Unlike most towns in North East Victoria, St James was not built on the promise of water. Though its boundaries are defined by the Murray, Goulburn and Ovens rivers, St James is situated in a flat landscape with no significant stream or waterway. Though pastoral stations littered the area, it was the railway line from Benalla (destined to terminate to Yarrawonga) built as far as St James by 1883 (where it ended for three years while construction continued), that was the motive for the township.
And a town formed. A school was opened in 1884 and ten years later St James had five hotels, two bank branches, two churches, two stores and a creamery.
In 1892 a storekeeper, George Coles, bought a shop in St James. In 1910 his son, George Junior, after having worked for several rural and Melbourne retailers, acquired the St James business, which would be the genesis of the G.J. Coles and Co chain of variety stores. Coles ‘North Eastern Store’ was in the main street a few doors east of the railway crossing.
North East Water
In 2006, it was determined to connect St James (along with Devenish and Tungamah) to the Yarrawonga water system. North East Water committed to providing a potable (drinking) water supply to the three townships to remove reliance on the existing Goulburn-Murray Water channel system that historically supplied the towns. In St James, this involved building a 500kL storage tank and 42kms of pipelines at an overall cost of $3.9 million.