Chilberg, John Edward (1867-1954)

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 9/23/2008
  • Essay 8753

John Edward "Ed" Chilberg, a prominent Seattle merchant and banker, was among the first to promote the idea of a grand world's fair in Washington state. He saw the opportunity to celebrate our Far Corner as a player in the nation's cultural and economic life.  With his handsome profile and as president of The Alaska Club (later The Arctic Club), Chilberg was chosen president of a noisy and colorful 1909 Seattle milestone called the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.

Family Inheritance

Born in Wappello County, Iowa, on January 19, 1867, Ed Chilberg was the son of Nelson and Matilda Chilberg. He arrived in Seattle in the early 1870s as a 5-year-old after a youthful stint on his father’s Skagit Valley farm.  His grandfather, C. J. Chilberg, came from Sweden to the United States in the 1840s. 

Chilberg was born into an ambitious, hard-driving Swedish immigrant family.  His uncle, Andrew Chilberg, drove horses along the Oregon Trail, tried his hand at prospecting for Colorado gold, engaged in farming and running a nursery, established dry goods and grocery businesses, and held the jobs of King County Assessor, Seattle Alderman, member of the Seattle School Board, and City Treasurer.  Appointed local vice consul for Sweden and Norway in 1879, Andrew Chilberg continued as Swedish consul until 1926.  He became an organizer (1892) and president of The Scandinavian-American Bank. 

Chilberg’s father, Nelson Chilberg, operated a Port Townsend dairy farm, established a Seattle grocery store, and invested in real estate.  Alaska attracted Nelson, where he entered the grocery business and prospected in Nome. J. E. Chilberg would follow his father in the merchandising and mining businesses and his uncle as civic gadfly and as vice president and president of The Scandinavian-American Bank. J. E. Chilberg briefly attended the Territorial University of Washington and then entered the printing trade as typesetter for early Seattle newspapers.  Following a brief fling as a traveling salesman, he joined members of his family in the grocery trade.  In an undated (before 1889) edition of Seattle Illustrated, the firm of J. E. Chilberg and Company was described as “dealers in crockery, glassware, lamps.”  That same story noted that Chilberg was also a “flour, feed and grain” dealer ...  one of the youngest business men in the city of Seattle.” 

He lost those businesses in Seattle's Great Fire of 1889.  In that same dramatic year, he married Anna Mary Rinehart of Seattle.  Their union produced two sons, Hugh Rinehart Chilberg and Carl Edward Chilberg.

At Sea

Like many Pacific Northwest business people who found themselves surrounded by fresh and saltwater highways, in 1892 Chilberg became master of the Transit, a coastal vessel that worked between Seattle and Central America. During this venture he was shipwrecked aboard the steamship Colima on the Panamanian coast. The  sinking of the Colima resulted in a premature publication of Chilberg’s obituary, later corrected when he was found bobbing in a life raft, one of 31 survivors out of 218 passengers and crew. Thereafter, Chilberg moved to Alaska. 

In the burgeoning, vast northern country of Alaska, he operated two steamers in 1899, the Monarch and the Sovereign.  These sturdy vessels roamed between Dawson and St. Michael’s on the Yukon River.  On one of these trips Chilberg was among the first to carry news of the 1899 Nome gold strike to Dawson. 

Alaska continued to occupy Chilberg’s activities, with his interests in the Pioneer Mining Company and the Miners & Merchants Banks of Nome and Ketchikan.  Now encumbered by hands-on experience and old-fashioned ambition, J. E. Chilberg extended his regional achievements to the presidency of the Century Company and vice-presidency of The Scandinavian-American Bank.

Seattle Builder

In his role as builder and realtor Chilberg participated in the erection of a Seattle landmark, the New Washington Hotel (today’s Josephinum).  In 1903, he and other stockholders of The Scandinavian-American Bank, purchased the southeast corner of 2nd Avenue and Cherry Street to erect a building for their bank. But instead, J. C. Marmaduke of St. Louis proposed to Chilberg that they jointly erect the 14-story Alaska Building, designed by the famous St. Louis architecture firm of Eames and Young (which also designed the Josephinum).  It was Seattle’s first steel frame skyscraper, inspired by the Beaux Arts-American Renaissance style.      

Recognized in Seattle as a man-about-town, Chilberg served two terms as president of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.  He joined the Nile Temple, the Rainier Club, the local Elks Lodge, Seattle Athletic Club, and Plymouth Congregational Church.  His other affiliations included the Seattle Golf & Country Club, the Swedish Club, the Seattle Press Club, the Union and Commercial Clubs of Tacoma and the Bohemian Club of San Francisco. 

