Sir Sandford Fleming: a great Canadian

By Andrew Elliott

The year 2017 marks the 190th anniversary of the birth of Sir Sandford Fleming (1827–1915). Born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, Fleming became a truly great Canadian. He was a successful surveyor, draftsman, and engineer. Among many accomplishments, he is noted for designing one of the first Canadian postage stamps, for helping to link Canada together by directing construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and for bringing international standard time to Canada and the world.

An oil painting of an older man with a white beard wearing a dark suit with a red cravat and a brown fur coat.

Sir Sandford Fleming, painted by John Wycliffe Lowes Forester, 1892 (MIKAN 2895065)

Like his British contemporary Charles Dickens, Fleming had an abundance of energy and productivity that would put a 21st-century individual to shame. Fleming recorded every aspect of his life, and was a great collector. He had a fine library and the walls of his house were covered with European art. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is fortunate to hold the vast majority of records pertaining to Fleming’s life. It is a rich collection of text, photographs, and art, and has been with LAC since 1915.

After receiving an education in Kennoway and Kirkcaldy from the Scottish engineer and surveyor John Sang, Fleming immigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1845. To finish his certificate in engineering, Fleming prepared maps of Peterborough, Hamilton, Cobourg, and Toronto in 1849. After this, Fleming’s career took off.

In 1849, Fleming helped found the Royal Canadian Institute in Toronto, a professional society of architects, surveyors, and engineers. At the age of 30, in 1857, he was appointed engineer-in-chief of the Ontario Northern Railway.

Six years later, in 1863, the Canadian government appointed him chief surveyor of a proposed route for the Intercolonial Railway linking Upper Canada and Lower Canada to the Maritime colonies. He subsequently became chief engineer.

A black-and-white studio photograph of a group of men in various poses, facing in different directions.

The Intercolonial Railway group with Sir Sandford Fleming seated on the right. Photograph by William James Topley, March 1870 (MIKAN 3378651)

In 1871 Fleming was chosen as chief engineer to direct the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, so he undertook an “ocean to ocean” expedition across Canada to survey locations the following year.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of people. Two women are seated facing each other with two seated men beside them, and behind them stand three other men.

Members of the Sir Sandford Fleming party for the “ocean to ocean” expedition through Canada in 1872. (Sitting L to R:) Frank Fleming, Mrs. Fleming, Mrs. Moren, Dr. Arthur Moren. (Standing L to R:) Rev. G.M. Grant, Sir Sandford Fleming, Col. Robertson Ross (MIKAN 3195228)

A black-and-white photograph of a young, bearded man looking directly at the camera. He is wearing a fur coat and a very dapper cravat.

Sir Sandford Fleming as a young man, 1855–1860 (MIKAN 3507406)

Though he was relieved of his job in May 1880, he received a substantial payout package (worth $30,000), which he re-invested in the Hudson’s Bay Company. By 1884 he had become one of the directors of the Canadian Pacific Railway company. In November 1885, he can be found back at the centre of things, captured in one of the most famous of Canadian photographs, the driving of the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Fleming is the towering central figure with the top hat and broad beard.

A black-and-white photograph of a man hammering a train track. He is surrounded by a large group of men, some of them are looking at the camera and others are looking at the train track.

Honourable Donald A. Smith driving the last spike to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway (MIKAN 3194527)

During his lifetime, Fleming lived variously in Toronto, Peterborough, Collingwood, Halifax and Ottawa. His Ottawa home—nicknamed “Winterholme,” at the corner of Chapel and Daly streets in Ottawa’s Sandy Hill area—still stands.

A black-and-white photograph of a large, stately home with a central doorway and windows on each side. There is a horse-drawn carriage in the driveway.

Sir Sandford Fleming’s residence at the corner of Chapel and Daly streets in Ottawa, Ontario. Photograph by William Topley, October 1873 (MIKAN 3325717)

After so many achievements early in life, you would think Fleming would rest. Not a chance. In his “retirement” he became the prime advocate of the adoption of an international system of standard time and wrote many scientific papers on the subject.

A black-and-white photograph of a terrestrial globe showing the North American continent with letters at each meridian around the North Pole and at the equator.

A terrestrial globe with letters at each meridian in alphabetical order. It was used by Sir Sandford Fleming to illustrate the principle of standard time (MIKAN 3264568)

Fleming also held a membership in the Royal Society of Canada. Over his lifetime, he was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of St Andrews in Scotland (1884), Columbia University (1887), the University of Toronto (1907), and Queen’s University (1908). The crowning achievement of honours, however, was in a knighthood awarded to Fleming by Queen Victoria in 1897!

Over the next several months, to celebrate Fleming’s contributions to the development of Canada, we will explore some of the interesting material in his fonds in more depth, such as:

  • Fleming’s diaries, travel journals, and construction journals;
  • photographs depicting the surveying and construction of both the Intercolonial Railway and the Canadian Pacific Railway;
  • artistic material, including a portrait of Sir Sandford Fleming by John Wycliffe Lowes Forester (1850–1938).

Fleming’s expertise was technology, and it was for technology that he had national and international goals: the development of the engineering profession, the construction of a railway to unite Canada, the establishment of a telegraph system that would circle the globe, and the development of international standard time. Although Fleming was not a politician, much of his work had an impact on early Canadian politics as the main preoccupation of the time was the building of the transcontinental railway. He contributed greatly to the development of a fledgling nation.


Andrew Elliott is an archivist with the Science, Governance and Political Division of Library and Archives Canada.

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