JAMES ROSS
1848-1913

From: "Montreal, Pictorial and Biographical"
                Pub. by The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Montreal, 1914


For almost a half century James Ross was intimately associated with the growth and development of Canada and was an active factor in establishing, building, and promoting many of the leading national and municipal railways of the country.  It was under him that Sir William Mackenzie started his career and subsequently he cooperated with him in various enterprises throughout the world.  He was also a long-time associate of Sir Sandford Fleming, Sir William Van Horne, Sir Thomas Shaughnessy and Lord Strathcona, more particularly in the 1880s, in the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.  He was also actively interested in the executive control of the Montreal Street railway and Toronto Street railway from 1892.  The extent and importance of his business interests and investments made him therefore a most prominent factor in the upbuilding and development of the country and his name is inseparably interwoven with the history of Canada.

Mr. Ross was a son of the late Captain John Ross, merchant and ship owner, and Mary B. McKedie, formerly of  Newcastle-on-Tyne, England.  His birth occurred in the year 1848 at Cromarty, Scotland, and after attending Inverness Academy in his native land he continued his studies in England.  His initial step in the business world brought him into connection with railway, harbor and water works in Great Britain.  Following his arrival in America he was appointed, in 1870, to the opposition of resident engineer of the Ulster & Delaware Railway, of which road he afterward became chief engineer.  In 1872 he acted as resident engineer of the Wisconsin Central Railway and subsequently held a similar position with the Lake Ontario Shore road.  It was not long before his efficiency as an engineer won him wide recognition and he was offered the position of chief engineer of the Victoria Railway, of which he subsequently became general manager.  He was one of the most successful railway builders and owners in the Dominion, the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway over the Rockies being due to his power of organization and engineering ability, and when Sir Donald Smith, later Lord Strathcona, drove the last spike of the road, no one of that historic group held a higher place in public regard in Canada than Mr. Ross.

His active operations in the field of railway construction included the building of the Credit Valley Railway in 1878-79 and upon its completion he was appointed general manager of the road and also filled the position of consulting engineer of the Ontario and Quebec Railway.  In the spring of 1883 as general manager of construction, Mr. Ross began at Swift Current the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway over the Rockies, the Selkirks and the Gold Range, and early in November, 1885, this stretch of six hundred and twenty-three miles ending at Craig Ellachie, was completed more than a year ahead of time, creating a record for fast railway building on this continent and evoking from Sir William Van Horne the statement that such a record meant millions to the Canadian Pacific Railway.  It was during the building of the road over the mountains that Mr. Ross might be said to have discovered and subsequently came into close touch with William Mackenzie, Donald Mann (both since knighted), Herbert S. Holt and several others who later on took a front place among the railway magnates and financial leaders of Canada.  In 1886 Mr. Ross brought about the settlement of location of the Canadian Pacific east of Montreal and the legislative difficulties attending the entry of the road into the state of Maine.  Upon completing his arduous and complex task he took the contract for the construction of the remaining portion of their line not already provided for.  The extensions and improvements of the Canadian Pacific created difficult tasks of civil engineering which were ably performed by Mr. Ross who at the same time considered the question of railway construction in South America for which he had options.  The railways of the southern continent were to be guilt in Argentine and Chile and the options in those two republics alone amounted to over twenty million dollars.  Mr. Ross was also interested in important contracts in Chicago and elsewhere.

He established his home permanently in Montreal in 1888 and from this point supported his active professional interests, contracting and building the Regina and Long lake Railways some two hundred and fifty miles in length.  In 1889 he supervised the construction of the Calgary & Edmonton Railway, three hundred miles in length.

Having proven his capability in the field of steam railway construction Mr. Ross, in 1892, largely concentrated his energies upon problems of street railway building and in connection with Sir William Mackenzie purchased the Toronto Railway from the city of Toronto.  He afterward rebuilt the tracks and installed electric power in the operation of the road.  In 1892 he undertook the reorganization of the Montreal Street Railway, changing it from horse car to electric service.  He was at the head of the syndicate that purchased the franchise from the old City Passenger Railway Company.  In the same way he converted the street railways of Winnipeg and St. John, New Brunswick, into electric lines and in 1896 he joined Sir William Mackenzie in the purchase of the tramway systems of  Birmingham, England, and organized the City of  Birmingham Tramways company for the operation of the road under an electric system.  In the following year he secured a charter and franchise from the government of Jamaica to build electric tramways on this island.

