“This swamp country was the place where the frogs lived and ‘croaked.’ As you walked on the road on a summer’s day, the frogs and froglets which had come out of the ‘jungle’ to bask in the noonday sun would jump off in all directions as if they had pressing business elsewhere.”
Frogtown was initially populated in the second half of the 19th century as residents spilled over from the adjacent downtown area. Polish, German, Scandinavian and Irish immigrants were among the area’s initial settlers. Many of the earliest residents were employed by the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (now the BNSF Railway), which runs just north of the neighborhood. Minnesota’s first successful locomotive run occurred on these tracks in 1882.
The exact origins of the name Frogtown are difficult to pin down. But this much is certain: the moniker was derived from the prevalence of frogs in what was originally a swampy, sparsely populated section of town. In fact, many of the early homes built in the neighborhood began to sink into the muck. Early German residents of the area called it Froschburg — literally frog city.
One popular — although possibly false — story is that John Ireland, the first Archbishop of St. Paul, coined the name in the early 20th century. Ireland was purportedly standing in Calvary Cemetery and looking across a swampland filled with croaking frogs when he declared, “That’s sounds like a frog town.”
The original geographic boundaries of the neighborhood were markedly different from today. According to Frogtown, a memoir of growing up in the area by Alexius Hoffman, the neighborhood originally ran from Rice to Farrington Streets and from Carroll Street to Aurora Avenue — or close to where the state Capitol sits today. Hoffman dates the coinage of the moniker Frogtown to roughly 1860. (A pdf file of Frogtown can be read here.) Today the boundaries of the neighborhood are typically considered University Avenue to the south, West Minnehaha Avenue to the north, Lexington Parkway to the west and Rice Street to the east.
University Avenue has long been the key commercial hub of the neighborhood. In 1890 the first inter-city street car line was introduced on University Avenue linking St. Paul and Minneapolis. Other street car lines operated on Thomas Avenue, Dale Street, Lexington Parkway and Rice Street.The street cars were eliminated when cars became prevalent, but the Central Corridor light rail line is slated to open along the thoroughfare in 2014.
The Church of St. Agnes was constructed on Lafond Avenue between 1909 and 1912 to cater to the area’s German immigrants. The Baroque style, limestone structure is one of the defining structures of the neighborhood and is now included on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the 1960s, the Rondo neighborhood was demolished in order to make way for Interstate 94. Many families from the traditionally African American neighborhood then migrated northward into Frogtown.
The area has always been a haven for immigrants, in part because of the relatively inexpensive housing stock. In the 19th century, that mostly meant newcomers of German, Irish or Scandinavian descent. But over the last three decades, the neighborhood has been strongly influenced by new waves of immigrants, particularly of Hmong, Latino and Somali heritage. University Avenue is now dotted with pho noodle shops and Halal meat markets. A Hmong-American farmer’s market operates in the parking lot of the UniDale Shopping Center on weekends. Photographer Wing Young Huie’s 1996 book, Frogtown: Photographs and Conversations in an Urban Neighborhood, documented the rapidly changing urban landscape.
Frogtown is among the most diverse neighborhoods in St. Paul. According to the 2000 census, nearly 40 percent of Frogtown residents are of Asian descent, with white and black residents each accounting for about a quarter of the area’s population. In addition, more than 20 percent of area residents were born outside of the United States.