Frank Fitts: An episode in his life that led him to be a dedicated Public Power Advocate

  • By David Wilma, editor
  • Posted 12/31/2000
  • Essay 2902
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Frank Fitts (1884-1967) grew up in Seattle at the turn of the twentieth century. He was a founder of the Phinney Ridge Improvement Association which worked to extend electrical service in Seattle's North End. He was an early member of Friends of City Light, organized by James Delmage "J.D." Ross (1872-1939) to support municipal ownership of Seattle's electrical utility. After the recall of Mayor Frank Edwards in 1931, Fitts became a Seattle City Councilman. He later worked for the Bonneville Power Administration. In 1963, he typed this account of how he first met Ross and became a life-long advocate of public power and Seattle City Light. Note: The transcription reproduces Fitts's own spelling.

Frank Fitts's Story

It was about the middle of 1901, that our Eighth Grade of the Seattle Rainier Public School, took a few members who were to graduate in June, down to the city's main library ... . I was handed the subject, "The affirmative side of the Public Ownership of Public Utilities." .... One of [my friends] asked this of me, "Why don't you ask Mr. J. D. Ross for some information on that subject? He knows all about those things."

That question gave me an idea which I acted upon that same afternoon. Mr. Ross was then an engineer for the electric plant that the city was then constructing on the head of [the] Cedar River Water System. He lived on my paper route. I remembered that at Christmas time while other subscribers on my route had given me fruit, popcorn, or nuts when I came to their door ... . Mr. Ross had given me fifty cents, one of the largest cash donations ... .

I remember that I saw him on my paper route about one half block ahead of me. I hurried to catch up with him which I did pretty much out of breath. I asked him if I could ask him a question? He remembered my first name and said, "Yes, Frank." This gave me courage to ask the question. He gave me the answer so clearly and quickly that I asked him if I might come to his home some night soon and ask him some more questions for I had to use his answers in a school debate. His answer was "yes." When I asked him when, he appear to hesitate at first. Then he asked what about to night? That was sooner than I had expected. I was delighted.

I finished my paper route, hurried home, washed up, changed clothes and kept the date. With the result that he gave me so much information before the interview was over that our team easily won the debate. From that interview with Mr. Ross began a life long friendship which was of great value to me.

I continued to carry his evening paper to him all through my high school and university years. He had a very fine physics and chemistry laboratory in his basement and since he lived only about three blocks from my home, I enjoyed a standing invitation to come and visit with him whenever I saw the light in his basement window and I wanted to be admitted I was to give three knocks on his basement window pane and he would pull the string that unlocked his electrick lock on his door to the basement. He carried on many of his experiments in those subjects.

Since I took up these subjects subsequently in my school work, the knowledge he gave me during those evenings over the years helped and inspired me greatly. Also during those years that the City was constructing its electric plant on [the] Cedar River, the newspapers carried much news against the city going ahead with that plant. I did not at that time know too much about all the controversy, but when I would get from Mr. Ross the facts about the project and of what it was going to do for the city, I was very much on the side of the city continuing to go ahead to complete the project.

At the start of that project, I had the good fortune to be working for a logging company which got the contract from the city to cut and deliver the "mud'sills" which went into the foundation of the Cedar Lake City Light dam constructed to increase the storage in Cedar Lake by raising the level of the water in the lake.

The next year [ca. 1914], instead of working for the logging company, I was fortunate in securing the position of stores clerk in the warehouse for supplies that went into the second Cedar River dam for City Light which was being constructed by the city engineering department. This position was secured from a Mr. Moore of that department who had charge of construction under the chief engineer, R. H. Thomson, of the Engineering Department, which at that time according to a clause of the then city charter did all engineering construction for all departments of the city. Later, many years afterward, I had the good fortune of helping the Friends of City Light to organize a campaign to amend the city charter by an initiative to give to Mr. Ross and the City Light its own engineering for its construction of its generating dams, powerhouses, transmission and distribution substations, and lines. This was accomplished near the beginning of the "Great Depression" of '29 and early '30s. The opposition to this succeeded in inducing the then mayor of the city [Frank Edwards] to discharge Mr. Ross from his position of Superintendent of City Light on the evening before the City Light Engineering Amendment initiative election. The same organization, Friends of City Light, of which I was still a member, succeeded with the help of many more "friends of City Light" among the community clubs of the city, organized another successful initiative to recall the mayor who had discharged Mr. Ross from his position of Superintendent of City Light and to conduct a campaign to elect a mayor who was friendly to City Light and to the other city utilities and who would be pledged to restore Mr.Ross to his position on City Light.

When Mr. Ross was appointed by the then President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to be the administrator of the Bonneville Dam Project, there were notices in the press for field men for that project.... I applied... for a position and was accepted and served in various positions for 17 years.... Under the administration, I had the good fortune of being close to Mr. Ross personally. For he had made a promise to Mrs. Ross that he would not fly, so he used the ground transportation. I drove the Bonneville car for him while he was laying out the foundation for many sections of the Bonneville as he had planned it to the time of his death in March of 1939 ... .

So it may be seen that while I never drew a dollar from Seattle City Light in wages, salaries or commissions, I worked for it for many years after that accidental debate assignment back there in the eighth grade, "The Public Ownership of Public Utilities." For that and many other reasons I call Seattle City Light my "First Love" (for much of my work for it was done long before our marriage), my wife my "Second Love" and the Bonneville Project my "Third Love."


Frank Fitts, "The story of an episode in the life of Frank Fitts that led him to be a dedicated Public Power Advocate," typescript, July 9, 1963, Frank Fitts Papers, Box 1, Manuscripts, University Archives and Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; William O'Dell Sparks, "J.D. Ross and Seattle City Light: 1917-1932," (Master's Thesis, University of Washington, 1964), 160-164.

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