Fleming was Canada's foremost railway engineer in the great era of rail construction in the 19th century. He was also a friend of Principal George Monro Grant, who brought him to Queen's as the University's second Chancellor, a post he served in for 35 years.
Born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland, Fleming studied surveying in his hometown before immigrating to Canada at the age of 17 on a ship called "Brilliant," which arrived in Quebec in 1845. He began accumulating railway experience during the 1850s and 1860s when he served as Chief Engineer of various railways in Upper Canada and Nova Scotia.
At this early point in his career, he also designed Canada's first postage stamp, the three-penny beaver, which was issued in 1851.
In 1867, he was appointed Chief Engineer of the Inter-Colonial Railway, which was to link Nova Scotia to central Canada as part of the Confederation Pact of that year.
In 1871, he accepted the largest challenge of his career: he was made Chief Engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway, in charge of supervising construction of the rail link that would open the Canadian west to settlement.
The following year, Fleming led a grueling cross-country survey expedition to pick a route for the railway and one member of his small party was the minister of his church in Halifax, George Monro Grant, who became Queen's principal six years later. It was on this expedition that Grant wrote his much celebrated book, Ocean to Ocean. This trip also opened Grant's eyes to the value of engineers and inspired his drive to establish a Faculty of Applied Science at Queen’s.
This surveying mission across Canada gave Fleming the idea for a standard system of time zones, the need for which he recognized while considering the problem of scheduling long-distance trains. It was Fleming who proposed the system we use today, which was adopted in 1884, and he is known for this as the "Father of Standard Time."
With his expedition completed, Sir Sandford Fleming was the foremost railway engineer in Canada. But Fleming did not oversee the building of the railway to its completion. He resigned from the CPR in 1880 when the government turned the railway over to private interests. He continued to contribute as a consultant, however, and devoted his boundless energy to new projects as well. Fleming was a driving force behind the laying of a telegraph cable from Canada to Australia and was a voice for modernization in many areas of society.
When Queen's was looking for a new chancellor after the death of Rev. John Cook, there were many impressive men on the list of potentials. Sir John A. Macdonald himself, Canada's first Prime Minister, was considered for the post, but in the end Grant's influence won out and his good friend Sandford Fleming was elected in 1880.
During his years at Queen's, Fleming was always a staunch supporter of the university and played a pivotal role in increasing the importance of science at Queen's. He made several generous donations, including the money to establish a chair in physics, and used his influence to help many Queen's fundraising campaigns.
The Domesday Book was originally his suggestion and the tradition was carried on for many years.
Fleming was also one of Grant's main supporters in convincing the constituency of the University to support the plan for secularization.
Sir Sandford Fleming was knighted in 1897 and was re-elected to the position of the Chancellorship time and time again. During his 35-year term he became a veritable institution at Queen's and only his death in 1915 could put an end to his association with the University.
Fleming Hall is named in his honour.