Time Zones III: Sir Sandford Fleming at Home. My Home, That Is!

Time Zones III: Sir Sandford Fleming at Home. My Home, That Is!

Yom revi'i, 27 Adar II, 5782.

In my previous Time Zones blog post I introduced you to the presence of Sir Sandford Fleming in three standard sources for Canadian history:

  1. Dictionary of Canadian Biography / Dictionnnaire biographique du Canada,
  2. The Canadian Encyclopedia / L’Encyclopédie canadienne,
  3. The Canadian Centenary Series.

I also promised there, that since “Fleming is such an important figure in Canadian history, he crops up in many other sources, including at least a score of them in my home library. But that’s another story!”

And here is that other story.

A Great Canadian

I inherited, from my mother’s sisters, five volumes of The Canadian Centennial Library (a series distinct from The Canadian Centenary Series):

  • Great Canadians: A Century of Achievement (1965),
  • Great Canadian Sports Stories: A Century of Competition (1965),
  • The Making of the Nation: A Century of Challenge (1965),
  • Great Canadian Writing: A Century of Imagination (1966),
  • The Centennial Food Guide: A Century of Good Eating (1966).

There were others in the series, but I don’t know how many there were.

Pierre Berton was the Editor-in-Chief of The Canadian Centennial Library and, in general, he was a significant figure in twentieth century Canadian culture.

In particular, he was a very accomplished and extremely popular historical populariser, noted for books like The National Dream (1970) which depicts the literally riveting (and, also, literally spiking) story of the building of Canada’s first transcontinental railway, the Canadian Pacific Railway (Montreal to Vancouver) in conjunction with the Intercolonial Railway (Montreal to Halifax) in the late nineteenth century.

For my own major research project of investigating the early international scientific congresses held in Canada, I find his 1992 Niagara to be the most useful. The congresses held in Toronto, such as the August 1924 International Mathematical Congress, all had a Niagara excursion as an official component of the programme,

Great Canadians consists of 25 chapters, each about a different prominent Canadian, with a general introduction by Pierre Berton. The 10th is “Sir Sandford Fleming: The Renaissance Man”, pp. 59-62, by Harry Bruce.

The Fleming chapter follows the book’s standard format: a short one-page summary (probably by Berton) of his achievements accompanied by a period photograph or two; and then Bruce’s three-page personal appreciation, including a full-page portrait in situ, painted by Franklin Arbuckle.

Here are few more Fleming stories from my home library, in ascending order of the date of the story:


Fleming worked with Canada’s founding Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald.

“The commission’s sole purpose was to distribute patronage and to limit construction costs. Sandford Fleming, the railway’s chief engineer, fought manfully to keep patronage down and construction standards up, but he had only intermittent success.” (Gwyn, 2011, p. 61n).

“Not until 1862, was the first systematic study done [for a coast-to-coast line]. Its author was Sandford Fleming, then a thirty-five-year-old surveyor and engineer…. [H]e calculated everything, even to the number of railway ties and telegraph poles, and estimated the total cost at a hundred million dollars – astoundingly close to the actual figure….” (ibid. p. 178)


During the 1865 Confederation Debates in the Province of Canada, Fleming was mentioned by the “Hon J[ohn]. S[andfield]. Macdonald….

“Because HON. MR. TILLEY asked that Mr. Fleming might be considered as engaged to proceed with the survey [for the Intercolonial Railway], and wished to reserve for the formal ratification of his colleagues, when he went back to New Brunswick….” (Waite, 1963. p. 133)

John Sandfield Macdonald would become the first Premier of the Province of Ontario, after Confederation in 1867.


It wasn’t just in Canada that Flaming’s services were in demand. 

In Newfoundland, the 1875 “survey for a transinsular railway… was carried out with the help and advice of Sandford Fleming….” (Hiller, in Hiller and Neaby, 1980, pp. 123-125). Remember that Newfoundland and Labrador didn’t join the Canadian  Confederation until 1949.


Fleming was also a noted author:

“One of the most famous railroad narratives is Ocean to Ocean: Sandford Fleming’s Expedition through Canada in 1872 (1873), written by George Monro GRANT, then secretary to Sir Sandford Fleming, engineer in chief of the CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAY (CPR). Using every imaginable means of transportation (including trains where they were available) Fleming explored the possibilities for the railroad route to the west. The results were of political as well as practical importance, as they helped to support Sir John Macdonald’s ambitions for western expansion and by implication, protection from undue American influence. A decade later Fleming published his own England and Canada: A Summer Tour between Old and New Westminster (1884), where the blurring of the spatial and temporal borderlines illustrated some of the narrative innovation… attributed to the advent of railroad travel, the contrast between Grant’s and Fleming’s books couldn’t be greater: whereas the former conveys the excitement of the expedition into unknown territory, the assured reminiscence of  the later implies that these exertions have now borne fruit.” (Kröller in New, 2000, p. 1129a)


Fleming became a leader in Canadian cultural affairs.

