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Sir Sandford Fleming flopped as North York housing developer


It’s little known that Sir Sandford Fleming (1827-1915), whose invention of time zones set a universal standard, flopped in his attempt to be a North York housing developer. Fleming also created Canada’s first stick-on postage stamps and was chief construction engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

In 1856, Fleming, then 29 and chief engineer of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway, newly married and living in downtown Toronto, bought land on Lawrence Avenue between Keele and Dufferin, planning to sell it as housing lots. He called the site “Balmoral,” after Balmoral Castle in Scotland, a residence of the British Royal Family. Fleming was born in Kircaldy, Scotland, near Edinburgh, and immigrated to Canada at age 18.

His newspaper ads, quoted in the book “Pioneering in North York” by Patricia Hart (General Publishing, 1968), said: “A house, not squeezed in between others, not dimly lighted in front and rear, not looking out upon pavement and brick walls and narrow yards, but standing by itself, surrounded by the free, pure air, with a grass plot on which your children can play; with flowers and shrubs and shade trees of your own planting, and fruits and vegetables of your own raising. The taxes are a mere trifle compared with those in Toronto.”

“Nevertheless, the development was a failure and the lots that sold were repossessed,” Hart wrote.

He set aside 210 acres for a farm for himself and his family.

Fleming’s son, Frank, took over the family farm in 1880. “History of Toronto and County of York, Ontario,” volume 1, published in 1885, said: “Mr. Fleming is extensively engaged in the importation and breeding of Hereford Cattle and has about 40 head of the celebrated breed. This is one of the finest stockbreeding farms in the country.”

In 1964, Sir Sandford Fleming Secondary School was opened on land Fleming had once owned. The building was closed in 2011, the students relocated nearby to what had been Bathurst Heights Secondary School which had better facilities, and the school renamed after 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry winner John Polanyi, a Toronto resident for many years.

Susan Goldenberg is a director and membership chair of the North York Historical Society which preserves North York’s heritage.