“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!

2022 Donald J. Sterling, Jr., Senior Research Fellowship in Pacific Northwest History

I learned this week that I’ve been awarded the 2022 Donald J. Sterling, Jr., Senior Research Fellowship in Pacific Northwest History…which means, I guess, that my position as the curator of this website is a bit more legitimate now.

The Oregon Historical Society gives out two Sterling fellowships each year, one to a graduate student and one to a senior researcher. The award funds research in the OHS archives, with each recipient in residence at the archives for four weeks at some point during the award year. (I haven’t learned yet who this year’s graduate student recipient is.)

I’ll be using my archive time for research related to a new biography and preparation for writing an article or two for the Oregon Historical Quarterly.

According to the OHS website, the fellowships are funded “through an endowment, made possible by the family of Donald J. Sterling, Jr., to encourage original, scholarly, interpretive research in the Oregon Historical Society Research Library.

The catalog description for the Donald J. Sterling, Jr., Papers at OHS gives this brief bio:

Donald J. Sterling, Jr. (1927-2000) was the last editor of the Oregon Journal, serving from 1972 to 1992. He attended Princeton University and worked as a reporter for the Denver Post from 1948 to 1952. He joined the Oregon Journal when his father, Donald J. Sterling, retired, and in the early 1980s he helped to consolidate the newspaper with its former rival, the Oregonian. He was active in civic organizations including the City Club of Portland, the Housing Authority of Portland, and the Oregon Historical Society.”

Receiving this award and learning about Donald J. Sterling, Jr., has me thinking about the importance of newspapers in writing about the Northwest or any other place. As the saying goes, “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.” For historians and biographers, newspapers are a vital primary source of information. But what happens when, as with the Oregon Journal, newspapers consolidate or simply disappear? Can we trust a single paper in a major market like Portland or Seattle to give us the kind of accurate and non-biased information good history and biography rely on?

I’ll explore these questions and related ones in my next post.

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Two Excellent Websites Offering Brief Writings on People, Places, and Events in Pacific Northwest History

“Whitman Mission, drawing,” date unknown, photograph by Arnold Studios, State Library Photograph Collection, 1851-1990, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov, accessed 11-23-21.

Sometimes you don’t want to have to dig through a big history book to learn more about a particular person or event you’ve heard about somewhere. Fortunately, there are excellent websites that offer vast collections of useful and often intriguing writings about all aspects of history in both Washington and Oregon.

WASHINGTON

The Washington site is called HistoryLink,org. Billing itself as “the free online encyclopedia of Washington state history,” it offers 7961 articles (and counting) on everything from the indigenous tribes that lived in different parts of the state in pre-contact times to the particulars of important political races in more recent days.

A pleasantly designed and usefully organized site, it is easily navigated from the home page, where you’ll find not only a search box and tabs for useful links (such as classroom-specific resources) but also:

  • a featured article about something that happened during the current week in history called “This Week Then
  • historical news bits with links to related articles called “News Then, History Now
  • links to articles about things that happened on today’s date called “Today in Washington History
  • links to the newest articles on the site
  • a featured historical image
  • a “Quote of the Week

OREGON

The Oregon site is called simply The Oregon Encyclopedia. Assembled under the auspices of the Oregon Historical Society, it, too, offers thousands of articles that cover all aspects of the state’s history (and pre-history).

Like HistoryLink.org, The Oregon Encyclopedia is well thought-out and put-together. In addition to a search box, the attractive and helpful main page features:

  • a link for educators that includes access to pre-prepared “Primary Source Packets
  • a variety of sample articles focused on important subjects
  • suggestions for especially intriguing reads
  • a link to an interactive map of notable places, people, and events in Oregon history
  • a link to the Oregon Historical Society’s digital resources and online narratives
  • a feature called “The Corner Gallery,” focused on a subject of current interest (right now, its focus is Indigenous Peoples Day and it offers related links)

MONTANA AND IDAHO

Although Montana and Idaho don’t have websites dedicated to them that are as extensive and entertaining to read, you can find many useful links to online resources and articles on pages offered by their respective historical societies:

Montana History Links” on the Montana Historical Society’s “Montana: Stories of the Land” webpage

Idaho History at Home” on the Idaho State Historical Society’s website

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