Column: Is Anoka’s Upper Town ready to rise again?

Construction of the parking ramp is nearly completed at Anoka’s commuter rail station. This is an area once known as Upper Town.

Bob Kirchner

Bob Kirchner

History reveals that Upper Town rose to repute, then fell to obscurity. But will it rise again?
Upper Town was the neighborhood on both sides of the railroad tracks between Fourth and Seventh avenues.

The dynamic forces that built this area included railroad depots and lumber jobs.

The railroad reached Anoka in 1864 establishing daily service between Minneapolis and its new distant suburb.

First accounts questioned whether the line would economically benefit Anoka because the tracks were so far from downtown. But two depots were constructed just east of Seventh Avenue making this spot a focus of activity for both passengers and freight.

Later accounts reported buildings were going “up in all directions” and merchants enjoyed a “lively business.”

During the 1860s and 1870s Swedes and others came to Anoka seeking work in the lumber industry. In June 1870 the Anoka County Union reported that “nearly every day last week, cars were filled with Swede emigrants, most of whom got off at the Anoka depot.”

Many settled nearby on Tyler, Polk, Taylor, North, Pierce and Johnson streets, between Fourth and Seventh avenues which became known as Swede Town. North Street was its “main street” with several grocery stores and meat markets.

This upper “main street” was anchored on the west end by lumber mills along the Rum River and on the east end by two railroad depots – Northern Pacific and Great Northern.

In 1893 the Anoka Union identified this area as “Upper Town” and reported that “if building and improvements keep on we’ll have a double city, as Anoka is showing a rapid and prosperous growth near the two depots.”

Nearby locations had the advantage.

The depots bustled with hurried activity as train passengers, freight handlers and Western Union messengers came and went.

They became destinations for horse-drawn buses and street rail cars followed later by gas-propelled buses and trucks.

In 1913 the electric railroad was built from Minneapolis to Anoka. The end of the line looped through both downtown Anoka and Upper Town.

Upper Town became Anoka’s first suburb – a rival to the downtown area.

For decades Upper Town thrived.

But its fortunes began to wane by the 1930s.

Shifting economics and transportation advancements drove Upper Town into decline.

The automobile gave residents mobility to find goods and services outside of the neighborhood.

Buses and trucks began to compete with rail service.

With declining ridership, the electric street car ceased operations in 1939.

Then a devastating blow struck in the early 1960s. The new U.S. Highway 10 sliced through Swede Town and Upper Town causing removal of dozens of homes and businesses. North Street was taken.

Changes at the railroad depots also hit hard.

In 1967, the U.S. Postal Service ended train use. The same year, the railroad terminated passenger service.

A year later, the Western Union office closed.

Then, in 1976, the Seventh Avenue railroad overpass consumed additional land and several more businesses closed, including Pearl’s Food & Dairy.

Finally, freight service ended in Anoka in 1983. The depots are gone.

Though much of residential Swede Town remains, commercial Upper Town is gone.

Will Upper Town rise again?

The city is betting it will but in a new form.

Anoka’s commuter rail station is the new epicenter of modern day Upper Town. Vacant land is available near the station and additional redevelopment sites are being assembled.

This location offers attractive sites for mid to high density housing as well as office, commercial and industrial space.

So Upper Town may rise again.

But now it will be known as Anoka Station.

Anoka Station may never be the economic power that was Upper Town. But with a rail stop, the Rum River, a recreation trail and access to historic downtown, it offers development opportunities to create jobs and attract new residents to Anoka in the 21st century.

Bob Kirchner is a local historian, seminary student and retired as the city of Anoka’s community development director.

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