Fleming was born on 7 January 1827 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Aged 14, he was apprenticed to a prominent Fifeshire surveyor and assisted in tracking new railway lines between Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee. In 1845, he and an elder brother emigrated to Canada; their parents followed a little later. After dallying in various colonial Canadian cities, such as Montreal and Ottawa, the brothers settled in Peterborough lodging with a cousin.
Fleming moved to Toronto, where he worked with a printing company while looking to further his engineering career, through securing his surveyor’s qualification and by taking on various commissions. He was also involved in founding the Canadian Institute, and is credited with designing Canada’s first postage stamp, costing three pennies and depicting a beaver, now the national animal of Canada. Fleming married Ann Jean Hall, daughter of the county’s sheriff, in 1855, and they had six children.
From 1852 onwards, Fleming took a prominent part in the development of railways in Upper Canada; from 1855 to 1863 he was chief engineer of the Northern Railway. In 1863, the colonial government of Nova Scotia appointed him chief railway engineer and charged him with construction of a line from Truro to Pictou. On refusing to entertain high bids for small contracts, he resigned his position and carried out the work as a contractor rather than a civil servant. In 1867 or so, he was appointed by the new dominion government to the post of engineer-in-chief of the Inter-Colonial Railway, a position he would hold until its completion in 1876.
Meanwhile, in 1871, the construction of a Canadian Pacific Railway had been made part of the bargain by which British Columbia was induced to enter the new dominion, and Fleming was appointed the project’s engineer-in-chief. The following year, he headed an expedition to find a practicable route. In 1880, with over 600 miles of railway completed and most of the engineering difficulties overcome, the government decided to form an agreement with the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, handing over the project - together with vast subsidies of land and money - to the new commercial company. The privatisation was a severe blow to Fleming, who was effectively dismissed. However, a few years later he became a director of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
From 1880, Fleming was chancellor of Queen’s University in Kingston, a position he retained until his death. Apart from remaining involved in various commercial projects, he continued to devote himself to Canadian and Imperial problems, such as the unification of time reckoning throughout the world (and, indeed, is credited with inventing the ideal of unification and time zones), and the construction of a state-owned system of telegraphs throughout the British empire. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1897. His final years were spent mostly at his house in Halifax. He died in 1915, leaving the house and its 95 acres to the city, an area now known as Sir Sandford Fleming Park. Further information on Fleming can be found at Wikipedia, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Web Exhibits, Atlas of Alberta Railways, and Queen’s University.
The 190th anniversary of Fleming’s birth is being commemorated today with a so-called Google doodle - and this in turn has led to sudden spurt of attention by the media to the great (and largely forgotten in the UK until now) Scottish engineer - see The Telegraph, The Independent, India Today, or The Sun. Not so forgotten in Canada: in 2009, the Toronto-based publisher, Dundurn, brought out Sir Sandford Fleming - His Early Diaries, 1845-1853 by Jean Murray Cole (which can be previewed at Googlebooks). According to Cole, Fleming began his lifelong habit of keeping a journal in Scotland on 1 January 1845, just seven days before his 18th birthday. Her book contains the early journals (1845-1853) which, she says, ‘give a vivid picture of Fleming’s development and maturing as he sought to make a place for himself in the competitive atmosphere of Canada West in the 1840 and 1850s.’