The energy and enterprise of  Mr. Ross seemed limitless.  No matter how many and how important were the enterprises with which he was actively connected it seemed possible for him to take on others and become a factor in their successful control.  He was one of the promoters of the Lake of the Woods Milling Company in 1887, chief promoter of the Columbia River Lumber Company in 1889 and of the Canadian Land and Investment Company in 1891.  His opinions carried weight in the councils of various companies with which he was connected as a member of the board of directors, including the Bank of Montreal;   Calgary and Edmonton Land Company, Limited;   Laurentide Paper Company, LimitedRoyal Trust Company; and Dominion Bridge Company and St. John Railway Company, of which two last named he was president.

Writing of his business career a local paper said: “One of the most interesting periods of  Mr. Ross’s life was that of his prominent connection with the Dominion Coal and Dominion Iron and Steel Companies, lasting for a period of upwards of ten years.  At a comparatively early stage of the development of the coal and iron industries on the island of Cape Breton, Mr. Ross with his customary business astuteness, foresaw the possibilities of great development, and decided to invest a considerable amount of  his capital there.  He became the owner of a large block of shares in the coal company, and after the promotion of the Dominion Iron and Steel Company in 1901 he became a director.  As it was obvious that the interests of the two concerns would, if steel turned out a success, be very much bound up, Mr. Ross increased his holdings in coal until, in the same year, the Steel Company was launched, his interest became paramount, and he was placed in the position of being able to dictate the policy of the company.  Having retired from active participation I many of the interests which made his earlier career such a busy one, he determined to give his personal attention to the development of his Cape Breton interests and with that object in view he accepted the office of vice president of the Dominion Coal Company and managing director of the Dominion Iron and Steel Company in 1901.

“The succeeding years were destined to be full of business anxieties and lively contendings but his keen business ability and foresight brought him to the end of his active connection with the companies a much richer man than when he went in, despite the loss of the fight in the courts over the dispute about the terms of the contract for the supply of coal to the Steel Company, 1907-08. 

“Besides this fight Mr. Ross conducted the affairs of the Coal Company through disastrous fires which seriously affected the output of the mines, and labor troubles one of which was of a protracted and costly nature.  Throughout all the various negotiations which were almost continuously carried on between the two companies for years, Mr. Ross found his paramount interest was in the Coal Company although he was financially and executively interested in both, so that eventually he withdrew from the steel board and paid his whole time to the Coal Company, becoming its president, a post he retained until December, 1909.  In March, 1909, at the annual meeting of the Dominion Coal Company, Mr. Ross made an exhaustive statement concerning the relations of the two companies following the decision of the Privy Council in the preceding month, in which he justified the course taken by his company.  He explained from the coal point of view, how the company had saved the Steel Company from bankruptcy at a critical time following the termination of the lease of the Coal Company to Steel in 1903 and the subsequent dispute which became acute in 1906 and reached the courts the following year.  The final settlement of the terms of the judgment between the two companies and the eventual purchase of Mr. Ross’ interest in coal for four million, seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars, which took place late in 1909 when he retired from the presidency and Coal was amalgamated with Steel, concluded the most interesting and strenuous period of his career.

“Although Mr. Ross had strong likes and dislikes he never hesitated to proclaim openly ability he saw in the make-up of a business opponent.  A conversation during the progress of the Steel and Coal litigation brought out this characteristic to a marked degree.  During that memorable conflict Mr. J.H. Plummer and Sir William Van Horne were perhaps more prominently in the firing line on the Steel side than any one else, while Mr. Ross for the Coal Company was the inner and outer defenses and commander-in-chief combined.  He was asked one day while discussing the possibilities of Canadian Pacific Railway stock what would take place supposing anything happened to Sir Thomas Shaughnessy, whereupon Mr. Ross said: ‘This statement will surprise you, but Van Horne would have to go back,’ thus paying a high compliment to his chief adversary in the Steel-Coal conflict.  The manner in which Mr. Ross came to the rescue of a very important brokerage firm, the head of which is now dead, the day following President Cleveland’s message on the Venezuelan situation was another indication, not only of his good heart, but general interest in the financial community.  The market was in a bad way generally when the message to congress accentuated to such an extent the unrest and lack of confidence, that gilt-edged securities were without buyers, even at ruinous prices.  The financier in question was desperately in need of funds and although his securities were of the best, the then general manager of the Bank of Montreal, who has also passed away, did not consider himself justified in making the advance.  When James Ross heard of the affair he came forward and said: ‘We cannot afford to allow this man to go to the wall, for if he goes half of  St. François Xavier street will tumble with him.  Give him a million, take his securities and charge the amount to my account.’  Another public-spirited director assumed half the responsibility and a very grave financial smash was averted.

