Highlights from the Sir Sandford Fleming Diaries

By Andrew Elliott

As I have noted in a previous post, Sir Sandford Fleming—inventor of International Standard time, creator of Canada’s first postage stamp, surveyor and mapmaker—was a productive individual in 19th-century Canada. He seemed to have time for many things, including recording his activities in various diaries. And Fleming was a voracious writer. While he didn’t write novels, he did record everything he saw and experienced in his world. He combined his written observations with the occasional pencil sketch from landscapes, to people, to every day implements, to engineering works.

Remarkably, these diaries were kept for most of his long life, dating from 1843 when he was 15, until his death in 1914. Being a man who also thought of how he would be perceived in posterity, in later life Fleming transcribed the most important parts of his diaries into three condensed diaries. Additionally, Fleming kept various journals that recorded many special trips across Canada, England and the United States. All these are here within the Sir Sandford Fleming fonds at Library and Archives Canada. See specifically the diaries, journals of trips and miscellaneous journals and notebooks.

There are many things of interest to read in these diaries. A couple of diaries from Fleming’s early life are of particular interest. One dating from 1843 records his thoughts and observations about school life in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Here there are numerous sketches from drawings of ships, a church, and a diagram of early roller skates.

Another two diaries from 1845 record Fleming’s voyage—mostly by ship—from Kirkcaldy, Scotland to the town of Peterborough, Upper Canada. The first diary has handwritten entries for late April to early June 1845, while the second diary documents the remaining portion of the journey from June to August 1845. The second diary contains his visual documentation of the trip, a graphic record of a journey before photography. There are views of Scotland from on board the ship, sketches of ships passing by, sketches of his cabin and other people on board, views of the first sighting of landfall in North America, a view of Québec City, a sketch of the locks at Bytown (now Ottawa), a view of Niagara Falls, and several sketches of Peterborough buildings.

A pencil sketch showing a person reading on the deck of a ship, with another ship in the background.

Sketch of part of a ship, 1845. (MIKAN 4938907)

Fleming arrived in Canada with valuable skills—drawing, drafting, surveying, engraving—and he used these to make a living. For Fleming, the diary was a way to record his movements, key events, and family events especially; he often made no entries if his day had been a routine one. The diaries contain irregular and brief entries noting board meetings, social engagements, arrivals and departures of prominent persons, health and fortune of family and friends, and travel in Canada and abroad. This last point about travel is particularly striking. While he was based first in Toronto, his work meant that he had to travel extensively. In the 1840s and 1850s, for example, despite having to travel by stagecoach, sleigh, and steamer, he would cover an area almost as extensive as the Greater Toronto Area. Later, while based in Halifax and Ottawa, numerous rail trips would see him frequenting remote parts of Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, and Western Canada.

Two pages from a journal. The first page shows a sketch of a campsite in a river valley with woods and mountains in the background with some handwritten text underneath. On the second page is a sketch of a tent with someone sitting in front of it, tending a fire.

Excerpt from the journal about his Intercolonial Railway survey, dated 1864. (MIKAN 107736)

In the early 1870s, Fleming travelled with others on a surveying expedition. A digitized record of this expedition can be found in Master-Works of Canadian Authors: Ocean to Ocean.

An 1885 diary has a pocket containing a six-page handwritten account of a train trip across Canada in November. Included in this account are his impressions of the November 7 ceremony at Craigellachie, British Columbia of the driving of the “last spike” to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway.

He also kept a list of all the trips he made by ship across the Atlantic Ocean. Here’s a sampling for the period from the 1840s to the 1880s, such as a May 17, 1863 voyage to England on the S.S. United Kingdom.

A handwritten list of dates, destinations and names of ships, which has been attached to some ruled paper.

A list of Fleming’s trips made between 1845 and 1883, which includes the destinations and names of ships. (MIKAN 107736)

Fleming also wrote about his personal and family life. Here are a few examples of diary entries from the 1850s and 1860s (spelling is his own):

  • December 31, 185 9: “Another year on the eve of closing and here I am sitting in Mr. Halls family, Peterboro, with my good wife close by, two dear little boys, and little girl sound asleep in bed…”
  • June 6, 1861: He writes that his wife “gave me my second little daughter about 12 o’clock (noon) today at Davenport. She did not feel very well at breakfast and thought I had better go for the nurse and doctor.”
  • September 9, 1863: “Messrs Tilly and Tupper informed me that they had decided, subject to approval of their government) to appoint me to act on behalf of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick…to proceed at once with survey.” Here’s a scanned image of an entry he made about the Intercolonial Railway survey:
Handwritten entries in pencil for two days.

Excerpt of two diary entries dated December 14 and 15, 1863, describing activities during the Intercolonial Railway survey. (MIKAN 107736)

  • January 1, 1864: “Morning train to Collingwood, Stage to Craigleith—Father and Mother had all their children around them…they thought I was in New Brunswick and were astonished and glad to see me…very cold and stormy.”
  • February 28, 1866: Fleming writes about the death of his 3-month old son, “This morning about 4 o’clock after rallying a little…our dear child at last passed quietly away…This is the first death that has really come home to me—part of us is now really in another world.”
  • June 29, 1867: “Preparing for Celebration of Confederation of the Provinces next Monday.”
  • July 1, 1867 (Dominion Day): “Up at 5 o’clock, very cloudy and rainy…putting up flags etc. Clouds cleared away. Halifax very gay, a perfect sea of flags. Beautiful day. The demonstration went off splendidly.”

