Burning Swede Hollow: Why an immigrant community deliberately went up in flames

Burning Swede Hollow
The burning of Swede Hollow in St. Paul, as photographed by the St. Paul Dispatch & Pioneer Press.
Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Fifty-five years ago this coming Sunday, the St. Paul immigrant community known as Swede Hollow went up in flames — deliberately.

The St. Paul City Health Department declared the neighborhood's homes contaminated and uninhabitable and burned them down on Dec. 11, 1956. The area had been home to various immigrant groups, beginning with the Swedes in the 1850s.

The hollow runs along Phalen Creek on the city's east side, and today it's been cleaned up and turned into Swede Hollow Park. MPR's Cathy Wurzer talked with historian and professor Annette Atkins to learn more about what life was like in Swede Hollow.

Annette Atkins: If you go there, you can almost hear the life that was so vital and so alive down there. There have been people living in that hollow since at least the 1840s and I expect there were Indian people who lived there before that. And by the 1850s there's a real settlement growing up there. It's a primarily Swedish settlement.

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"Svenska Dalen" was what it was called originally. It's a combination haven and ghetto, so lots of people found friendship and solace in Swede Hollow, and found really cheap housing.

Wurzer: Looking at some photos from the Minnesota Historical Society Archives, it looks a little tough.

Atkins: It was a tough place. It was like a Brazilian favela. It's a village within a town that exists off the grid. Residents paid no taxes and they had no city services, so they built outhouses on stilts above Phalen Creek there.

Some people thought of it as a sort of stopping off place on their way to greater prosperity, but for a lot of people it was the place where they lived. So, you paid $5 a year for a right to live in that Swede Hollow. Early immigrants who came there, settled there. Some of them worked at the Hamm's brewery just above, some worked in construction in St. Paul. There's some indication that some of those Swede Hollow people helped build James J. Hill's House.

And like many of those neighborhoods in cities across the United States, it becomes both romanticized and demonized. It's hard to imagine that there was strong anti-Swedish sentiment in Minnesota. But to be Swedish in Minnesota in the 1850s and 1860s was not being of the Protestant establishment. So for 100 years, this area, partly because it was so poor, was also thought to be extraordinarily vice-ridden.

Wurzer: It also, it seems to me, Swede Hollow was a very close-knit group of people. Yes, there were Swedes there, but also in later years, a fairly large Mexican-American community.

Atkins: Yes. And while the Swedes were there, there were also Irish. But as the Swedes and the Irish moved out, the Italians were the next big group to move in, and then the Mexicans.

By the 1950s, the place is very, very small. So many people have moved out of it, there can't be more than maybe 60 or 100 people left. And most of those 60 or 100 people are Mexicans. So, I wonder if, because the Mexicans didn't have as powerful a political position, that it also made it easier to destroy and remove people.

Wurzer: Swede Hollow was destroyed by fire. Looking at the pictures, again, pretty spectacular, deliberately set fires in 1956.

Atkins: The St. Paul Fire Department went in and poured gasoline. They just saturated the place in gasoline and sent it up. They believed — and there was a fair amount of evidence — that it was the safest, best thing to do for the rest of the city. And the people who were there were all evicted and relocated.

Wurzer: Was this a matter of urban revitalization, or were they still using the same argument of it being contaminated, uninhabitable, that kind of thing?

Atkins: That's the basis of all urban renewal. Minneapolis goes through this huge urban renewal, and most of what it renews in the 1950s and 1960s is that downtown Minneapolis area. And in St. Paul, it's the very same thing. There are really interesting object lessons that urban planners have taken from Swede Hollow — how it was founded, how it was kept alive, and how it was destroyed.

Wurzer: Annette, thanks for joining us.

Atkins: Thank you, Cathy.