Michael Peterman, a past professor of English at Trent University, begins his foreword to the diaries as follows: ‘It is with great pleasure that I write this Foreword to Sir Sandford Fleming: The Early Diaries. As the Chair of the Publications Committee of the Peterborough Historical Society for the past fifteen years, I have shared with my fellow committee members a commitment to see this project shaped and realized. It began as an idea in the mid-1990s, spurred on by Jean Murray Cole, who had studied Fleming’s life and admired his diaries in their home at Library and Archives Canada. We felt then that an annotated and accurate transcript of young Sandford’s early diaries would make a useful and informative addition to the record of life in pre-Confederation Canada. It would provide a view of the colony through the eyes of a young and ambitious Scottish immigrant as he struggled to make a place for himself in a new land, to find satisfying work for his talents, and to develop his professional interests. Laconic and factual as the diary entries often are, they take us into the texture of Fleming’s brave new world and alert us to the kind of community he had to deal with as he sought to make a career and place for himself. To him, Canada was “a marvellous world” and a ‘‘goodly land.” ’
Richard White, reviewing the diaries in The Canadian Historical Review (Volume 91, Number 3, September 2010), agrees with Peterman’s assessment that the laconic, factual nature of the entries leave rather a lot unsaid: ‘The problem is that the diaries say so little. They are brief daily entries that simply note the main activities of the day. Some are very short - ‘Christmas. Out sleighing. Good dinner at the Drs’ (25 December 1845), ‘At Timson’s yesterday. Very severe frost. Drawing class evening’ (13 Februaray 1849), ‘Preparing paper and diagrams for Saturday evening’ (20 March 1851). Others are more substantial - ‘Intended going over to the Island to set back meridian but wind blowing & exceedingly cold, called on Lieut de Moleyers who thinks that I had better finish my drawing of Gloucester Bay immediately while the weather is rough & attend to this afterward’ (19 January 1852). Such entries do reveal details that researchers of early engineering and surveying techniques might find useful, but they are still very short, rarely more than four or five lines of printed text, and they leave much unsaid. The months and years go by without much of Fleming’s character being revealed. One has the sense that almost anyone could have written these entries.’
However, White does not believe they are quite so valuable in providing a forecast of the man to come: ‘In time, though, the numerous mundane facts and details begin shaping into a sketchy picture of Fleming, and perhaps the most striking quality that emerges is how resourceful and capable a man he was. He arrived in Canada with several valuable skills - drawing, drafting, surveying, engraving - and he used them all to make a living. He pursued every opportunity, and every job he did seems to have brought him some recognition, and often the opportunity to do the same again. The entries also reveal a strong commitment to work. A large map of Toronto, which he surveyed, drew, and engraved in association with the Toronto printers Scobie & Balfour, was a multi-year project, on which he seems to have persevered with extraordinary tenacity. All in all, Fleming emerges as the essential self-made man who established himself through his own competence and effort. One gets glimpses of his humbleness too. In one of his few reflective entries Fleming looks back and marvels that ‘a poor boy came to this country 8½ years ago with his brother’ (6 September 1953) and that he is now so respected and financially secure. The entries are slim, to be sure, and the editor’s concluding claim that the diary offers ‘a clear forecast of the accomplishments of his later years’ overstates the matter, but something of the man emerges, no doubt.’
Nevertheless, White believes there might be value in the picture that the diaries draw of the period: ‘These hundreds of mundane details, taken together, also reveal something of the world Fleming inhabited - that intriguing period from the late 1840s to the 1850s that was such a critical moment in the modernization of English Canada - and although the editor makes little mention of this it could well be as important as what the diary says about Fleming.’
Here are several extracts from Sir Sandford Fleming - His Early Diaries, 1845-1853.
1 January 1845
‘I went to bed for the last time in the year 1844 at 11 oclock, and rose at ½ past 7 on new years day. Almost everyone you met said “good new year to ye” &c. Happy to say I saw noone drunk except a carter boy who I believed pretended more than anything else. I finished a sketch of ‘Ravenscraig Castle’ in the morning which Mr Crawford was to make arrangements with Mr Lizars about the engraving of it. Began in the evening to draw on stone Kirkcaldy harbour to be lithographed by Mr Bryson. My present wish is to write a sort of diary so that I can put down anything particular that happens or is of utility to recollect.’
‘How strange it sounds, but it will soon be familiar to us. Poor 1847 is dead, is now numbered with the past, and all our deeds and actions, evil or good are sealed. Yes sealed with the great seal of time. Let us form a good resolution to live the lives of honest men, let us learn the way to do good, and walk upright. If it should be for no other purpose than to honour our Father and Mother dear, to comfort them in their old age. Surely we could not see their grey hair go with sorrow to the grave.’
1 January 1848
‘Last night David, Ann & I were at a wedding. The party were very merry, finished about 3 A.M. and most of us went to finish at another party. It is enough to say we got to bed about 7 oclock and got up about eleven. David and I called upon several friends during the day, being the usual custom.’
