Chealander, Godfrey (1868-1953)

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 11/29/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8847

Godfrey Chealander was the first to suggest that Seattle hold the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific (A-Y-P) Exposition, the world's fair that in 1909 drew more than three million visitors. He came to the Northwest in 1894, just before the Klondike Gold Rush. An immigrant from Kalmar, Sweden, Chealander joined the hordes of miners who traveled north to the Yukon in 1897 upon hearing reports of gold strikes. Chealander went as a merchant, however, not a miner. He, his wife Mary (ca. 1871-1969), and twin two-year-old sons Byron (1894-1983) and Herbert (1894-1971) moved to Skagway, where Chealander set up a tobacco shop and confectionary. The family lived there for nine years, returning to Seattle in 1906 to help organize and promote the exposition. Chealander conceived of the idea while gathering objects for an exhibit about Alaska at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland. In a later interview, he remembered that he was interested in an Alaska exposition because the Lewis and Clark Exposition exhibit, "hadn't half done justice to Alaska." Chealander enlisted the support of members of the Alaska Club and the Chamber of Commerce in Seattle and on June 1, 1909, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition opened in Seattle. For about a decade Chealander participated in public life in Seattle, serving as a special commissioner for the A-Y-P and as a Civil Service Commission member in Seattle, and helping establish Swedish Hospital. He and his wife operated retail stores in Snohomish County before moving to Southern California in 1930. Chealander died in Los Angeles on December 4, 1953.

Swedish-Born and Raised

Godfrey Chealander, born Otto Godfrey Chealander, emigrated from Kalmar, Sweden, in 1893, at the age of 24. He lived first in Kankanee, Illinois, where he worked in a hotel. He soon met his wife Mary (or May) Cecilia Costello and they married that same year. They moved to Steilacoom in 1894 and Chealander worked at Western State Hospital as an attendant. Their twin sons, Byron and Herbert, were born in Tacoma. Three years later the Yukon Gold Rush began and the Chealanders went north as merchants, setting up a tobacco and candy shop in Skagway, Alaska, the town that was the gateway to the Yukon.

In 1899, Chealander helped organize Camp Skagway No. 1 of the Arctic Brotherhood, a fraternal brotherhood of men who lived north of latitude 54 degrees 20 minutes. He served as the original Grand Arctic Recorder for the organization and continued in that role for seven terms.

While in Skagway, Godfrey also worked as a special commissioner for the federal government. He gathered objects for an exhibit about Alaska and its resources at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland. He had little time, however, and saw that this limited what people could contribute to the exhibit even though they supported the idea.

Seattle: Gateway to Alaska

Chealander conceived of the idea for an exposition highlighting the resources of Alaska, with Seattle as the gateway to the territory, and for which there would be more time to collect a more complete exhibit of Alaska's bounty. A 1906 Alaska-Yukon Magazine article quotes Chealander regarding his inspiration to propose an Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition:

"I saw hundreds of people who a few years before had come to the county with empty pockets, but were now well-to-do and in affluent circumstances, some with big fortunes. I saw the contentment of the people as a whole in their condition, outside of their political standing. I saw the mighty Yukon River from its headwaters to its mouth, a most beautiful highway for the tourist in quest of rest and recreation. I saw in the distance, while traveling down the Tanana River, the peak of the great McKinley Mountain, 21,000 feet high. I saw the wide valleys, with grass six feet high, the glaciers, the wild flowers, and the tame, the largest and most fragrant pansies I had ever seen. I saw the most succulent vegetables -- potatoes, carrots, cabbage, turnips, lettuce, radishes, peas, beans, etc., grown by man anywhere. I saw banks heaped full of yellow gold, gold in sacks, bricks, buckets, scoops, tin pans, and every conceivable receptacle. I saw the marts of busy commerce created almost in a day by the sturdiest of sturdy American citizens from every state and territory in the Union. I saw he most sublime climate, with sunny balmy days and cool refreshing nights, with a clear blue sky, and the atmosphere purified by the eternal snows of the mountain, and I said, 'Surely sunny Italy can not compare with this.' I saw great ships laden with salmon plowing their way to Seattle. I saw stores of valuable furs of all kinds. I saw great coal deposits, promising oil wells, great copper and tin mines, magnificent marble quarries, etc. etc. And with such a country and such a people I felt that the showing which the government had made at St. Louis and would be able to make at Portland was but most perfunctory, in fact misrepresenting to a degree" ("The Father of the Exposition," 26). 

