“One of the Greatest Americans of Our Generation”–The Subject of My Next Biography: J. D. Ross

James Delmage (J. D.) Ross shortly after he arrived in Seattle.

by Michael N. McGregor

When James Delmage Ross died suddenly on March 14, 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt mourned his passing by telling the country it had lost “one of the greatest Americans of our generation,” a man whose “successful career and especially his long service in behalf of the public interest are worthy of study by every American boy.”

Yet “J. D.,” as he was called by everyone who knew him—from the president to senators to children in his neighborhood—is virtually unknown today. Even in Seattle, where he was once the city’s most powerful—and popular—figure, those who recognize his name know it only because a dam and lake on the Upper Skagit River were dedicated to him.

Map of Seattle City Light hydroelectric projects on the Skagit River, including the dam and lake named after J. D. Ross.

In the Depression years, however, as the nation suffered the aftermath of predatory practices by private companies, Ross became known across the land as a tireless advocate for publicly-owned electrical power. FDR held him in such high regard, he chose him to sit on the Securities and Exchange Commission, to keep tabs on the country’s private power companies, and then to serve as the first superintendent of the Bonneville Power Administration, one of the most important strategic positions in the years leading up to World War II.

By then, Ross had built Seattle City Light into one of the world’s model municipally-owned power systems and championed changes to both the production and distribution of electricity that reduced power rates to a fraction of what they had once been. He had also toured the country for years, making the case for public control over the nation’s electrical grid.

FDR quote on J. D. Ross’s tomb.

If the country had listened to him—or he had lived longer—there’s no doubt our power system would be in much better shape than it is today and people everywhere would understand FDR’s words of praise.

A self-taught electrical engineer who rose from humble beginnings to become the ideal civil servant and a close friend of the 20th century’s most powerful president, Ross is the kind of figure whose story—and example—we need today. Which is why I’m pleased to announce that I’m writing the first biography to ever be written of him.

A Seattle newspaper’s report on the tributes and crowds at Ross’s funeral

My work on Ross is being supported, in part, by the Oregon Historical Society’s 2022 Donald J. Sterling Senior Research Award in Pacific Northwest History. In the weeks ahead, I’ll be posting more about my finds in the months of research I’ve already done, as well as updates as the research and writing continue.

If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook–or go to my personal website, michaelnmcgregor.com–you’ll see images in the coming days from Ross’s hometown of Chatham, Ontario, once known as the Black Mecca because it served as a terminus for the Underground Railroad. His journey from Chatham to Seattle began in 1897 when he walked—walked!—from Edmonton, Alberta, to the Klondike gold fields after a doctor told him his lungs were failing and he needed more exercise.

Stay tuned for future updates!

How One Man Made Seattle by Selling It to the World

Erastus Brainerd (image from nps.gov)

It may be hard for Seattleites to swallow but their city didn’t count for much in anyone’s eyes but its own until the end of the 19th century. That’s when the city’s Chamber of Commerce hired a man named Erastus Brainerd to promote it–and the advertising campaign he concocted and carried out succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams.

From the time the first migrants moved west in the 1830s into what was then called the Oregon Country, Oregon’s Willamette Valley with its rich alluvial soil was the premier destination. And the town near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers that came to called Portland was the locus of white gatherings and businesses and, eventually, mansions built by those who struck it rich in agriculture, logging or fishing.

In time, more and more immigrants ventured north of the Columbia River and established towns in what would eventually become Washington Territory. But despite the hopes of groups like the original settlers of Seattle–who, when they founded their town in 1851, envisioned it as a future New York of the West Coast–no one paid much attention to the Puget Sound region except as a source of timber and other raw materials for cities like San Francisco.

When the Northern Pacific finally connected the NW to the rest of the country by rail in the 1870s, its line ran through Portland. And, although Seattle offered “7,500 town lots, 3,000 acres, $50,000 in cash, $200,000 in bonds, and a 30-foot-wide strip along its waterfront,” the railroad chose little-developed Tacoma as its Washington terminus. Between 1880 and 1890, Seattle managed to grow from a population of 3,500 to over 42,000, but most of the growth came in the timber industry and, when the Panic of 1893 caused a depression across the country, the Puget Sound region was especially hard hit.

Image from nps.gov

But then came the opportunity that led to Erastus Brainerd’s advertising campaign and Seattle’s ascension to the pinnacle of NW city rankings: the Klondike Gold Rush. It lasted only a year, from 1897 to 1898, but while it was going on, an estimated 70,000 of the 100,000 people (mostly men) who traveled via Alaska to the Yukon Territory in northern Canada to seek their fortune passed through Seattle.

When the rush began, San Francisco was better equipped to outfit miners heading north, and Victoria and Vancouver in Canada were closer to the gold fields, but thanks to Brainerd’s promotion, Seattle became known worldwide as the place to start your Yukon adventure.

Image from nps.gov

Appointed by the Chamber of Commerce shortly after the steamship Portland arrived in Seattle on July 17, 1897, with the first wave of weary but ecstatic miners and what one creative newspaper writer called “a ton of gold,” Brainerd lost no time in starting his campaign. The first thing he did was place ads in newspapers across the U. S. promoting Seattle as the “Gateway to the Yukon” although there was little to justify that claim.

Here’s how writer Les McLaughlin describes what happened next:

[Brainerd] then convinced the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper to print a special edition focusing on this bogus claim. The newspaper printed more than 200,000 copies and mailed them to postmasters across the US for distribution at local post offices. Twenty thousand were sent to newspaper editors and business organizations in the United States and Europe. Ten thousand were mailed to mayors, town councils and librarians.

Next came a promotional pamphlet. Authorities in Europe were so impressed with the circular they reprinted and distributed it for free. And Brainerd kept the publicity machine running by writing letters to every governor and mayor in the U.S., requesting information on “how many men to expect in Seattle” for the gold rush. Included in the letters were maps and guides to the gold fields – through Seattle, of course.

San Francisco also staged a PR campaign, but in December 1897, a writer for a national magazine called their effort a “sluggish” affair that paled beside the spirit displayed by Seattle.

Vancouver and Victoria also promoted their advantages, but warned prospective miners about the dangers of the adventure, and the chance of finding no gold. Seattle also acknowledged the risks, but wisely urged travellers to guard against them by purchasing plenty of supplies – in Seattle!

Image from aype.com

A decade after the Klondike stampede not only lifted Seattle out of the depression but infused it with capital and labor and made it famous worldwide, the city hosted a world’s fair called the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Running from June through October, the fair drew 3,700,000 to what, only a couple of decades before, had been a remote and mostly neglected corner of the United States.

The fair’s name was a nod to the success of Brainerd’s campaign and a signal that Seattle was setting its sights on something even bigger: being the gateway to the greater riches that lay across the Pacific.