Sanford Fleming, Time Lord


© David Watts

Canmore AB


The tall man back of Donald Smith with the stovepipe hat and beard

With a CPR surveyor and consulting engineer

Today he is remembered for his scheme of standard time

That took the globe as a giant clock with a twelve o’clock date line.


Field BC and Broadview Sask. are stops along the track

Where westbound passengers used to set their watches one hour back

Eastbound travellers moved ahead an hour, losing one

Took their cue from the timetable instead of from the sun.


Today we say it’s relative as we go speeding through

But still align to standard time as Sanford Fleming’s due

Meridians once were national; each country had its own

Today they take a common base with twenty-four time zones.


Notes on “Sanford Fleming: Time Lord”


Line 1 locates our subject in “the most famous Canadian photo:” the driving of the Last Spike on the Canadian Pacific Railway at Craigallachie BC. He’s directly behind the central figure, Donald Smith (later Lord Strathcona), who is driving the spike.

Fleming was a surveyor for a number of railway including in the Maritimes and Yellowhead Pass, the original preferred  route for Canadian Pacific, and the one now taken through the Rockies by its rival Canadian National (and earlier predecessors Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Pacific railways).

When commercial and political reasons forced CP to the southern route that included the Kicking Horse, Rogers and Eagle passes, Fleming was asked to provide a second opinion on the validity of the route now being proposed. (See verses 5-6 of the song “Rogers Pass.) This is a testimonial to his professional objectivity. For a line on which some big egos had a major stake, the man being called to the final choice was the one whose own proposal had been rejected.

Fleming was a man of many talents. The “three-penny beaver,” one of Canada’s earliest postage stamps was based on his design. And while he was not the only advocate of what became the Zero Meridian at Greenwich (just east of the centre of London), Fleming’s persuasive presentations before and at the international conference that decided the matter ensured the success of the way we divide the glove into time zones.

Before the railway age, local time prevailed, each town setting its own clocks based on its own high noon. As this was no longer feasible with fast-moving trains travelling long distances and sharing tracks, American railroads were already developing standardization. The proposals put forward by Fleming and his contemporaries took this to a global level.

Field is the first divisional point on the CP mainline after crossing the Alberta-BC border travelling westward. As it was a point where rail operating crews (conductors and engineers and their assistants) changed and checked their pocket watches with each other before the trains continued westward, it was the place passengers were advised to reset theirs too.

Broadview served the same purpose for westbound trains crossing the boundary from Manitoba (Central Time) into Saskatchewan (Mountain Time). Eastbound train crews and passengers made the change at the same points, this time before crossing the provincial boundaries.

As there is no regularly scheduled passenger train service through these points on the CP line today (though Rocky Mountaineer excursion trains pass through in summer), the towns have  lost the time-change significance they once had. VIA Rail’s train “The Canadian” that used to travel the CP line, now travels the more northerly CN one, and on-board service crews announce the change of time zone over the  trains’ PA systems.

Travelers on the Trans-Canada or other highways may see a roadside sign telling of the change. Many pass without noticing it until the next town or gas station where they stop and see clocks an hour different from their own!