAVEL TIP for non-locals: If you can’t make it to Minnesota, check out the local lore in your backyard! Just Google Search “interesting places in…. fill in the blank…” and you’ll be surprised at the interesting world in your backyard!
Armchair Travel Back in Time
Several books, plays and music productions are recommended for Armchair Travel. All have received excellent reviews.
- “Swede Hollow” novel by Ola Larsmo’s (2016) is the most relevant to our discussion on Swede Hollow. (See description below)
- “Minnesota: A History of the Land” is an award-winning album released by musician Peter Ostroushko (2005) including a piece called “Swede Hollow Lament.” In 2012, composer Anne Millikan premiered an opera about Swede Hollow.
- “The Emigrants” (1949-1959), a four-novel series by Vilhelm Moberg, popularized the history of 19th century Swedish migration to Minnesota. It describes rural, hard-working successful settlers in the 1850s. These books were adapted into the 1995 musical “Kristina fran Duvamala” by Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, former ABBA members.
“Swede Hollow” the Novel
This novel by Ola Larsmo’s (2016) describes the poorer, urban, less successful emigrants of the 1890s.
Swedish author, Ola Larsmo, was inspired by a family visit in 2006 to Swede Hollow, St. Paul’s vanished immigrant neighborhood. His novel has been described as a “riveting family saga immersed in the gritty, dark side of Swedish immigrant life in American in the early twentieth century.”
Extensively researched and beautifully written, his award-winning novel “vividly portrays a family and a community determined to survive. There are hardships, indignities, accidents, and harrowing encounters, but also acts of loyalty and kindness and moments of joy. This haunting story of a real place echoes the larger challenges of immigration in the twentieth century and today.” (description from Amazon books)
One of my friends provided her insights after reading Larsomo’s “Swede Hollow” and gave me permission to share them. It adds depth and personality to the story. “I do recommend it. I think there’s the impression that our Swedish ancestors came to this new world, which was filled with opportunity, and built successful lives. “Swede Hollow” tells how extremely hard life was for them. They weren’t welcomed with open arms. They brought their own baggage with them from Sweden. They eked out a living, persevered, and dealt with the blows life dealt. While Swede Hollow was an impoverished area, it was near the Hamm family mansion and brewery. The author gives credit to Joy Lintelman, who wrote “I Go to America,” about Milaca’s [Minnesota] own Mina Anderson and the women who came here alone from Sweden. My grandparents and many others from Milaca were mentioned in Lintelman’s book. Mina’s memoir was used for Vilhelm Moberg’s Emmigrant novels.” (Bonnie Wilkens Overcott, 21 May 2021)
Photos by Cher B (18 May and 25 June 2021) and from the Minnesota Historical Society and Google Images
“Burning Swede Hollow: Why an immigrant community deliberately went up in flames” by MPR Cathy Wurzer talking to historian and professor Annette Atkins to learn more about what life was like in Swede Hollow. 09 December 2011, St. Paul, MN.
“Exploring Swede Hollow, once a neighborhood carved out of the wild“ by Andy Sturdevant, 15 May 2013. (minnpost.com/stroll/2013/05/exploring-swede-hollow-once-neighborhood-carved-out-wild/)
Swede Hollow Park website: stpaul.gov/facilities/swede-hollow-park
Swede Hollow Park map on website for Art in the Hollow: artinthehollow.org/directions.html