Posts Tagged ‘Swede Hollow’

From the Lake Phalen trail, I soon found my way to the the Bruce Vento Regional Trail. The trail is dedicated in memory of Bruce F. Vento, a DFLer (Democratic Farmer-Labor Party politician) who represented Minnesota’s 4th district In Congress from 1977 until his death in 2000. Vento was known for his efforts to clean up the environment, so a bike trail is a fitting memorial.

The boulder marking the entry to Joe Bergeron Pass on the Bruce Vento Regional Trail.

The first part of the trail that I discovered is now marked with a memorial to Maplewood police sergeant Joseph Bergeron, who was shot to death by a suspect on May 1, 2010. It’s a sad local reminder that tragedies large and small happen here as well as in places like Iraq or Haiti and that many (perhaps most) of them are caused by people, not Mother Nature. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, Inc., 222 police officers in Minnesota history have died on duty. My brief exploration of the list showed that it goes back to the nineteenth century. An early entry was Police Officer Daniel O’Connell of St. Paul, shot while investigating a burglary on Dayton Avenue on June 17, 1882. He had served one month on the force. Bergeron had served for 26 years.

The inscription on the memorial for Sgt. Joe Bergeron.

The Bergeron memorial boulder was dedicated on November 4, 2010, and marks the entrance to Joe Bergeron Pass, a portion of the Bruce Vento trail near where the officer was killed. From here you can enjoy the peace of the trail and head towards Maplewood, where the trail stops just north of I-694. You can also head south towards downtown St. Paul, a ride that I enjoyed several times last fall.

It’s interesting to get a new perspective on distances when you’re riding your bike instead of driving a car or even riding a bus. You can see why areas farther from downtown would have had to wait for streetcars before they could really be developed as part of the growing city. Of course the bike trails are much easier to travel on than the old roads used to be.

Heading towards downtown, the trail takes you through the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and Swede Hollow. It’s a beautiful, quiet spot – a real sanctuary near the bustle of East 7th Street. This ravine used to be the home of new immigrants – Swedes, then Italians, then Mexicans – attracted by the low $5 per month rental to be paid to the city. Here they were surrounded by others like themselves. Phalen Creek still ran above ground then and provided water for the inhabitants, but today just a pond is visible and the creek has been diverted underground. The Minnesota Historical Society has several photographs of the area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries including this photo showing the houses (or shacks) in the Hollow in 1910. This photo clearly shows Phalen Creek in the 1910s before the creek was enclosed. It’s hard to recognize this as the same place I biked through last fall!

The pond in Swede Hollow.

By the 1950s, the population of Swede Hollow had fallen significantly and the city was no longer willing to have people living without electricity and running water. But once all the remaining structures in Swede Hollow were condemned in 1956, the inhabitants were moved out, and the remaining houses demolished and burned, as illustrated in this Minnesota Historical Society photo. The hollow then became a dumping ground for garbage and a refuge for the homeless. It was finally cleaned up in the 1970s and was designated as a nature center in 1976.

Today as you ride through the sanctuary you can almost forget that up above the ravine is a all the activity of a modern city. Instead, you see the remains of an earlier time in the abandoned Hamm Brewery buildings. Stop at East Side Regional Park and you can read panels recounting the settlement and industrial history of the East Side, including Swede Hollow.


The Bruce Vento trail and the old Hamm's Brewery buildings in Swede Hollow are just visible through the trees from Dayton's Bluff above the hollow.

Part of the old Hamm Brewery complex seen from the Bruce Vento trail.

From down in Swede Hollow, you have a lot of choices for where to head next. I chose Indian Mounds Regional Park, only 2.1 miles farther. But what a couple of miles they were! Stay tuned…

Where to go next? Just follow the sign.


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An Engineering Gem

The Twin Cities has some amazing bike trails. Who would have thought that it would be safer to bike in the cities than out in the exurbs? Despite the open spaces, there are few trails or shoulders to ride in exurbia, so I jumped at the chance to get some exercise and explore my new home at the same time once I settled in St. Paul.

Besides enjoying our gorgeous fall weather (now sadly departed!), I discovered some real gems on my rides, both scenic and historical. Biking the Bruce Vento Regional Bike Trail from Lake Phalen to downtown St. Paul took me through the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, a peaceful spot below the bustle of East 7th Street and Payne Avenue. The sign post along the trail introduced me to the name Swede Hollow.

Signpost along the Bruce Vento Bike Trail

On my first ride along the trail I noticed the stone arch bridge. Actually, I thought of it as a tunnel since I was riding through it, not over it. The bridge stood out to me because of its interesting design: the stones in this bridge seemed to be set in a kind of swirl or spiral. I wondered if there was any structural significance to this or if it was just for aesthetic purposes.

The Stone Arch Bridge over the Bruce Vento bike trail, Swede Hollow.

I also became fascinated by the idea that people (among them Swedish immigrants, amazingly enough!) had lived down in this narrow valley, so I visited the Ramsey County Historical Society to see what I could find out.

While once there were trains chugging along the tracks (now the bike trail) down in Swede Hollow, today the sounds of the city are somewhat muffled. Instead you can enjoy a peaceful respite from the bustle above on the street and imagine what it would have been like to live down in this narrow valley with its steep walls. Were you snowed in during the winter? Where did you get your water from? What was it like living so close to the tracks? More on that in a later post

While browsing through the RCHS folder on Swede Hollow, I came across a newspaper clipping from the Pioneer Press dated 28 May 2001. There was a picture of the very bridge I had wondered about. It turns out that my non-engineering instincts were right on: this is a special bridge.

The bridge was built in 1883-1884 using a technically demanding technique described in the article as “skewed, heliocoidal, stone-arch design.” It turns out the stones are all the same size and shape, hand carved with great precision.

Detail of hand-cut stones in stone arch bridge.

Detail of hand-cut stones in stone arch bridge.

The civil engineer who designed the bridge, William Albert Truesdell, chose this type of construction because he had to address the problem that the railroad tracks (now the bike trail) crossed the road’s path at a 63-degree angle. He had read about the technique and knew that this method would use less building material and still safely distribute the load the arches had to carry. Since mathematics was his hobby, he was able to calculate the correct size and shape of the blocks, but then he also had to impress on the laborers how important it was for them to be accurate in their cutting.

The bridge was declared to be a national historic civil engineering landmark in 2001 by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Apparently this type of bridge is very rare with one or two known in Pennsylvania.

I was intrigued by the bridge before I learned anything about its history or construction, but knowing the skill and care that went into its construction 125 years ago increases my admiration for the people who built it. I wonder how many other riders have wondered about this bridge as they passed below it. And how many riders realize that this peaceful spot was once the home to many immigrant families.

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