“Mr. Ross was first president of  the Mexican Light, Heat and Power Company and during his several visits to the Mexican capital was brought in contact with the then ruling spirits of the republic.  He at once formed a very high opinion of the then president with whom Mr. Ross had several interesting interviews, touching the trade relations of Canada and Mexico, and with that never erring foresight he also stated to a friend on his return from the Mexican capital that if ever Diaz was forced to relinquish the helm of state, trouble would follow in the southern republic as it did not appear to the Montreal financier that there were enough of trained men around the then president to carry on successfully the affairs of  that country, and the words of the former appear to have been prophetic.

“Although having a commanding interest in many other establishments and industries Mr. Ross used to say that the Bank of Montreal, the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Dominion Coal Company were nearest his heart.  He was a director in the first named institution since 1899, the largest individual shareholder in the great national railway system and up to a few years ago the president and the holder of five million dollars stock in the last named corporation.  Mr. James Ross succeeded the late  Mr. Hugh McLennan and had been in consequence director of the Bank of Montreal for fourteen years.  Speaking of the loss that institution sustained in the death of Mr. Ross, its vice president and general manager, Mr. H.V. Meredith said: ‘We have lost an eminently strong man and a sound adviser,’ while Mr. R. B. Angus, the president, spoke of him as a very able director of the bank and a warm personal friend.”

About the time that Mr. Ross arrived in Canada the country was deeply engrossed in the discussion of free trade versus protection, and having seen the neighboring republic grow from an agricultural to a manufacturing community, and realizing what the same fiscal policy would do for Canada, he at once espoused the cause then championed by Sir John Macdonald and Sir Charles Tupper, both as regards the fiscal policy of the Dominion and their railway program as well.  Mr. Ross was a moderate protectionist, believing that such a policy was mutually beneficial both to the manufacturer and consumer.  He had seen such states as Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota and other agricultural sections of the Union vote from protection and often when apprehension was expressed over the probable outcome of a moderately protective tariff for the western provinces of Canada, Mr. Ross would reply that the establishment of eastern industries all over the west would soon convert the farmers of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan to protectionist ideas.

In 1872 Mr. Ross was united in marriage to Miss Annie Kerr, a daughter of the late John Kerr of Kingston, New York, and sheriff of Ulster county.  They had one son John Kenneth Levison Ross, who married Ethel A. Matthews, a daughter of  W.D. Matthews of  Toronto, and they have two children, James Kenneth Ross and Hylda Annie Ross.  Mrs. James Ross is deeply interested in organizations for promoting aesthetic tastes and is active in support of benevolent and charitable projects.  She is a director of the Society of Decorative Art, vice president of the English section of the woman’s branch of the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society and is president of the Maternity Hospital of Montreal.

Flags at  half-mast on the Bank of  Montreal and the  Royal Trust Company, on September 20, 1913, gave official announcement to the financial and business community that Mr. James Ross, director of the institutions, had passed away.  It is fitting in a review of  his life that one takes cognizance of  his many good deeds.  Aside from his prominent activity in railway and financial circles, he was a man of marked public spirit and benevolence.   In 1902 he gave to  Lindsay, Ontario, and the county of  Victoria, the Ross Memorial Hospital as a memorial to his parents.  Two years later Alexandra Hospital of  Montreal received from him a gift of twenty-five thousand dollars and in 1910 he gave an equal amount to the Montreal Art Association of which he had long been a member and of which he was at that time the president.   His total benefactions to the Art Association amounted to over a quarter of a million.  In his will he made the following public bequests; to the Royal Victoria Hospital, the General Hospital and the Maternity Hospital each fifty thousand dollars; to Alexandra Hospital twenty-five thousand dollars; to the Montreal Art Association and to McGill University each one hundred thousand dollars and to the Ross Memorial Hospital at Lindsay, Ontario twenty-five thousand dollars.  He also remembered many of his old fiends and took special care that his servants and employees should be provided for.

Mr. Ross was identified with many public interests and ranked with loyal Canadians whose efforts have been effective forces in promoting general progress.

