Benjamin Brunson, a surveyor of Saint Paul in 1847, planned Brunson’s Addition in what is now lower Payne Avenue. The neighborhood had pleasing views of Trout Brook, Phalen Creek and downtown, because no railroads had yet cut through the area. The area is approximately 180 acres in size and is bounded by railroad tracks on the north and west, Swede Hollow Park on the east and East 7th Street on the south.
Railroad Island was one of a few early neighborhoods that developed just outside downtown Saint Paul in the 1850’s. Initially it attracted fairly prosperous residents who liked the views of Trout Brook to the west. As a result, many Victorian houses were built in the area in the late nineteenth century on Burr, Brunson, Minnehaha, Desoto, Mt. Ida, and other streets.
But with the arrival of railroads, with their noisy and smoky engines, many people decided to move to newer areas in the western part of the city. In fact, the encirclement of the neighborhood by several railroads is where it got its name.
As the elite left, the community slowly developed into a blue collar area. Historically, the majority of the housing in Railroad Island was single-family and owner-occupied. Many neighborhood residents worked at the nearby brewery, Whirlpool, 3-M, the railroads and other East Side businesses. When an major influx of Italian immigrants started around 1910, a large number of them came to Railroad Island. Many hailed from the Benevento region of Italy, near Naples.
There were a number of important Italian institutions that developed in the community. St. Ambrose Catholic Church was created to serve the Italian community and was headed up by Msgr Louis Pioletti for several decades. On St. Joseph’s Day the men carried statues through the streets. There were special feast days for St. Anthony, and Mary. In addition, there were numerous restaurants and other speciality shops in lower Payne Avenue.
In recent years, closings and employment cut-backs have taken jobs and, with them, economic and social stability from the neighborhood. Owner-occupied housing slowly converted to rental units which generally has resulted in a lower level of maintenance of the neighborhood's housing. However, there are still many homeowners who savor the historic homes in the area. Railroad is now quite diverse in its population but then, hasn’t it always been?