Bit of Sweden was planted atop hill in McKeesport

Swedes started migrating to McKeesport in the late 1880s, lured by the promise of good jobs in the steel mills up and down the Monongahela Valley.

The Johnsons and the Carlsons came, the Nelsons, Gustafsons, Petersons, Swensons, Bensons, Bergstroms, Carlins, Ericsons, Soderbergs and Olsons, too.

They came from all parts of Sweden until the late 1920s, when immigration laws were tightened. Braddock, Duquesne, Wilson (Clairton), Irwin and other nearby towns had a Swedish population, too.

In McKeesport many of the Swedes settled on top of the hill in what is now the Riverview section. Then it was called Swede Hill, along the top of Jenny Lind Street. That long street was named, of course, for the "Swedish Nightingale" whose beautiful voice was known around the world.

The Swedes built homes on the side streets off Jenny Lind. After working all day in the mill, the men would trudge up the hill, have supper and work in their gardens until dusk. The women baked rye bread and cardamom rolls, took care of the house and the children. Relatives were often nearby -- a brother and his family might live across the street, a cousin and his family at the end of the block.

Several grocery stores were owned by and catered to the Swedes. One of the last was C.W. Landstrom's on Federal Street, where herring was kept in barrels and the shelves held dried peas and hardtack (the Swedish crisp bread).

From 1890 to 1918, a newspaper, Svenska Veckobladet (The Swedish Weekly Blade) was published in McKeesport. The popular Swedish Singing Society, primarily a social club, put out elaborate smorgasbords for many years, even after World War II.

Sometimes children never heard a word of English until they started school. But they soon learned; the Swedes wanted to become Americans. My husband, who grew up on Swede Hill, says his father never encouraged him to learn Swedish.

"If you want to speak Swedish, there's a boat going across the ocean every day," he would say.

The Swedes mostly attended four churches -- Tabor Lutheran, First Swedish Baptist (now Riverview Baptist), Jenny Lind Methodist and Evangelical Free Church. In the early years, one Sunday service often was conducted in Swedish.

Patricia Jaycox Shaw, who is one-fourth Swedish, grew up in McKeesport and supplied the salmon recipe for the above story. She recalls that her great-grandfather, Emil Gooding, taught confirmation classes in Swedish at Jenny Lind Methodist.

Tabor Lutheran, organized in 1887, published a 50th anniversary book for the church jubilee in 1937, recording the works of many of the early pastors, including one C.A. Blomgren, who rowed across the Monongahela regularly to minister to the Swedes in Duquesne.

Tabor Lutheran continued the "singing church" tradition of Lutherans in Sweden, and by 1937 had several choirs. The Men's Male Chorus sang at the opening of the Swedish Nationality Room at the Cathedral of Learning in 1938 and was heard on radio station KDKA.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, in an article on Swedes in Pennsylvania, tells why so many Swedes came to McKeesport and other towns in the Pittsburgh area. The majority of immigrants from Sweden were not farmers, as in Minnesota or elsewhere, according to the PHMC.

"Statistically, most have lived in cities and have worked in factories. The particular affinity of Swedish workers for the Pittsburgh area is related to Sweden's very long history as a producer of high-quality iron and steel," wrote author Richard H. Hulan.

The most aggressive recruitment of Swedish labor for the Pittsburgh area was by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who also hired from the better-educated class of engineers and draftsmen trained in Sweden. One of his top aides was Magnus Sjoberg, one of the founders of Tabor Lutheran.


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