In 1916, Washington Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919) appointed Chilberg to the Washington State Board of the American Red Cross Society.  When President William Howard Taft (1857-1930) came to Seattle in 1909 to see the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition that he had helped open from the White House by pressing an electronic key, J. E. Chilberg talked the president into joining the Arctic Brotherhood of Alaska. 

Suggesting an interest in indigenous culture, Chilberg was one of 20 local investors who subscribed $50,000 to enable the photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) to defray expenses of publishing the first volumes of his (later) famous work on North American Indians.

Historian Nard Jones observed that despite Chilberg’s energy and competence he was not a member of Seattle’s social elite (Jones called it Seattle’s “Four Hundred”).  Although the Chilbergs lived on Seattle’s affluent First Hill, he (Chilberg) “was not broadly educated, his conversation was dull and his grammar could be astonishingly bad” (Jones). 

Among Chilberg’s neighbors on First Hill was Charles H. Frye (1858-1940), known as “CH” or “Charlie.”  Frye became the West Coast’s largest meat packer.  Later he and his wife Emma (d. 1934) established the privately funded Frye Art Museum (no admission fee).  Cable car mogul Fred Sander was another neighbor who nurtured 20 acres of that hilltop reserve.  Former Seattle mayor Bailey Gatzert (1829-1893, a founding member of Schwabacher Hardware, was comfortably housed nearby.  On the institutional front, Chilberg’s friend, Dr. Mark Allison Mathews (1867-1940), was rector of First Hill’s Presbyterian Church, soon to shelter America’s largest Presbyterian congregation, and in 1890 the Olympic Tennis Club (later the Seattle Tennis Club) built courts at Madison Avenue and Minor Street.  The Chilberg’s residence on First Hill signaled their arrival, whether enthusiastically embraced by neighbors or not, among the Four Hundred.   

Chilberg and the A-Y-P

In 1906, John E. Chilberg was elected president of what would later be named the Exposition Company, the entity that would go on to organize Washington state's first world's fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held in 1909. Whether J. E. Chilberg was socially “in” or “out,” he accomplished his task as head of the exposition with the apparent cooperation of Seattle’s upscale society. In 1944 Seattle writer Archie Binns reflected: “The fair paid its expenses and none of the exhibiting countries withdrew or declared war on one another.  The city was also on its good behavior. The fair was Seattle’s debut among the cities of earth, and Seattle cleaned house so thoroughly that it was never again the roaring city of gold rush days.” 

Chilberg’s recollection of the exposition’s origins includes a conversation he had with Alaska (later Snohomish County) businessman Godfrey Chealander, who initiated the idea of the A-Y-P. Chealander had served as the representative from Alaska at the 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon.  According to Murray Morgan’s official history of the 1962 Century 21 World's Fair, held in Seattle, Chilberg suggested that Chealander take up the idea of another exposition with William M. Sheffield, The Alaska Club secretary. 

Apparently James A. Wood, an editor of The Seattle Times, heard about the Chealander-Sheffield conversation and registered his own enthusiasm for the idea.  Wood worked for Seattle’s eccentric “Colonel” Alden J. Blethen (1845-1915), publisher of The Seattle Times, and his advocacy signaled that the proposed celebration had powerful backing. 

Originally meant to salute Alaska’s key role in Seattle’s turn-of-the-century renaissance following from the Gold Rush, the fair idea moved from the informal surroundings of the Alaska Club to the Seattle Chamber of Commerce inner sanctum.  This larger body of civic boosters also expressed enthusiasm for a local celebration, but suggested that its theme be expanded to include British Columbia (Canada), Oregon, California, Japan, the Philippines, China and, well, how about the entire Pacific Rim?  (The wider focus was abetted by University of Washington Professor Edmond S. Meany [1862-1935], Seattle’s pre-eminent promoter, who was convinced that any celebration should take place on his home campus.) 

The Seattle Times and Seattle Star uncharacteristically joined forces with the rival Seattle Post-Intelligencer to put a favorable spin on the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.  For example, in the early 1900s, the P.I.’s Carlton Fitchett wrote a poem called “Old Seattle,” which included the stanzas:

“How we flocked to pay admission    

When the A-Y-P began,    

Just to see the exposition

And the hubba-hubba man.”  

Chamber leaders “designated Chilberg as president-to-be of the corporation-to-be” (Morgan).  Following the decision to create a world’s fair” board members were dispatched to the far corners.  One of J. E. Chilberg’s assignments took him to Ontario, Canada, where he wooed the Canadian government.  He and Ira A. Nadeau, director general of the exposition, also visited Alaska and the Yukon (again, Canada) where, according to Chilberg, they “were successful.” 

