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 on 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 where it ended for three years while construction continued, that became motive for the township.
A school was opened in 1884 and ten years later St James had five hotels, two banks, 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 that eventually morphed into the Coles we know today.
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.