HISTORY IN PERSPECTIVE | Working class Queen Anne: The Dahlberg Family

Queen Anne is peppered with literally hundreds of homes built for working class people at the turn of the 20th century. Rarely, though, do we know their names, and even more exceptionally do we know their stories. Charles and Bessie Dahlberg are marvelous exceptions just brought to our attention by their great-grandson Scott, who also shared a bit of his grandfather’s story too. The Dahlberg’s experience is even more exciting because Queen Anne’s modern reputation as the home of people who make exceptionally good livings at high tech employers tends to obscure its roots as a place with a concentration of working class people.

Charles Wilhelm Dahlberg served as the first custodian of the John Hay School from 1905 until his retirement. The first John Hay opened in 1905 while the second one, the brick building on Boston Street, opened in 1922.  

Charles and Bessie’s great-grandson Scott Dahlberg, a 1962 graduate of Queen Anne High School, found this photo in a family album and shared it recently with the Queen Anne Historical Society. Charles Wilhelm immigrated to the United States from Stockholm, Sweden where he trained as a boilermaker. Boiler operation was a key function of school janitors, so getting this job in 1905 is not unreasonable. There is some information indicating that Charles Wilhelm continued to serve at John Hay at least until 1940, when he was 83. This photograph makes that highly likely since the girl standing behind Mr. Dahlberg is wearing an outfit that appears to be from that period. Mr. Dahlberg is posing at the southwest corner of the soon to be altered outdoor play area of the second John Hay School, the brick building on Boston Street. Dahlberg died in 1944. A visit to the Seattle Public Schools Archive revealed absolutely nothing about Charles Wilhelm even though detailed records of everyone who ever taught in Seattle schools are retained.

According to the Seattle Daily Times of July 25, 1904, Charles Wilhelm and Bessie received a permit to build a one-and-a-half story cottage worth $1800 at 1937 7th Ave W. on July 23 of that year. They probably moved into their new house some time in 1905, the very same year the school district constructed the first John Hay School and hired Charles as its custodian. The city directory lists their daughter Esther, a stenographer as living there at that time, and we know from other information from Scott that their son and his grandfather Ernest also lived there in 1905 with his parents. 

When the Dahlbergs moved in, there was no Willcox Wall or Queen Anne Boulevard. Today, the idea of working class folks building a house on Queen Anne Boulevard would be astounding. It tells a lot about how the neighborhood has changed over the last century or so.

When I think about the boulevard the fancy houses on Highland Drive pop into mind, but learning about the Dahlberg house set my mind spinning around the full 4.7-mile loop and realizing that working class folks probably built or first-owned the greater proportion of the homes that line it.

Although there is no ambiguity about when the Dahlbergs moved into their new house, the city's side sewer records hint that the house may have been moved and set on a new foundation a few years after 1905. The side sewer records raise this possibility, for sewer lines usually get inspected by the city when they are installed. The side sewer record for the Dahlberg house gives the date of inspection as September 27, 1911. Also, the side sewer of the house next door to the Dahlberg's was inspected the same day while three of the houses to the north were inspected in 1910. The side sewer inspections happened at the time the now landmarked Willcox Wall was designed to divide 7th Avenue West into upper and lower roadways. Additional research may show that the houses got moved to the west a bit to make room for the wall which they all face across a very narrow strip of the street.

A visit to the Dahlberg house in late March set off alarms. A notice in the front yard announced the long narrow lot being subdivided into three lots and suggested that the old house was set for demolition. A trip to the back yard pleasantly revealed two small houses under construction behind the house, so the Dahlberg place may be saved after all. If it comes down, we can thank Scott Dahlberg for capturing and sharing this wonderful bit of Queen Anne’s working class history.