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James Leamy as general contractor on the New Westminster Southern Railway

February 12, 2014

James Leamy

James Leamy (1848-1911) was general contractor for building the New Westminster Southern Railway from Brownsville BC to the boundary at Blaine WA.

On July 17, 1888, the New Westminster Southern Railway (NWSR) completed an agreement with the American firm of CM Sheafe & Company to construct the railway.

The NWSR was first promoted by Ebenezer Brown but since his death in 1883 the project was adopted by the New Westminster Board of Trade and financed by some of the city’s leading citizens.

Sheafe & Co consisted of CM Sheafe,  Senator Eugene Canfield, Sutcliffe Baxter, John R McGraw and WA Jones.

The intention of the two parties was to link by rail the "Royal City" of New Westminster with the "Queen City" of Bellingham Washington. 

Asked about crossing the Fraser River, Senator Canfield replied,
"it is expected that a ferry will be first employed for the river transit from Brownsville to the company’s docks opposite."

Tenders for clearing the right of way of the New Westminster Southern Railway from Brownsville to the US boundary were invited by Albert J Hill, Chief Engineer, with a deadline of August 18, 1888.

The contract was won by James Leamy of New Westminster.  Railway news was reported widely, and this is how a Vancouver newspaper ran the story:

"Mr James Leamy of the well-known firm of Leamy & Kyle, of Vancouver, the contractor for clearing the right of way for the Westminster Southern Railway, expects to begin operations on Monday. He will employ a large force of Indians chiefly for the work and will push it ahead with all possible speed. Mr Leamy is a well-known Westminster man, and has been in the Province for several years, having come out in 1881 when the operations on the first Onderdonk contract on the C.P.R. were commenced at Yale.  The citizens of Westminster are pleased that the first contract in connection with the Southern Railway, which is to connect them directly with the great system of railways in the States, has been awarded to a Westminster man. The News-Advertiser wishes Mr. Leamy every success in his enterprise."

James Leamy had come out to BC from Hull, Quebec, where he had worked on building a section of the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa & Occidental Railway (since taken over by the CPR in 1882).
In BC Leamy had charge of Contract 60, subcontracting from Andrew Onderdonk the most difficult section of railroad in the Fraser Canyon. He  took a further stretch along Kamloops Lake  and completed the roadbuilding on the  final leg of the CPR  from Craigellachie to Griffin Lake.
Leamy built the bridges on the extension of the CPR to Coal Harbour (Vancouver) and had recently (1887) completed the branch line to New Westminster.  He was also engaged in business with GF Kyle in a sawmill on False Creek, Vancouver.

On winning the contract for clearing the road of the NWSR, Leamy immediately contracted out the first six miles to McCorvie & Bonson. 

The hasty beginning was mandated by a deadline under the charter, and as clearing work was underway, surveyors were still determining the final line of the road to the boundary.

By October the  surveying party of  NB Gauvreau, CE completed locating the line, allowing the possibility of grading work before winter. 

In November, as subcontractors McCorvie & Bonson had already finished grading on the first section as far as the Dominion Hatchery, James Leamy was awarded the contract to complete the grading of the road to the border.
Work slowed over the winter, but in February it was announced that Leamy had subcontracted a section of crib work about  two miles above the hatchery to Lemon & Co. 

The size of the work force and its composition differed from the crew of first nations woodcutters who had slashed the way from Brownsville to opposite Barnston Island the previous year. 

Leamy had engaged Chinese subcontractors, including Lee Coy, who mustered hundreds of laborers for the railway.  In the summer of 1889 the salmon run on the Fraser threatened to disintegrate his workforce.

"The scarcity of laborers at the canneries to pack the immense take of salmon compelled Mr Leamy to allow the 700 Chinese he had on the grade go to work in the 16 canneries on the Fraser River.  Very shortly, however, Mr Leamy will resume operations with some 900 men, he having received instructions to push construction as vigorously as possible.  He has found it impossible to get enough white laborers to enable him to organize camps of these in preference to Chinese."

By September the labor situation had stabilized it was reported that 375 men and 25 teams of horses were working on route from Brownsville to the east.

In 1889,  Sheafe & Co ran into trouble in trying to complete construction, failing to meet the terms of the bonus offered by the New Westminster directors. The New Westminster investors negotiated a new deal with Nelson Bennett to take over.

Nelson BennettNelson Bennett was an experienced railroad man associated with JJ Hill of the Great Northern.
A Canadian-American, Bennett invested  heavily at Fairhaven on Bellingham Bay.  Bennett believed Fairhaven with superior advantages as a port and with the right railway connections would outgrow even Seattle and Tacoma. 

Bennett built the imposing and opulent Hotel Fairhaven, which opened in January 1891, with excursionists invited down from New Westminster to join the celebration.

Subcontractors McCorvie & Bonson and Bradshaw & Lemon would complete the Leamy contracts on the NWSR to the border.  Work continued apace in 1890 with the track-laying contract awarded to McCoy & O’Brien of Fairhaven.

The road was formally inaugurated on February 14, 1891 with a celebration at Blaine and a second grand opening was held November 27th when dignitaries arrived at New Westminster to fete the opening of service through to Seattle.

On both occasions Captain Asbury Insley’s new steamer Delaware ferried celebrants across the Fraser river from Liverpool station, the northern terminus, a mile above Brown’s landing.

In the meantime the line was being extended from Liverpool to South Westminster,  a half-mile below Brown’s landing, where the city of New Westminster had built a ferry terminal for the river crossing.

With the railway in operating order, Bennett turned over the New Westminster Southern Railway to JJ Hill and it became part of the Great Northern Railway network.

In the aftermath of opening celebrations, it was reported that James Leamy had an outstanding claim for payment for work building the railway. The case of Leamy vs. Bennett came up in the Supreme Court in September and by mutual agreement was referred to arbitration by JJ Donovan of Fairhaven and EG Tilton of Victoria.

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