COLCLEUGH, JAMES, druggist, entrepreneur, and politician; b. 12 May 1841 in West Flamborough Township, Upper Canada, son of George Colcleugh and Flora McInnis; m. 14 Dec. 1866 Flora Bruce Craib in Montreal, and they had five sons, four of whom survived infancy, and one daughter; d. 22 Aug. 1918 in Vancouver.
James Colcleugh was educated at the grammar school in Dundas, Upper Canada, and subsequently was apprenticed to a druggist. When his preceptor, James French Chisholm, died in 1861 before the apprenticeship was completed, Colcleugh left for Buffalo, N.Y. There, he worked as a druggist’s assistant until 1865, when he returned to Upper Canada and set up a pharmacy of his own in Mount Forest. In 1866 he enlisted in the Mount Forest Volunteer Company of the 30th (Wellington) Battalion of Rifles, to fight the Fenians. Some years later he was promoted lieutenant, a rank he would retain for the rest of his life.
Colcleugh seems always to have been on the lookout for entrepreneurial opportunities. In 1875 he sold his pharmacy to his brother William and left for the west to work for John Wright Sifton on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and especially on the CPR’s telegraph lines. He settled in Selkirk, Man., and soon became superintendent of the telegraph line from Selkirk to Edmonton, personally sending in May 1875 the first message from Selkirk to be carried over the network. After two years of work for the CPR in partnership with his brother George and his cousin Frederick William Colcleugh, he decided to go into business on his own, setting up a general store with a pharmacy.
Colcleugh branched out into other fields. He bought a tugboat, the Lady Ellen, and for a number of years operated it between points on Lake Winnipeg and the Red River, including Selkirk and Winnipeg, freighting mostly cordwood, a lucrative venture, and occasionally transporting passengers. This undertaking was all the more difficult because at that time there were no locks on the rapids at St Andrews.
The business that probably occupied most of his time was real estate, particularly land speculation. As late as April 1882 he still believed that the CPR would cross the Red River at Selkirk and that this development would produce a great boom and provide him with considerable wealth, because of the land he owned. Earlier he had been less hopeful, especially since his excessive enthusiasm for land deals had almost bankrupted him in 1880. Helped by a brief boom in 1882, he fully repaid his creditors.
Since part of his hopes for income were based on the arrival of the CPR, Colcleugh was involved in various aspects of railway construction. When it seemed that the main line would not come through Selkirk, he immediately tried to get a branch line from Selkirk to Portage la Prairie, but the federal government would not allow it. Colcleugh was determined to secure for Selkirk what he felt was its due. Thus, in the federal election of June 1882 he worked assiduously for Arthur Wellington Ross*, the Liberal candidate who was attempting to unseat the despised John Christian Schultz* in the riding of Lisgar. Fearing that Ross might be defeated, Colcleugh arranged in advance to have several deputy returning officers kidnapped, together with their ballot-boxes. In his own words, he was “ready for any emergency, but thank goodness it was not necessary, [Ross] was elected fair.”
Later in 1882 it became evident that the railway crossing would not be located at Selkirk, so Colcleugh formed a company with several others to build the first branch line from Selkirk to Winnipeg. Selkirk became an incorporated town that year. Colcleugh, its first mayor, would serve for four years. His tenure was marked by disputes with his cousin Frederick William, who had also sought the position of mayor. As long as Colcleugh was mayor, his cousin, a councillor, refused to attend the council meetings. Unfortunately as well, the boom which had started in Selkirk in 1882 collapsed by February 1883. Two years later Colcleugh disposed of his drug business and became the bursar of the Selkirk asylum, which had been built on the outskirts of the town in 1884.
In 1890 Colcleugh moved to Winnipeg, where he dealt in real estate with Ross. By 1892 he had once again opened a pharmacy. His Winnipeg business prospered. James Colcleugh and Company established eight branches before he sold his interests in the firm to his son and partner, Murray, in 1912. By then he had already spent considerable time with some of his siblings in the western United States. Even during his travels, he was always alert to possible opportunities for investment. For example, during a stop in Great Falls, Mont., he considered investing in land.
After his retirement in 1912, and in spite of problems with his health, he indulged in travelling – an extended canoe trip to Norway House, Man., a trip to Europe, including a visit to Scotland, and a stay of almost two years in the Peace River district of northern Alberta. By 1917 he had moved to Portland, Oreg. He died on a visit to Vancouver.
James Colcleugh was a man of great enthusiasm about the future of Manitoba and the west, which he expressed in a constant search for new entrepreneurial activity. His efforts contributed to the development of the region.
James Colcleugh’s manuscript autobiography (probably written in 1917), his personal and business correspondence, his diary, and other documents used in the preparation of this biography can be found in PAM, MG 14, B57.