The son of Samuel Canby, a prosperous miller, and his wife Frances Lea, James Canby expanded upon his father's businesses and became "one of the prominent business men of his day". Among other interests, he served as president of the Bank of Wilmington and Brandywine and invested in real estate in Baltimore, Maryland, and "western lands".
Canby's interest in railroads stemmed from his belief that the newish transportation method could benefit his milling business. In the 1830s, he helped organize and obtain a state charter for the Wilmington and Susquehanna Railroad, of which he served as president until 1837. From 1835, he also served as a director of the Delaware and Maryland Railroad. The W&S and D&M joined two other railroads to create the first rail link from Philadelphia to Baltimore. (The main line survives today as part of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.) His service as a railroad executive is noted on the 1839 Newkirk Viaduct Monument in Philadelphia.
- Hoffecker, Carol E. (1974). Brandywine Village: The Story of a Milling Community (PDF). Wilmington, Delaware: Old Brandywine Village, Inc. pp. 37–39, 45, 47.
- Colonial Families of Philadelphia, John W. Jordan, editor. Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois, 1911.
- PRR Chronology, 1837
- PRR Chronology, 1835
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