Although Fleming was at the centre of the modernization of Canada, the hundreds of mundane details Fleming recorded also reveal something of the world he inhabited. There is a wealth of information here, if one is willing to take the time to read them and decipher his handwriting.

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

Trailblazers: a road trip in the summer of ’54

Four women, one Plymouth station wagon, five provinces, and four states in 38 days…

On July 31, 1954, freelance photographer Rosemary Gilliat and her girlfriends, Anna Brown, Audrey James and Helen Salkeld, left Ottawa, Ontario, for what would be an adventure of a lifetime—a road trip on the Trans-Canada Highway. Their final destination was Vancouver, British Columbia, and after a little more than a month of driving, the women covered over 12,000 kilometres before their return to Ottawa on September 6.

A black-and-white photograph of four women posing around a station wagon packed for a road trip.

Day One – July 31. Left to right: Helen Salkeld, Audrey James, Anna Brown and Rosemary Gilliat getting ready to leave Ottawa, Ontario, for their Trans-Canada Highway trip (MIKAN 4306200)

Until the mid-twentieth century, the only way to travel and really ‘see’ Canada was by train. Following the Second World War, thousands of new immigrants from across the globe immigrated to Canada. This increase in population was coupled by a huge growth in the automobile industry. During the post-war years, and with Parliament passing the Trans-Canada Highway Act in 1949, construction had begun to link Canada’s major cities with paved roads.

By the summer of 1954, work on the Trans-Canada Highway going west from Ottawa had started, but many stretches were still under construction, and in some areas work had not even begun. Rosemary described the road conditions near Cochrane, Ontario as “dirt and rutted and huge bumps which could easily break a spring.” At the border of Manitoba and Saskatchewan “the average road turned into a downright bad road, dried mud, stones lying on the road, dips & holes.” Further west, just past Kicking Horse Pass, British Columbia, the conditions became even more treacherous. Rosemary wrote:

“We soon came to bits of road under construction—engineers have been working at it already for two years. They have to blast out the side of the mountain—most of it above the C.P. Railway. We marvelled once more at the building of the railway through this impossible territory. The road was often just a rocky lane with towering rock walls above and jumbled masses of blasted rock below—other places were mud, with streams & pools of water on the road & one got the feeling that the whole lot might easily slip into the canyon hundreds of feet below.”

A black-and-white photograph of a public bus travelling on a gravel road and passing a construction crew working in the background. The area is mountainous.

Day 18 – August 17. The daily Calgary bus passes through a blasting area in Kicking Horse Canyon, British Columbia. Travel is between hours of 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. only on this stretch (MIKAN 4359684)

In spite of the many challenging stretches of highway, the windshield of Helen’s Plymouth only suffered a few cracks from flying rocks and remained intact until the women returned to Ottawa, when it was replaced.

Rosemary and her friends were not what you would call stereotypical women, or even conventional tourists, for their era. While there were some amenities available along the Trans-Canada Highway in 1954, such as motels and public camping grounds, the women preferred to have lunch and camp in wooded and secluded areas off the beaten path. As Rosemary put it, “one wonders at all the days of the year one spends in bed—when it is so perfect camping—every morning and every evening being a revelation.”

A black-and-white photograph of two women putting up two tents in a meadow with long grass surrounded by trees.

Day 4 – August 3. Anna Brown and Helen Salkeld pitching their tents, English River, Ontario (MIKAN 4306206)

Rosemary and her friends were seeking an “authentic” wilderness experience and were not discouraged by insects, rain or possible encounters with wildlife. Midway through their trip, Rosemary observed: “What always strikes me as odd is this business of people motoring 1000’s of miles into the wildest country in order to have all the luxuries they have at home in a different setting.”

A black-and-white photograph of three women in a wooded area preparing dinner in the rain.

Day 20 – August 19. Making dinner in the rain, near Yale, British Columbia (MIKAN 4306339)

Packed to the max, Helen’s station wagon was loaded with all of their camping supplies and utensils. Among their equipment was a Coleman stove and two water bottles, but no cooler or ice for perishable food. So part of their daily routine included picking up groceries and finding drinking water while getting gas for the car. This was not a luxury vacation!

A colour photograph of two women in a grassy area with mountains in the distance—one is reading reclined on a picnic blanket and the other is kneeling at a camp stove located behind a station wagon.

Day 20 – August 19. Helen Salkeld and Audrey James relaxing after lunch near Cache Creek, British Columbia (MIKAN 4323864)

Their travels took them through remote forests and small towns of north and northwestern Ontario, endless kilometres of the golden prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the foothills and Rocky Mountains of Alberta, and along the rushing glacial rivers of British Columbia to Canada’s beautiful pacific coast. Rosemary recorded their fantastic adventures, taking hundreds of photographs and keeping a detailed travel diary that describes the people they met and things they experienced along the way, including friendly farmers, charismatic cowboys, and murderous mosquitoes.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman in silhouette taking a photograph while standing on the hood of a station wagon parked on the side of the road in the prairies.

Day 9 – August 8. Audrey James standing on the hood of Helen Salkeld’s station wagon taking a photograph of the prairies, southern Saskatchewan (MIKAN 4814411)

On July 31, 2015, Library and Archives Canada launched Road trip—summer of ’54 on Facebook, which features a selection of Rosemary Gilliat’s photos and diary excerpts. Visit Facebook daily to see where she and her friends travelled and who they met along their journey. At the end of each week, these photographs will be added to Flickr.