California Genealogy and History Archives
San Bernardino County and Riverside County
JAMES S. MCNAIR — Of the use of cement as a building material in Southern California perhaps no one is better equipped by long experience to stand as an authority on the historical aspects of the subject than James S. McNair, the veteran contractor and builder of San Bernardino.
Mr. McNair learned the use of plastic materials in Scotland as a boy under his father, but has been a resident and business man of Southern California for over a third of a century and most of the time in San Bernardino. His old friends know him as "Scotty" McNair. He was born at Torphichan, Scotland, July 4, 1862, son of Robert and Annie (Simpson) McNair, both natives of Scotland and now deceased. His father was a cement and plastering contractor. James S. McNair was educated in the schools of Scotland and from the age of twelve served his apprenticeship at his father's trade. At the age of sixteen, in 1878, he came to America and for a year did cement and plastering work in New York. On leaving New York he started west with California as his ultimate objective. Before reaching California he had put in an interesting and varied experience as a journeyman worker, stopping at nearly every town and city of consequence while passing over the continent. He reached San Francisco in 1883 and while living in that city he attended for a time the Lincoln Night School. He began contracting in cement and plastering work soon after establishing his home in San Francisco. In 1887 he removed to San Diego during the great boom in that city and did a vast amount of cement and plastering work there.
Mr. McNair moved to San Bernardino in 1890 and has kept his home and headquarters in that city ever since, though frequently handling large contracts outside. In 1890 he did the cement and plastering work under contract for the Patton Asylum, and for the San Bernardino High School. For one year he handled some large contracts in Salt Lake City. He has built every city reservoir at San Bernardino since coming here, has paved many of the city streets, paved Lemon Street from Fourth to Fourteenth in Riverside, built the roads, walks, and sewers at Fort Rosecrans and also worked on the 10-inch gun emplacement for the California Construction Company. Probably no other individual or firm could claim a greater volume of cement contracting in the county than Mr. McNair.
For many years much of his work has been done in the role of a capitalist for himself. He owns a number of cottages he built at San Bernardino and uses for rental purposes. The most modern apartments in the city are the Torphichan Apartments, named in honor of his birthplace, standing at 133 I Street. This is a three-story structure containing twelve apartments, steam heated and modern in every point of equipment. Another example of his building was the first cobblestone cottage in the city, which attracted great attention because of its artistic and ornate beauty. Mr. McNair owns five cottages and the business block at 241 H Street now occupied by the Alfred Company, and at one time had twenty acres of land on the Baseline.
One distinction of which Mr. McNair is properly proud is that he is one of the oldest members of the Naval Reserve of the State of California. He was one of the organizers of the Reserve at San Diego in 1888, this being the first organization of the kind in the state, and is still an honorary member. During the Spanish-American war he was ensign in charge of the crew of the U. S. S. "Pinto" in San Diego harbor. In politics he is a republican, and has been a party worker and a delegate to county and city conventions. He was superintendent of streets during the administration of Joseph W. Catick. Mr. McNair is one of the charter members of the San Bernardino Lodge of Elks, has been affiliated with the Woodmen of the World for thirty years, and is a member of the Fraternal Brotherhood. Through these organizations, through his successful business career, and his fine public spirit, he enjoys a popularity and a following of loyal friends that make him one of the best known men in the entire county.
Transcribed by Peggy Hooper 2011