Chilberg and others were familiar with the role Alaska played in Puget Sound’s economic revival.  The Great Land had been purchased from the Russians in 1866 for some $7 million, and proved to be a bottomless source of natural riches. More than  40 Alaska “gold rushes” occurred within 50 years of the United States acquiring title, perhaps the most important strike occurring in the Klondike.  The steamer Portland arrived alongside Seattle’s waterfront on Saturday, July 17, 1897, laden with a golden cargo, which caused the city to go wild.  Within 20 years of the Alaska purchase the value of Alaska fish totaled $29 million.  Gold and other hard metals produced a value of $615 million.  Furs came to $4.5 million, and fox farms showed a value of $7 million. Chilberg, his business partners, and other Chamber boomers were direct beneficiaries of this stampede.

In 1941, Chilberg was quoted in a Seattle Times story: “Seattle in 1897 was a quiet little place ... Most people walked because they couldn’t afford a 5-cent street care fare.  I went to San Francisco before the report of the Klondike arrived.  Before I left everything was quiet.  When I returned, the streets were crowded with people.  The Seattle I had left was gone.”

Chilberg’s A-Y-P Exposition responsibilities were open-ended. In order to resolve an ongoing debate concerning the propriety of the "gee-string" clothing worn by male Igorrote (an ethnic group from the Philippines highlands) performers in the Igorrote Village on the Pay Streak, Chilberg escorted a delegation of VIPS to the assess the issue. A memorable photograph of that time depicts a special ad hoc committee composed of the Reverend Mark A. Matthews, Governor Marion E. Hay (1865-1933),  Judge Thomas E. Burke (1849-1925), and Chilberg solemnly watching the Igorrote dancers leap and run in their native attire.  “A top-hatted committee of personages of ponderous and certifiable probity was created to pass moral judgment on Igorrote attire ... [the group] with the Reverend Mr. Matthews casting the deciding vote ... decreed the Igorrote breachclouts to be decent” (Lane Morgan and Murray Morgan).  In another image, dated July 20, 1909, a formally attired Chilberg is seen cradling an infant at what was billed as an en masse christening on the exposition grounds.    

In the world of international diplomacy, adorned in swallowtail coat and top hat, Chilberg proposed toasts to His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of Japan, aboard a Japanese battleship anchored in Elliott Bay.  With no knowledge of the Japanese language, and facing a smiling Admiral Ijichi, who did not speak a word of English, ceremonies were carried off without a hitch, except Chilberg recalled that the champagne glasses had to be emptied at each toast.    

Chilberg retained fond memories of his friendship with Goon Dip, Consul for China, who had raised money and secured exhibits for the exposition.  Goon Dip also tutored Chilberg in the life and teachings of Confucius.  Chilberg fondly recalled that Goon Dip provided a “great Chinese dragon” to lead the procession on Chinese Day, and insisted that Chilberg ride with him in the parade’s first automobile.   

Chilberg was proud of the exposition’s security under the firm, experienced hands of Seattle’s former (and future) police chief, Charles W. Wappenstein (1853-1931).  Known as “Wappy” to friend and foe, Murray Morgan described him as “a mixture of frontiersman, tout, and Tammany politico.”  With the leadership of Wappy and the assistance of his five “guards” Chilberg claimed that men and women could go anywhere on the exposition grounds without fear.  Wappy’s method was direct and simple: arrest offenders, escort them from the exposition grounds, and tell them not to return.  Chilberg claimed that the chief’s modus operandi “worked perfectly.”   

The year J. E. Chilberg died (1954) he wrote a brief memoir titled “The Organization and Management of the Business of the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition of 1909.”  It paid rich tribute to his management team at that time, and ends with these cryptic, touching words:

“At 12 o’clock noon, June 1st, 1909, President Taft pressed the button in Washington, D.C., the Great American Flag fell over the amphitheatre, and I announced the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition open ... . At midnight, October 16th, 1909, the lights were extinguished, and I announced the Exposition closed.  Then turned on the lights to allow the thousands present for the last time, to go home ... . Thus ended the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition.”  

C. J. Smith, chairman of the A-Y-P Exposition Grounds and Building Committee was described by C. T. Conover as the man who “opened the exposition on time without a loose board on the grounds.”  J. E. Chilberg, in his own notes, was impressed with the way Smith cleaned up the landscaped, well-maintained grounds before returning them to the University of Washington.

Chilberg offered his assessment of the exposition: It “is credited with being the only exposition held in the United States, excepting the exposition held in Omaha prior to 1909, that was a financial success, but Omaha had the revenue realized from the sale of liquor to help them.”  (The A-Y-P Exposition was a “dry” fair because state law prohibited the sale of alcohol on campus.)

