Sir Sandford Fleming

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Sir Sandford Fleming

Sir Sandford Fleming (1827-1915) was a Scottish-born Canadian railway engineer who became a widely recognized publicist for various scientific, imperial, and public causes.

Sandford Fleming was born on Jan. 7, 1827, at Kirkcaldy, Scotland, where he studied engineering and surveying. He went to Canada West in 1845 and qualified as a civil engineer; he undertook surveys, road projects, and several early town plans between Hamilton and Peterborough.

In 1849 Fleming was prominent among a group of young scientists and engineers in founding the Canadian Institute at Toronto. Fleming also designed the first Canadian postage stamp, the threepenny beaver, in 1851. His marriage in 1855 to Ann Jean Hall of Peterborough (they had six children) marked the end of the period of his adjustment to Canada and the beginning of his distinguished career as a railway builder.

Railway Engineer and Builder

Fleming's reputation developed in the railway building boom of the 1850s, particularly when he was chief engineer of the Ontario, Simcoe, and Huron (later Northern) Railway, from 1857 to 1862. He also contributed to planning a major harbor development at Toronto.

In 1863 Fleming was unanimously chosen by the four colonial governments to survey the first link—from Rivière du Loup to Halifax—of a railway connecting Britain's scattered Canadian colonies. He also contributed to building a railway system in the Maritime Provinces. Appointed chief engineer of the Intercolonial Railway, he saw the project to completion in 1873 as one of the most efficiently constructed lines on the continent. He also began a lifelong attachment to the society and politics of the Maritimes, cooperating with journalists and politicians in the cause of the larger confederation. He never stood for public office, but his wide personal and professional contacts gave him prominence and considerable influence in Canadian public life.

In addition to his Intercolonial duties, Fleming was appointed in 1871 engineer in chief of the proposed Canadian Pacific Railway. The original scheme for private construction faltered with the famous "Pacific Scandal" of 1872 and the depression after 1873. Fleming's superintendence of the government's own exploratory and construction program then became even more important; it also became more delicate in view of the change from John A. Macdonald's Conservative administration to Alexander Mackenzie's Liberal regime. Fleming surveyed the Yellowhead Pass route, advocating a generally more northerly route in the prairies and mountains than was initially adopted. Many of his preferences were adopted in building the later transcontinental lines, Fleming having demonstrated the practicability of the Kicking Horse, Eagle, and Rogers passes. Politics at times persuaded Fleming's superiors to overrule his sound technical advice, but his opinions were always listened to with respect.

Fleming survived these political difficulties until 1880, when the Conservatives had returned to power and when new prospects of private Pacific railway construction conditioned his fall before the factionalism of Conservative politicians and financial interests. He had also, through his connection with Sir Charles Tupper, become embroiled in the struggles over the successor to the ailing Macdonald. In 1880 Fleming was forced to withdraw as Pacific engineer-in-chief and, spurning lesser posts, retired to a vigorous life, working for public causes during his last 35 years.

Later Years

Fleming's professional and scientific horizons were further broadened through his association with British imperial transportation and communications leaders, his experience as adviser on railway construction to Newfoundland's government, and his service on an international development board for Montreal harbor. From the early 1880s he devoted much travel and abundant correspondence to stirring interest in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand in a Pacific cable link with Britain through Canada. As a director of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company and the Hudson's Bay Company, he sought to match entrepreneurial interest with imperial loyalty and Canadian advancement. His imperial federation proposals faltered, but the Pacific cable project was completed in 1902.

Scientific matters also occupied Fleming, notably the question of universal or cosmic time. In 1884 he was rewarded when an International Prime Meridian Conference met in Washington and adopted the modern system of international standard time measurement.

Fleming was a charter member and early president (in 1888) of the Royal Society of Canada. He was also prominent in seeking improved professional standards of engineering education and organization. From 1880 until his death he was chancellor of Queen's University, Kingston, and lay leader of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. In the 1890s he lectured and wrote on questions of political representation. He represented Canada at colonial conferences in London in 1888 and Ottawa in 1894 and at the Imperial Cable Conference in London in 1896. He was knighted in 1897.

Fleming wrote many scientific papers and reports on railway surveys and construction. His books include Railway Inventions (1847); A Railway to the Pacific through British Territory (1858); The Intercolonial (1876); England and Canada: A Summer Tour between Old and New Westminster (1884); and Canada and British Imperial Cables (1900). Fleming died at Halifax on July 22, 1915.

Further Reading

There is a laudatory memoir prepared with Fleming's assistance and relying heavily on his writings: Lawrence J. Burpee, Sandford Fleming, Empire Builder (1915). Fleming's activities in surveying for the Canadian Pacific Railway are recounted in Don W. Thomson, Men and Meridians: The History of Surveying and Mapping in Canada (3 vols., 1966-1969). See also John Lorne McDougall, Canadian Pacific: A Brief History (1968).

Additional Sources

Green, Lorne Edmond, Chief engineer: life of a nation builder—Sandford Fleming, Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1993. □