For example, “In 1902 the engineer and educator Sir Sandford Fleming sponsored a competition for the best essay on the subject of journalism and the university, two institutions that were not often spoken of together.” (Fetherling, 1990, p. 58)


Fleming retired to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where:

Fleming Park was donated to the city by Sir Sandford Fleming (1827-1915), known to Canadians as the chief engineer … of the CPR, completed in 1880….

“Sir Sandford handed over the park on condition that the city build on it a tower. 

The Dingle Tower was erected in 1908 to commemorate the anniversary of the granting of representative government in Nova Scotia in 1758….” (MacLean, 1996, p.114).

Other Fleming Stories to Tell

Fleming has a part to play in two books of great significance to STEM&M Canadianists: Richard Jarrell’s history of Canadian astronomy, 1988’s The Cold Light of Dawn (4 pp. Fleming ref.), and Suzanne Zeller’s look at the early Victorian buildup of Canadian science, Inventing Canada (6pp.) from 1987. In 2001, Clark Blaise wrote an entire impressionistic book on Fleming as Time Lord (cf. Doctor Who). But those are three more stories.

Clearly, I have a good grasp on Canadian sources, but I would like some help with the relevant British sources. What was the early 19th century mathematics curriculum in the Scottish parish schools that Fleming attended? What was the nature of apprenticeship to a Scottish surveyor in the same period? Later, Fleming received a knighthood, so I would like to know where are British honours documented?

Could you help me tell these British stories about a famous Canadian surveyor and engineer from Scotland?


Pierre Berton, ed., Franklin Arbuckle, illus. (1965) Great Canadians: A Century of Achievement, Toronto, The Canadian Centennial Publishing Company. In series The Canadian Centennial Library. 130 pp.

Pierre Berton and Harry Bruce (1965) “Sir Sandford Fleming: The Renaissance Man” pp. 59-62 in Great Canadians: A Century of Achievement.

Clark Blaise (2001) Time Lord: The Remarkable Canadian Who Missed His Train and Changed the World, Vintage Canada, Toronto. xv + 256 pp., incl. 5 pp. Biblio., 10 pp. Index.

Douglas Fetherling (1990) The Rise of the Canadian Newspaper in series Perspectives on Canadian Culture, Oxford University Press, Toronto. x + 130 pp., incl. 7 pp. Biblio., 6 pp. Index.

Richard Gwyn (2011) Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times, Volume Two, 1867-1891, Random House Canada, Toronto. 676 pp., incl. 55 pp. Biblio., 5 pp. Picture Credits, 20 pp. Index.

James Hiller and Peter Neary (1980) Newfoundland in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Essays in Interpretation, Toronto, University of Toronto Press. Ten essays. viii + 289 pp., incl. 11 pp. Biblio., 7 pp. Index.

James Hiller (1980) “The Railway and Local Politics in Newfoundland, 1870-1901” in Newfoundland in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Essays in Interpretation, pp. 123-147.

Richard A. Jarrell (1988), The Cold Light of Dawn: A History of Canadian Astronomy, University of Toronto Press, Toronto. xi + 251 pp., incl. 11 p. Appendices, 19 pp. Notes, 13 pp. Index.

Grant MacLean (1996) Walk Historic Halifax: An Historic Walking Guide to Halifax, Nimbus Publishing, Halifax. xi + 182pp., incl. 2pp. Ref., 2 pp. Index.

W.H. New, ed. (2000) Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada, University of Toronto Press, Toronto. xxii + 1347 pp., incl. 9 pp. Chronology, 6 pp. Index by Contributor, 24 pp. Index of Authors, 71 pp. Suppl. Index.

Eva Marie Kröller (2000) “Travellers and Travel Writing”, pp. 1128b – 1134b in Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada.

Peter S. Waite, ed. (1963) The Confederation Debates in the Province of Canada / 1865, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, Carleton Library Number 2. xviii +161 pp., incl. 1p. Further Reading, 3 pp. Index. 

Suzanne  Zeller (1987) Inventing Canada: Early Victorian Science and the Idea of a Transcontinental Nation, University of Toronto Press, Toronto. vii + (15 unnumbered pages of images) + 356 pp., incl.  66 pp. Notes, 4 pp. Notes on Sources, 16 pp. Index.