The Rock River and the First Swedes in Rockford

This drawing of Rockford in 1855 illustrates that it was thriving, with a well-established business district, churches, and numerous houses.

The Rock River acted as a geographic barrier that hindered Swedish immigrants from traveling farther west. This contributed to Rockford becoming an important industrial city.

The Rock River Valley was among the last regions of Illinois to be settled. In the late 1820s, Stephen Mack, the area’s first white settler, traded furs at Grand Detour along the Rock River. Soldiers in the Black Hawk War saw the great land of the Rock River Valley. The valley then experienced the greatest land rush that the United States had yet known. After the Black Hawk War, Stephen Mack claimed land where the Pecatonica River joins the Rock River.

On August 24, 1834, Germanicus Kent and Thatcher Blake traveled from Galena and staked claims on the west bank of the Rock River near the ford. In 1835 Daniel Haight from Geneva built a cabin on the east side of the river. Twenty-seven people then resided in the area. In 1839 Kentsville and Haightsville joined to be one village with a population of 236 people. The Rock River was a source of power, for the first settlers knew the value of “falling water.”

The Rock River provided rich land and water power, but to grow economically it needed transportation. In 1837 the Illinois General Assembly declared the Rock River navigable for 150 miles and directed $100,000 to improve it. But this never happened. In 1845 the legislature approved another act to improve the Rock River. They even excavated a steamboat channel. This “improvement” made things worse. In the process the ford across the river was ruined. Residents tried shipping grain via the Rock River to St. Louis and New Orleans, but this failed. The stagecoach only lasted two decades. Local residents petitioned the legislature to build a canal from the Rock River to Lake Michigan. This too failed. In 1844 a committee surveyed a route for a plank road from Rockford to Chicago at a cost of $312,731.29. The idea failed because of a proposed railroad from Chicago to Galena.

On January 16, 1836, the state granted a charter to the Galena and Chicago Union Rail Road (G & CURR) to construct a railroad with a single or double track. Work began immediately. The committee surveyed a route and soon realized that Chicago’s ambition was far greater than its finances. After that failure, the railroad held a convention urging every farmer along the route to donate $100. By April 1, 1848. the G & CURR had a total of $351,800. With this money, the directors purchased two engines from eastern companies.

The line reached Oak Park in 1848, Elgin in 1849, and as far west as Belvidere in spring, 1852. On August 2 of that year, the wood-burning locomotive, Pioneer, chugged into Rockford. A crowd rang bells and fired a cannon to welcome it.

In spite of the need for the railroad, Rockford had no bridge for the railroad to cross the Rock River. There had been one, but it had failed three times from dam breaks in 1846, 1847, and 1851. Not until 1853 did the Galena and Chicago Union Rail Road complete a bridge across the Rock River. Instead of the river being a source of transportation, it was acting as a barrier.

Meanwhile Sweden was experiencing tough times. There was a lack of food; people were starving. The Swedes wanted to be free. According to one historian, they were “craving for social betterment [rather] than to any other physical need.” They saw emigration to America as the only way to achieve this goal.

Early Swedish immigrants bought tickets for Chicago, having no clue as to where they were going. Shortly after the Pioneer’s 1852 arrival in Rockford, Reverend Erland Carisson of Emmanuel Church met a band of Swedes at the Chicago train station. Chicago was experiencing a cholera epidemic and was no place to start a new life. He advised them to take the Chicago and Galena to the end of the line. The immigrants followed the pastor’s advice.

Swedish immigrants who settled in Rockford established several businesses. Shown here is the Blomberg and Swenson Bakery.
Swedish immigrants who settled in Rockford established several businesses. Shown here is the Blomberg and Swenson Bakery.

The travelers had no idea where they were going. At the end of the line, the immigrants found themselves on a platform at Fourth Avenue and Kishwaukee Street in East Rockford. Many lived in tents; some just stuck boards in the ground. A few had enough money to rent a room or buy a house. The area of tents was called “kohagen,” meaning pasture.

In the summer of 1853, a cholera epidemic struck many of the first Swedish immigrants. The disease did not affect the Americans. The Americans did everything to help, providing food, clothing, and even medical help.

Almost half of the Swedes died. But the early immigrants wrote to their friends, family, and neighbors urging them to come to Rockford. Although the G & CURR had a bridge across the Rock River by 1853 and ran farther west, Swedish immigrants streamed into Rockford. By 1854 a thousand Swedes lived in the city. By 1862 Rockford counted two thousand Swedes as residents.

The Civil War slowed the Swedish immigration. But in 1867 the flow resumed. The census of 1900 recorded that 6,700 or 22 percent of all Rockford citizens were Swedish born. If the census had included the children of Swedish-born parents, 44 percent of the residents were Swedish. As late as 1952, at least one third of Rockford’s 100,000 citizens were still of Swedish origin. Kishwaukee Street eventually grew so Swedish that a trunk from Sweden addressed only with “Kishwaukee Street USA” would reach Rockford’s Fourth Avenue train station.

By the 1900s Swedish immigrants had established seventy-two companies and owned three banks. Rockford became a furniture and machine-tool center because of the Swedes. In 1852 the Rock River had blocked the train from going further west. Because of an accident of geography, Rockford had become both a Swedish-American town and an important center of industry.

  • Sarah-Eva Carlson interview with Edwin C. Belvin, Jan. 1, 1994
  • Charles A. Church, History of Rockford: 1834-1861
  • History of Winnebago County, Vol. II, Charles A. Church, Past and Present of the City of Rockford and Winnebago County Illinois
  • Hazel Hyde, The Swedish Chapter in the History of Rockford
  • Neil M. Johnson and Lilly Setterdahl, Rockford Swedes
  • James Phalen, Sinnissippi
  • Rockford Forum, Feb., Dec. 1844, Mar. 1845
  • Rockford Morning Star, June 1938
  • Rock River Democrat, June, Aug., Oct. 1852

Source

Miriam Carlson, The Rock River and the First Swedes in Rockford, found in Illinois History, p. 24-25; Springfield, Illinois, Feb 2002.

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