Born in Massachusetts, James Ray came to Duluth in 1855 by way of Ashtabula, Ohio, but left after five years. He returned in 1864 to open a real estate office. He was involved in digging the ship canal in 1871 and had large mining holdings on the Mesaba Range from the Rouchleau-Ray Iron Land Company, a partnership with Louis Rouchleau. An active Mason, Ray strongly influenced construction of the Temple Opera Block and Opera House at Second Avenue East and Superior Street; newspapers reported that it may not have been built without his efforts. When Ray died in 1894 the city hall flag was lowered to half staff.