Chealander contacted John E. Chilberg (1867-1954), a fellow member of Seattle's Alaska Club, and suggested an exposition in Seattle to promote Alaska and its resources. Chilberg and other members of the Alaska Club expressed interest in the idea. The Alaska Club sought to promote business interests in Alaska. Its members' businesses had connections to the state and continually worked to convince people in the lower 48 that in addition to Alaska's wealth in gold, it also had other resources and productive land available for settlement.

Preparing for the World's Fair

In the fall of 1905 Chealander returned to Seattle and met with the Chamber of Commerce (which included a number of Alaska Club members) to propose the idea of an Alaskan fair. The Chamber of Commerce furthered studied the possibility and then on May 8, 1906, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition Company incorporated. Its original plan called for the fair to occur in 1907, the 10-year anniversary of the Klondike Gold Rush. But the members soon decided to expand the focus of the exposition to include the Pacific and found they needed more time to prepare, so the opening date was set for June 1, 1909.

Chealander worked as a special commissioner for the A-Y-P, traveling around the state and country to promote the fair and to encourage governments to allocate funding for exhibits. In the midst of preparations for the fair, he joined with several fellow Swedish immigrants to help establish Swedish Hospital on First Hill in Seattle in 1908. He and nine other Swedish immigrants invested $1,000 each in the hospital Dr. Nils Johanson (b. 1873) opened on Capitol Hill. Chealander also served on the Seattle Civil Service Commission from 1908 to 1909.   

The A-Y-P

During the A-Y-P, Chealander served as the manager of the Arctic Brotherhood House at the exposition. He was also involved with the exhibits in the Swedish Building, which supporters of Swedish Hospital ran as a fundraiser for the fledgling hospital but which, unfortunately, did not clear a profit.

When asked how he had managed to give so much of his time to the A-Y-P, Chealander replied:

"The work was alluring, and I was prompted mainly in my efforts by reason of the act that I knew if successful it would mean a great deal to Alaska, a great deal to Seattle and great deal to the whole Pacific Northwest. And the public esteem and pleasure the magnificent Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition will have afforded to nearly four million people at it close is enough remuneration for me" (Davidson, 75).

After the Fair

After the A-Y-P, Chealander continued to work in retail businesses, first in Everett then in other towns in Snohomish County. In 1930, he and Mary moved to Los Angeles where he also worked in retail. He remained involved with expositions, serving as a special commissioner for the California Pacific International Exposition in San Diego in 1935 and 1936.

In 1947 a Seattle newspaper reported on his support for the idea of an exposition to celebrate Seattle's centennial, and he hoped that it "would ... among other things --outlaw war from the world for all time" ("A.-Y.-P. Promoter ‘All For’ Seattle Centennial in 1951").

Godfrey Chealander died on December 4, 1953, in Los Angeles. 


Sources: Innes N. Davidson, The Arctic Brotherhood (Seattle: Press of the Acme Publishing Company, 1909), 12, 15, 35, 75; Katherine Johanson Nordstrom with Margaret Marshall, My Father's Legacy (Mount Vernon: Your Life Unique, 2002), 25; William Sheffield, The Alaska Almanac, 1905 (Seattle: The Alaska Club, 1905), 65; 1900 Skagway Census, Access Genealogy website  (http://www.accessgenealogy.com/census/alaska.htm); "Alaska-Yukon Goldrush Participants," Family Chronicle website accessed June 23, 2008 (http://www.familychronicle.com/klond_c.htm); "A.-Y.-P. Promoter ‘All For’ Seattle Centennial in 1951," The Seattle Times, October 14, 1947;  "Chealander: Noted Alaskan Recalls Wild Days in North," Ibid., August 18, 1935; "Death Takes Godfrey Chealander," Ibid.,, December 6, 1953, p. B-4; Eighteenth Annual Report of the Civil Service Department (Seattle: Civil Service Commission, 1913), 2; "The Father of the Exposition," Alaska-Yukon Magazine, September 1906, pp. 25-27; Godfrey C. Chealander entry, Tacoma City Directory (Tacoma: R. L. Polk & Co., 1895); Godfry Chilander entry, 1910 King County Census, Washington State Digital Archives website accessed July 15, 2008 (http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov).

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