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Commemorative Biographical Record of the County of Kent, Ontario
James Delmage Ross


Although Chatham native James Delmage Ross may never have been a household name in Chatham-Kent, his name certainly had a great deal of resonance in the city of Seattle in the early 1900s and his legacy continues there to this very day.

J.D. Ross was born to Scotch-Irish parents in Chatham, Ontario on Nov. 9, 1872. As a boy, he was fascinated with science and physics. He had his own little workshop where he performed countless experiments with electricity. Almost all of his knowledge of electricity was self-taught. In fact, when he was only 11 years old he reenacted Benjamin Franklin's experiment of flying a kite in a thunderstorm.

J.D. Ross graduated from Chatham Collegiate Institute in 1891 and taught for a few years until a physician advised him to get outdoors and be more active to improve upon his health. The Klondike Gold Rush was on and Ross, desiring a slightly more adventurous life than what Chatham offered, went north to Alaska to stake a claim.

Arriving in Alaska from Chatham in 1898, Ross prospected for a year and a half but without much luck. Still feeling a bit unfulfilled; he left the frozen north and ventured down to Seattle. His arrival in Seattle at this particular time proved to be a most fortuitous event for Ross.

Through a series of circumstances, Ross soon found himself working as the assistant City Engineer in the growing city of Seattle. At about this same time the voters of Seattle approved a $500,000 bond to construct a municipal power plant on the Cedar River at Cedar Falls.

Once Ross heard of his exciting project, he walked into city engineer Reginald Thomson's office and boldly asked to design and build the new plant. Although Thomson was a little unsure of this young man's ability in such a large project but in two weeks time Ross returned to Thomson's office with blueprints and to everyone but Ross' surprise he was given the job!

From the outset, Ross realized that Seattle City Light needed to expand its power grid and he wisely set his sights on the Skagit River located in the North Cascades. Ross received complete support from his close friend Mayor Hiram C. Gill (1869-1919).

Although there were many political and big business obstacles in his way, Ross took matters into his own hands and went directly to Washington outlining to the powers that be that Seattle desperately needed hydroelectric power in order to make a meaningful contribution to the war effort (First World War).

Washington quickly saw the value of Ross's idea and immediately cleared all obstacles in order that he could proceed with his plan. His plan being to build three dams. The smallest dam, which he began first, was the Gorge Dam, followed by the Diablo Dam located further upstream and then finally the dam that was to bear his name, the Ross Dam.

In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally appointed Ross to membership on the influential Securities and Exchange Committee. Still totally committed to the city of Seattle and its City Light Company, J.D. Ross continued to function as Superintendent of City Light but refused to accept any salary from the city of Seattle once he became a federal employee.

City Light and the Skagit River project were the focus on Ross's lifelong goal - the delivery of cheap power for the public good. Since the people, in effect, owned the municipal power utility, Ross made sure that City Light remained bright in the public eye. He did this through extensive advertising and organized tours of the Skagit project.

A lover of animals and flowers (he was a world authority on lilies), Ross did much to enhance the Skagit River tours for its many visitors. A wide variety of flowers were planted alongside trails and a zoo was built at the Diablo Dam site. He also introduced numerous trees and shrubs, along with many species of birds new to the Skagit Valley, where they still flourish.

Another "Ross Touch" along the tour was, predictably enough, electricity. Hidden phonographs and amplifiers piped music throughout the hillsides and at night the falls on the Skagit River were illuminated in a colourful display of lights and motion.

In 1939 this vibrant "light of a man" suddenly took ill and, like a light switched off, leaving Seattle in a state of sorrow and darkness, died of a massive heart attack.

Upon his death, the man who brought power and light to Seattle was extremely well known and well thought of throughout the state. He was affectionately known as the Father of City Light but always addressed by the citizens as simply "J.D."

James Delmage Ross, the genius from Chatham, Ontario, is buried in a granite-carved tomb within a mountain that bears his name. From Ross Mountains, J.D. and his wife can, for eternity, look fondly and justifiably proudly out onto his many projects along the Skagit River including Ross Dam and Ross Lake. If only we could have kept this creative genius in Chatham-Kent!


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