Difficulties and Last Years

With dim echoes of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition behind them, J. E. Chilberg and his management team returned to their usual tasks.  In Chilberg’s case it was principally his stewardship of The Scandinavian-American Bank.  In the early 1920s, the bank was having difficulties.  Despite the existence of 1917 legislation (for which Chilberg had lobbied) creating the Washington Bank Depositor’s Guarantee Fund, his bank failed in 1922, leaving many depositors holding the proverbial bag.  Putting a human spin on the issue, one report stated that most of the depositors were from the “humbler walks of life.”  Starting with the Tacoma branch, followed by Seattle, The Scandinavian-American Bank collapsed.  J. F. Lane, the bank’s cashier, and J. E. Chilberg, president, were indicted by a King County Grand Jury.  Chilberg was accused of borrowing large sums from the bank without the directors’ approval; Lane was accused of making the loans without approval.  Chilberg was found not guilty. 

Despite his acquittal and continuing business and civic interests, Chilberg slowly withdrew from local affairs.  In 1927 he and his wife moved to Laguna Beach, California. 

Over the years he maintained relationships with Pacific Northwest friends and business associates, visiting Seattle in July 1941.  Historian C. T. Conover described his regular correspondence with J. E. Chilberg and recalled his friend’s “masterly hand as president” of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.  Conover also observed that Chilberg was at that time (1954) the only survivor from the exposition's original board of trustees.

On December 10, 1954, J. E. Chilberg died at age 88 in Laguna Beach, California.  His survivors included his wife, Anna Mary, son Hugh R. Chilberg of Los Angeles, a sister, Mabel Chilberg, Des Moines, Iowa, three grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

Sources: Murray Morgan, Century 21: The Story of the Seattle World’s Fair, 1962 (Seattle: Acme Press, 1963); James R. Warren, King County and its Queen City, Seattle (Woodland Hills, California: Windsor Publications, Inc., 1981);  History of Washington, The Evergreen State: From Early Dawn to Daylight, Vol. I  ed. by Julian Hawthorne (New York: American Historical Publishing Co., 1893); Murray Morgan, Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle (New York: The Viking Press, 1951); Lane Morgan and Murray Morgan, with Paul Dorpat, Seattle: A Pictorial History (Norfolk Beach/Virginia Beach, Virginia: The Donning Company, 1982); Junius Rochester, The Last Electric Trolley: Madrona & Denny-Blaine (Seattle: Tommie Press, 2002); Don Duncan, Meet Me At The Center: The Story of Seattle Center from the Beginnings to the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair to the 21st Century  (Seattle: Seattle Center Foundation, 1992); James R. Warren, A Centennial History of the Seattle Tennis Club (Bellevue: Vernon Publlications, Inc., 1990); George A. Frykman, Seattle’s Historian and Promoter: The Life of Edmond Stephen Meany (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1998); Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County, Washington, Vol. 3 (Chicago-Seattle, The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1929); Nard Jones, Seattle (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972); Ralph Bushnell Potts, Seattle Heritage (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1955); Helen E. Vogt, Charlie Frye and His Times (Seattle: SCW Publications, 1995); Gordon Newell and Don Sherwood, Totem Tales of Old Seattle (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1956); Archie Binns, Northwest Gateway: The Story of the Port of Seattle (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1944);  Men Behind the Seattle Spirit ed. by H. A. Chadwick (Seattle: The Argus Cartoons, 1906); Ralph Ernest Downie, A Pictorial History of the State of Washington (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford Co., 1937); Nard Jones, Evergreen Land: A Portrait of the State of Washington (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1947); Roger Sale, Seattle: Past to Present (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 1976); “Washington Banks Without Worries,” Oregonian, January 8, 1922; “Public Prosecutor and Jurist in Row,” Oregonian, September 23, 1922; “Fair for Seattle,” Morning Olympian, October 8, 1905; “Officials of State Red Cross Are Named,” Morning Olympian, January 1, 1916; “Bank’s Supervisor Has Difficult Job,” Oregonian, January 9, 1922; Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (Chicago-Seattle: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916), 282; Seattle Illustrated (Seattle), 1888; Melody Webb, Yukon: The Last Frontier (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993); Edward Sanford Harrison, Nome and Seward Peninsula: History, Description, Biographies and Stories (Nome, Alaska, Metropolitan Press, 1905); The World’s Most Beautiful Exposition: Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle, USA, 1909 (Seattle: A-Y-P-E Department of Publicity, 1909); Seattle: The Gateway to Alaska and the Orient: Official Publication, Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle, Washington 1909 (Seattle: Portland Post Card Company, 1909); Shaping Seattle Architecture ed. by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994); “Pays Seattle a Visit,” The Seattle Times, July 23, 1941; “Men Who Ran AYP Recalled,” Ibid., October 14, 1954; “Head of 1909 Expo Dies,” Ibid., December 11, 1954; Neal O. Hines, Denny’s Knoll: A History of the Metropolitan Tract of the University of Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980).  

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