James Edward Fulton was born at Outram, Otago, New Zealand, on 11 December 1854, the second of eight children of Catherine Henrietta Elliot Valpy, a prominent philanthropist and social reformer, and her husband, James Fulton, a landowner. The family was educated by private tutors. James junior spent a short period working in a flax mill, then in 1874 followed his elder brother Arthur into the Public Works Department in Wellington as a cadet. He became an assistant engineer in 1878 and in the same year obtained his certification as a surveyor. For the next two years he was engaged on a variety of survey work in Hawke's Bay, and in Northland on the proposed Kaihu Valley railway scheme.
In 1881 the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company was formed to construct the line from Wellington to Palmerston North. After much debate over the route, the shorter one – via Shannon to Longburn – was chosen, thus bypassing Foxton, then the centre of a thriving flax industry. James Fulton was appointed resident engineer on the Waikanae–Longburn section a few months after Arthur had been appointed to the same post on the Wellington–Waikanae section. The brothers worked under the direction of H. P. Higginson, the senior engineer to the company.
Several major civil engineering works were required during construction of the line, including tunnels on the southern section and earthworks, swamp drainage and a crossing of the Manawatu River at Longburn on the northern section. The track was completed in 1886. James Fulton succeeded his brother as manager and locomotive superintendent for the whole line soon after Arthur's death in 1889. He remained in this post until 1897.
The line, although only 83 miles long, was in some respects a showpiece for railway travel in New Zealand at the time. No doubt spurred on by competition from the government-built line (which came up through Wairarapa, over the difficult Remutaka section and through the Manawatu Gorge to Palmerston North), the private western line introduced passenger comforts such as upholstered seating, electric lighting and a dining car. During James Fulton's period as manager, wood rather than coal was burnt in the locomotives in some seasons to provide an income to local farmers as well as to use wood from company-owned land along the route. This was eventually stopped because of the track-side fire hazard it caused. After the opening of the North Island main trunk line in 1908, the Wellington–Manawatu line was sold to the government.
Following his return to private practice in Wellington in 1897, James Fulton was responsible for the design and building of the Kelburn cable tramway, and the first Kelburn viaduct. These were crucial in making possible the development of the western suburbs of Wellington. Other commissions included the design of a number of bridges for central and local government.
From 1903 Fulton was engineer-designer for the Taupo Totara Timber Company's narrow-gauge railway from Putaruru south for about 50 miles to Mokai. This track was the most substantial of its type in New Zealand and required a crossing of the Waikato River at Ongaroto. The crossing structure was a 230-foot-long laminated timber arch bridge, an impressive structure even by modern standards. The alignment adopted for the track was chosen to minimise the amount of earthworks needed, and required a change in level of over 1,000 feet both north and south of the Waikato. Access was by pack-horse or on foot and the working conditions were very difficult. The track included some curves that were tortuous to negotiate and derailments were not uncommon. Construction was completed in 1905 and the line remained in company ownership and operation until 1947.
James Fulton was a foundation member of the New Zealand Institute of Surveyors in 1888, along with his brother, Arthur. He served as president in 1909–10. He became a member of the New Zealand Society of Civil Engineers in 1915, having already been a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, since 1888.
James Fulton had married Charlotte Fredericka Budd at Outram on 12 September 1885. He died at Wellington on 6 December 1928, survived by his wife and their daughter. Legacies to the Society of Civil Engineers and the Institute of Surveyors enabled them to endow annual prizes for members and graduates. They are a fitting memorial to Fulton's generosity and to his career.