LAURIN, JAMES (baptized Jacques-Paul-François), civil engineer and municipal-works contractor; b. 4 March 1863 in Notre-Dame parish, Montreal, son of Joseph Laurin, a shopkeeper, and Caroline Park; m. 13 June 1885 Rose Saint-Aubin in Saint-Jean-Baptiste parish, Montreal, and they had one daughter and one son; d. 30 Oct. 1935 in Westmount, Que.
James Laurin grew up in a well-to-do family in Montreal’s Saint-Louis ward. He was baptized Jacques-Paul-François, but his mother, who was of Scottish descent, later called him James, a name he used throughout his life except when he signed certain official documents, for which he used Jacques. He retained only youthful memories of her, for she died of an unknown cause before he reached the age of majority. His father, who was then a bailiff, brought up his children on his own, but delegated household tasks to a domestic servant. James had an elder sister, Marie, and an elder brother, Edgar. Whereas Edgar entered the medical profession, James chose civil engineering. He studied at the Catholic Commercial Academy of Montreal, attended by the sons of respectable families, and then at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, graduating in 1884 with “high honours.”
The doors of industry remained closed to the graduates of the École Polytechnique, who were francophones, and the majority found employment in the federal civil service and as consulting engineers. From this perspective, Laurin’s first job was atypical. Having a good command of English, he joined the locomotive service of the Elmira, Cortland and Northern Railroad; only recently founded by the American railway contractor Austin Corbin, its lines served New York State. His second job was more representative and would have a profound effect on the rest of his career. He entered the employ of the consulting engineer Joseph-Émile Vanier in 1885. A year later he was at his side working on the preliminary surveys for the route of the Montreal and Western Railway, which railway contractor Horace Jansen Beemer* was building to facilitate access to the northern regions of the province of Quebec.
Vanier now took on many engineering assignments for municipalities in the vicinity of Montreal, and from then on his firm became more active. In these circumstances Laurin was promoted manager in 1888. He supervised 15 or so engineers who drew up structural-engineering specifications, prepared scale drawings for construction, and estimated project costs. In particular, he worked to develop the sewer systems of Côte Saint-Louis (Montreal), Côte Saint-Paul (Montreal), Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Huntingdon, Saint-Henri (Montreal), and Saint-Lambert. He also helped to install the water-distribution systems of Côte Saint-Louis, Saint-Lambert, Buckingham (Gatineau), Aylmer (Gatineau), and Salaberry-de-Valleyfield. Lastly, he collaborated on such undertakings as building the hydroelectric station in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield and laying out the water-supply network of the Montreal Water and Power Company. In 1901 his profession brought him an income of $2,700.
With nearly 20 years of experience, Laurin left Vanier’s consultancy and went into business for himself. In 1904 he formed a partnership with William Christopher Leitch, who until then had been the head of construction for Montreal Water and Power. The partners divided responsibilities according to their respective skills. A graduate of the Belleville Business College in Belleville, Ont., Leitch was in charge of securing contracts while Laurin oversaw work on the job sites. Vanier did not, however, disappear from Laurin’s circle: a number of the municipal contracts executed by Laurin and Leitch were supervised by his firm. For several years the two enterprises occupied premises in the same downtown building. Henceforth recognized as an expert in his field, Laurin taught courses on civil engineering and the construction of water-supply systems, roads, and sewers at the École Polytechnique in 1908. He was also president of the Association des Anciens Élèves de l’École Polytechnique de Montréal in 1916.
Between 1904 and 1924 Laurin and Leitch changed its corporate name numerous times. In accordance with the various articles of association or dissolution it was called Laurin and Leitch; Laurin, Leitch and Company; or Laurin and Leitch Engineering and Construction Company. Trefflé Bastien joined the partnership in 1907 and remained until 1916. He had known Laurin personally since at least the late 1890s. His company, Bastien and Valiquette, had done some work under the direction of Vanier’s office. Subsequently, Bastien had become one of the largest property and building owners in Montreal. Furthermore, from 1910 to 1916 he was a member of the Montreal City Council; he thus became a strategic business partner for Laurin and Leitch. Arthur Vallée, an influential Montreal lawyer, was its chairman of the board; Vanier succeeded him a few years later.
There was heated competition among several contractors when bids were solicited for the construction or repair of municipal infrastructure. While it was active (1904–32), Laurin and Leitch’s company consequently submitted quotations ranging from about $30,000 to more than $100,000. In addition to municipal commissions, it received sizeable contracts from the Montreal Water and Power Company, which asked the partners to build a water reservoir and a supply network using aqueducts. A skilled polytechnician, Laurin worked at laying out the Montreal sewer system, building a garbage crusher for the city of Westmount, erecting a bridge across the Rivière Richelieu at Saint-Jean (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu), constructing a reservoir for the town of Outremont (Montreal), and dredging the Rivière Saint-François, as well as several other similar undertakings. Laurin and Leitch’s ownership of the Montreal Crushed Stone Company Limited, which operated a quarry at Saint-Vincent-de-Paul (Laval) from 1915 to 1932, was instrumental in executing these projects. Stone was extracted from the quarry, crushed there, and carried to the construction sites, where it was used as base material.
James Laurin’s domestic life was spent with his wife, Rose Saint-Aubin, and their children, Béatrice and Jacques-Émile. After the death of Rose’s father, they took her mother, Monique, into their home as well as her sister, Georgina, who would remain unmarried. They were Roman Catholics. In their Westmount residence they maintained a lifestyle that was comfortable enough to enable them to hire a Protestant immigrant from England as a housekeeper. After a long illness, Laurin died there at the age of 72. He had participated in the installation of a number of important works of civil infrastructure, including water-distribution systems and sewers, during a period of intensive urbanization in the province of Quebec. Laurin and Leitch’s company ceased operating in 1933. During its last years Laurin’s son, who had studied civil engineering at the École Polytechnique, took over the business with the assistance of William Clair Leitch, the son of William Christopher.
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