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
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
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
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
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!