Chicago’s Swede Town

Ulf Beijbom, “Chicago’s ‘Swede Town’: Gone but Not Forgotten,” Swedish Pioneer Historical Quarterly, 15.4 (Oct. 1964), 144-58.

[quotes Ernst Olson’s 1908 history]
In 1850 that part of the city was an open, almost uninhabited prairie, the only objects that broke the monotony of the scene being large stumps or individual trees
still left standing. The locality was low and swampy
with here and there pools of stagnant water inhabited
by snakes and other reptiles. To the north from the
present Division street line stretched an extensive
swamp covered with underbrush and vines. Although
the district was platted and streets were laid out on
paper, there were in fact no other thoroughfares than
Kinzie street, North Clark street and Chicago avenue
if indeed those might be so styled in their almost impassable state.10

According to the same source the low price of building
lots favored the settling of the area by poor immigrants.
Land north of Division street could be bought for $100 an
acre and “at Chicago avenue lots could be had for nothing
provided that the applicants agreed to put up two-story
houses on them, this stipulation being designed to attract
people to the neighborhood and raise the value of realty.”
The census of 1870 is the first to indicate a really compact
Swedish settlement area.

In the neighborhood of the industrial community which
began to expand along the river bank areas, workingmen’s
quarters developed. Mention was previously made that the
low cost of building lots helped in the settling of poor immigrants on the Near North side. Quite early Wells street
(See Fig . 2) came to be the boundary between the majority
of this group of low income laborers and its minority of the
more affluent. East of this street the leading merchants and
industrialists of the time built their homes while the workingmen’s frame cottages marked the area west of it. The
continuing expansion of industrial activity on the city’s
North Side caused a heightened population growth—between 1862 and 1870 the number of inhabitants was
doubled: from 35,000 to 70,000. The majority of these people were of German or Irish origin; the former lived mostly [154] north of Chicago avenue within the Scandinavian area
the Irish were domiciled in the quarters south of it.

{Chicago Ave. sometimes known as “Swedish Clodhoppers’ Lane” (152)]

Swede Town’s character of a laboring class urban district
was enhanced after the Great Fire because of the law
against building frame houses south of Chicago avenue and
east of Wells street since very few people in the low income
bracket could afford the approved brick dwellings. However, not all the houses in Swede Town were of wooden
construction. Along the more important business streets
such as Chicago avenue and Wells street there were many
two- and four-story business buildings of brick. The business streets were bordered with wooden sidewalks while
the streets themselves were for the most part unpaved.

The residential streets were lined with one-story frame
cottages with an attic under the sharply sloping roof. Because of the rectangular shape of the building lots houses
were built with the gable toward the street.13
A high bridge
stairway led to the entrance. Because of the street level
having been raised the older houses in many cases had their
ground floor partially below the street level. The simple
and practical construction of these houses had naturally
been required because of the owner’s lack of funds. The
part of the lot (usually 25×100 feet in size) which was not
occupied by the building, was used for a small garden plot.
The Swedes, most of whom were born in rural parts of the
old country, must have felt very much at home in the
country-like village milieu which thus came to characterize
their city district, and the newcomers’ transplantation from
a definite rural community to an urban one was undoubtedly less of a shock.

It was this rather circumscribed small part in the almost
explosion-like expansion of the metropolis that became the
“capital” for the Illinois Swedes. Here more churches were
established and more newspapers started than in any other
Swedish settlement in the Middle West, and Swede Town’s [155] many business enterprises helped to make it an important
economic center.
In May 1849 the first of Swede Town’s churches was organized: the St. Ansgarius Episcopal church, with its temple at Franklin and Indiana streets and, after the Fire, on
Sedgwick street. The Swedish American pioneer emigrant,
Gustaf Unonius, conducted the work of this church for
many years. In January 1853 sons and daughters of the
Swedish state church met in Chicago for the organizing of
the Immanuel church, a work to which the doughty Erland
Carlsson was to dedicate the greater part of his life. Its first
church building—until 1871—was on Superior street, thereafter on Sedgwick and Hobbie streets.
The preaching of the now almost legendary Methodist
preachers Olof and Jonas Hedstrom resulted in the formation of a congregation which, in 1854, secured a meeting
hall at the corner of Illinois and Market streets. At about
the same time the Baptists had established themselves
among the Swedes on the North side. In December 1868
the next to the oldest Mission Covenant church in the
United States was organized and had its headquarters on
North Franklin street.

13 See Marquis’ Handbook of Chicago (1885) pp. 5-28.

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