3 January 1848
‘At work again, engraving a view of St Peters Church, Cobourg. It is very tedious work. Would rather be in the country chopping. It may be so but one is never content with their present condition.’
4 January 1848
Again at St Peters in the forenoon, but think it as well to give it up, in the mean time, as it is not likely that I shall make a good job of it when my mind does not go along with it.’
5 January 1848
‘Today I have commenced to design a Town Hall for the Town of Cobourg, as I promised when I was down last. It may never be of any pecuniary advantage to me but it is practice and they may probably take my unsold plans of Cobourg, as a sort of remuneration for me.’
6 January 1848
‘In the forenoon today I have been engaged sketching out a plan for the Town Hall at Cobourg. Afternoon I volunteered my services to take out two voters to the Township of Scott about 50 miles from Toronto. We started about 5 oclock P.M. and slept in Buffalo robes at the village of Stouffville 30 miles out.’
7 January 1848
‘Pretty cold this morning but we must get the carriage repaired, which broke down last night about 12 oclock. Managed to get to the polling place about an hour and half before it closed. This is my birthday, it is now 21 years since I came into this world. “Adieu to my youth - ” ’
8 January 1848
‘Winter morning - snowing. Started for Toronto, our ride was through the bush, only one house for about 10 miles. Arrived at Newmarket where the Hon Robert Baldwin is here with his party, they having defeated our friend Mr. Scobie by 260 majority. Went up to Sharon and saw David Willson & Temple.’
10 January 1848
‘Sunday is omitted in this Diary. It being near one before getting home I did not get up till near church time. Poor Mr. Russell confectioner was burnt out yesterday morning at 4 oclock. Lost all but the lives of his family. Today I have commenced at Scobie & Balfour again.’
11 January 1848
‘The balance of the 1st Quarters rent is due today amounting to £3.10. £1.10 being paid on taking the house. Reed 10/ from Scobie & Balfour to make up the balance. Mr. Holland promised to give me 4 dollars for making a plan for Mr Bethune.’
12 January 1848
‘Little Mr Buchan, Scobie & Balfour engraver had been drunk last night and cant work today. Silly fellow to spend his time and money, and breaking his constitution. Can it be possible that I shall be a drunkard; surely not. Paid the Jew £3/10 the Quarter rent.’
14 January 1848
‘The weather is unusually mild, it rained almost all day. In the evening a fire broke out in Yonge Street in a wooden house, but owing to the rain and the plentiful supply of water in the ditches, the fire was prevented from going farther.
15 January 1848
‘Last evening I saw along with Cochrane the sculptor, some plaster casts that have just been brought to town for the Society of Arts. There is some good things among them. Went over to John Buchans last night, he was just getting better from being drunk poor fellow. He has kept sober a long time now.’
17 January 1848
‘Today is Handsel Monday, if all is well there will be great merry makings at Haugh Mills. Reed from Scobie & Balfour £2/10 paid Father £2/5. Last Wednesday I got from David 7 dollars to help pay the rent which with the other two makes 9 dollars I gave my Father that time & owe David $7. Engaged at Scobies just now making a title to the Newcastle & Colborne map. There is a vast deal of work at it, but shall try to make a good job.’
19 January 1848
‘In the afternoon today my Father, David, Mr Pollock & I went out to the Humber Mills about 16 miles out, to see them, they are to let or sell. It is a pretty place, a flour mill with two runs of stones just finished and a good saw mill with plenty of pine.’
26 January 1848
‘I have been thinking for some time that, the charcoal light of the magnetic battery might be brought to some practical use. I only require one experiment, but it would be an expensive one for me unless I could meet with a powerful battery, but I dont think there is one in Canada. It is to try if more than one light can be formed with one set of wires by masking the connection and interposing charcoal points. If this is the case, we have a good and cheap substitute for Gas, would give a much better light, and at least could be easily adapted to lighting streets or churches just by having a wire like the Telegraph ones, with a charcoal apparatus here & there. Worth trying.’