West End: Labor History

Tour curated by: Special thanks to author Dave Riehle

St Paul’s “West End” is on an intermediate plateau, located between the bluffs rising on the north side of the neighborhood and the bluffs on the south side that descend to the Mississippi. Running southwesterly from Seven Corners to the Fort Snelling Bridge, its main arterial street, West Seventh, was once known as “Fort Street,” and is now co-named “Fort Road.”

“Is Dis Here Goin’ to Fort Street or Fort Street?”

Fort Street used to continue past Seven Corners along what is now named “Main Street,” probably the least imposing Main Street in America, only two blocks long. On April 17, 1906 the City Council changed the name of the segment of Fourth Street north of Seven Corners to Main Street because, according to Robert Ross, one of the property owners, “the residents were much inconvenienced owing to the similarity in pronunciation of Fort Street and Fourth Street. He said it is hard to get clerks in stores and others to understand where the goods are to be sent. Mr. Ross said he ordered a load of lumber the other day and it was delivered on Fourth Street.” (Pioneer Press, April 18, 1906)

The West End lies below the mansions of Summit Avenue in much the same subordinate spatial relationship as the serfs used to dwell beneath the walls of the castle. It has been a working class neighborhood from its inception, and still is, rich in historical associations connected with the labor movement and immigrant life. Some of the homes were constructed at the time of the Civil War, with the We End gradually creeping outward and westward. At the far end of W Seventh Street is the huge Sibley Manor apartment complex, where immigrants from east Africa and the former Soviet Union live in apparent harmony.

Two industrial establishments employing many hundreds of workers grew up in the West End starting in the 1880’s—the Schmidt Brewery and the shops of the Chicago, St Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railroad (familiarly known as “The Omaha”). The workers there and in other enterprises such as the Orme Brass an Iron Works, the Northern States Power Company High Bridge generating plant and many lesser operations created their own institutions—unions, fraternal lodges, churches and social clubs.

The original mix of immigrants populating the West End contained Germans, Czechs, Poles and Italians, many retaining their own languages and customs for generations, such as the Czech and Slovak Protective Society, still going strong after 125 years. More transitory settlements, such as St Paul’s “Bohemian Flats,” the Italian “Upper Landing” and the shanty town on the river banks near the Omaha shops have been removed decades ago for riverfront development.

Locations for Tour

Constructed beginning in the late 1800’s, the railroad shops of the Chicago, St Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway (the “Omaha”) at Randolph and Toronto Streets employed nearly 1,000 workers for the first half of the 20th century. The West…

Closely allied to the Omaha’s Randolph Street Shops was the Orme Brass and Iron Works at Drake and Armstrong streets, a foundry that furnished a range of cast iron and brass items to the railroad’s shops. Workers at the Orme Foundry belonged to…

German workers and German bosses had a monopoly on brewing beer in St Paul, as they did almost everywhere in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As historian Gary Brueggeman has explained (“Beer Capital of the State-St Paul’s…

Workers from Bohemia, and other Slavic minorities within the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not predominate in a single industry, like the Germans. Their most enduring monument is the three-story Czech and Slovak Protective Society building just off W…

Women working outside the home for wages were a small minority of the wage-working class at least until the post World War I era. There were virtually no women employed in the brewing industry until the 1930’s. Industries that employed a…

Horseshoer seems like a little bit of an exotic profession today, but in the 19th century--in fact until the 1920's--a motorized truck could not haul as much weight as a draft horse and wagon. While intercity freight was transported by the most…