He was a governor of McGill University, of the Royal Victoria hospital, of the Alexandra Hospital and of the Protestant hospital for the Insane at Montreal.  He was likewise a trustee of Bishop’s College at Lennoxville, P.Q., and in 1900 he was appointed honorary lieutenant colonel of the Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars.  He took an active interest in yachting and was the owner of the Glencairn, which won the Seawanhaka-Corinthian cup for half raters in American waters in 1896.  He subsequently bought the late Joseph Pulitzer’s large steam yacht, Liberty, of one thousand six hundred fifty tons, which he remained the Glencairn, and in which he spent much of his vacation time in the Mediterranean.  It might be interesting to note here that both the small half rater and the large steam yacht were named in memory of the large full-rigged ship Glencairn, which was owned and commanded by his late father, Captain John Ross, of Cromarty.  Mr. James Ross was for many years commodore of the royal St. Lawrence Yacht Club, and was honorary commodore for life, and was a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron.

Mr. Ross was well known in club circles, holding membership in the Mount Royal Club, St. James Club, Forest and Stream Club, Canada Club, Montreal Hunt Club, Montreal Jockey Club, Montreal Racquet Club and Montreal Curling Club;  Rideau Club of Ottawa; Manitoba Club of Winnipeg; Toronto Royal Canadian Yacht and York Clubs of Toronto; Union Club of St. John, New Brunswick; Halifax Club of Halifax, Nova Scotia; New York Yacht and Manhattan Clubs of New York; Royal Cape Breton Yacht Club of Sydney, Nova Scotia; and the Constitutional Club of London, England.

Following the demise of Mr. Ross the Gazette of September 22, 1913, said editorially: “The history of James Ross is to some extent the history of the financial and creative progress of Canada.  He has been associated with many of our greatest enterprises and always in positions of prominence and leadership.  In any list of citizens whose financial power must be reckoned with in predicting the course of supreme events in this country, the name of James Ross would have stood near the top.  Many of his fellow citizens will think of him, however, as a generous and discriminating collector and exhibitor of art.  At a time when Montreal had not many men who both appreciated and possessed the financial ability to purchase splendid specimens of the best art which the old world has produced, James Ross entered that field, and soon made his private collection one of the things of which Montrealers were proud.  The public generally have had a chance to admire some of  his treasures at Loan Exhibitions; and, in this fashion, the pleasure and benefit of his collection have been widely shared.”

Tributes of respect and regard were paid to Mr. Ross by people in every station in life.  The high and the low, the rich and the poor did him honor.  The following letter was received by his son, Mr. James K.L. Ross:


“The engineers on the S. and L. were much surprised and deeply grieved when we heard that your father had passed away.  Our deepest sympathy goes out to you in your sad bereavement.  We all feel that we have lost a good and true friend.  No other man we have worked for gave our men the feeling of security in their position that he did.  We always were satisfied that if we did what was right no other influence could hurt us or our families.  When some of us were unfortunate enough to err in judgment and our error cost the company quite a lot, in the usual course of railways the officials had nothing to do but severely discipline us.  Your father used his own position not to discipline our men but to give them a good man’s advice, which has helped our men and also the company which he then presided over.  Acts like these are never forgotten by railway men and there were many sincere expressions of sorrow heard when the news of his death flashed over our road.  They have also instructed us to convey to your sorrowing mother our deepest sympathy in her trying hour.

“On behalf of the S. and L. engineers, we are sincerely yours
(Signed) D.W. Macdonald, chairman;
Parker Holmes, secretary and treasurer;
Hugh MacPherson, chief engineer.
“Glace Bay, Cape Breton, Canada, September 20, 1913.”

Another well merited tribute being from Principal Peterson of McGill University, who said:


“The other day we were gratified to learn that a member of the board of governors, the late James Ross, had remembered McGill University in his will to the extent of one hundred thousand dollars.  Mr. Ross was one of our friends.  His connection with the administration of the university had given him many opportunities of appreciating the difficulty of carrying on an institution whose needs in the very nature of things, are always outrunning its resources; and his kindly thought of us has touched a chord in our hearts that vibrates with gratitude and appreciation.

“It is a melancholy pleasure to record also our indebtedness to Mr. Ross for much help and advice given as a member of the governing body of the university, especially in the department of mechanical engineering.  Besides being a great and experienced engineer, he was a patron also of arts and sciences.  He took an active interest also in the well-being of our hospitals, and as they are in a sense university institutions, his bequests to the royal Victoria and Maternity Hospitals may be cited here as additional reasons for gratitude.  He was a man of high artistic culture, one who ‘loved that beauty should be beautifully.’  Mere splendor without taste would always have been repellent to him.  Perhaps his best memorial, apart from the magnificent collection of pictures which he got together with such care and discrimination, and which was the joy and pride of his wide circle of friends, will be the beautiful building on Sherbrooke street to which he has contributed so largely as the permanent home of the Art Association.  Such men lend valuable aid in the way of enabling a community to realize some aspects of its higher self.”


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