James Park was born at Kintore, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on 2 July 1857, the second son of James Park, a journeyman mason, and his wife, Mary Snowie. After finishing school James studied geology, mathematics, mineralogy and mining at the Royal School of Mines, South Kensington, London, from 1872 until 1874. In the mid 1870s he emigrated to New Zealand, working on sheepfarms in Wairarapa until 1878. That year he entered his chosen profession as a field assistant with the Geological Survey of New Zealand. On 24 May 1880 he married Frances Olive Rogers at Wellington; their union produced seven daughters and three sons.
Park transferred to the Survey Department at Nelson in 1882, where he worked for several years as a computing draughtsman. During that time he resuscitated the defunct Nelson Philosophical Society and helped form what was to become the New Zealand Alpine Club. He organised many exploring expeditions to the mountains behind Nelson and made the first ascent of Mt Franklin. Known to friends and family as 'Captain', the tall, handsome Park was physically fit and abstemious. In 1885 he rejoined the Geological Survey as a mining geologist and became a fellow of the Geological Society of London the next year. Park undertook surveys in Taranaki, Nelson and West Coast districts and wrote more than 30 official reports. He was one of the first to view the devastation caused by the Tarawera eruption.
Park's big opportunity came late in 1889 when he was appointed director of the Thames School of Mines. The goldfields schools of mines had sprung up in 1885–86, hailed by local enthusiasts and nurtured by the minister of mines, William Larnach, and Otago University's great populariser of science Professor James Gow Black. The schools, of which Thames was by far the largest, taught miners basic skills in geology, chemistry, metallurgy, physics and mathematics. Park rewrote the syllabus for the Thames school, expanded weekend classes for high school students, supervised satellite schools at Coromandel and Kuotunu and initiated a building programme. In addition he explored the hinterland and wrote papers on the local goldfields. Under his direction, Thames scholars periodically achieved the best results of all the New Zealand mining schools – including those at the University of Otago. An early advocate of the cyanide process of extraction of gold from quartz, he supervised the installation of an experimental cyanide plant at the school. The Mines Department's annual statement for 1895 noted that Thames graduates had become so skilled at operating these plants that the Cassell Company no longer needed to send staff out from England to supervise their installation.
In 1896 Park was head-hunted by the large London-based Anglo-Continental goldmining syndicate, which also obtained the services of H. A. Gordon, the inspecting engineer for the Mines Department. Park's duties as consulting mining engineer included reporting on the prospects of fields in Australasia, New Caledonia, Canada and Europe. He returned to teaching in 1901 on accepting the position of professor of mining at the University of Otago School of Mines.
Park encountered difficulties at first. Other universities harboured plans for establishing their own mining departments, and the premier and former minister of mines, Richard Seddon, favoured the goldfields schools and took a hostile attitude to the university school. Moreover, the school building was inadequate and the curriculum needed updating. Fortunately the university council supported Park and approved his ambitious remodelling of the course of study. In 1909 a handsome new building replaced the school's 'tin shed', and in 1913 Park became dean of the mining faculty. He chaired the university's Board of Research for several years. On his retirement from the university in 1931, aged 74, the professorial board's minute observed that he had 'made the Diploma of the School a passport to the Mining Companies throughout the world'.
Park's rigorous teaching methods, coupled with an inability to suffer fools gladly, inspired more respect than affection. He entered into a long-running and bitter scientific dispute with the professor of geology and mineralogy Patrick Marshall, whose resignation in 1916 may have been prompted by Park's animosity. Nor was Park's family life without strain. Frances Park left him sometime after his move to Dunedin; she died in 1917. On 11 July 1918, at Dunedin, Park married again; his second wife was Jane Clow Gray.
Park wrote seven educational textbooks on geology, theodolite surveying, hydraulics and assaying, all of which found ready markets. The cyanide process of gold extraction (1894) went to 10 editions, and his Geology of New Zealand (1910) was for long the standard work on the subject. Altogether his books are said to have sold more than 70,000 copies.
In retirement, Park maintained his interest in scientific societies. He was appointed professor emeritus, and was elected an honorary member of the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy (London). He was also a member of the Otago Astronomical Society and the Otago Technological Society, and was a member of the board of governors and a fellow of the New Zealand Institute. Park spent his last years at Oamaru. In mid 1946 he was visited by his son, former RAF fighter group commander Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, who was on a triumphal tour of New Zealand. James Park died soon after, on 28 July, at the age of 89. He was survived by his second wife and eight children of his first marriage.