How the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science at Queen’s came to be

Posted on October 18, 2019

Last Spike

AGE OF STEAM: When Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) director Donald Smith drove the last spike symbolising the completion of the first Canadian transcontinental railway in 1885, Queen’s College Chancellor Sandford Fleming was standing right behind him. He’s the man in the centre with the tallest top hat.

At 9:22 am on November 7, 1885, in the jagged mountains of British Columbia, the last spike was pounded into the railbed on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). It was an act of ceremony that nicely epitomizes the historical context in which engineering education began here at Queen’s.

It was the Victorian era, the age of coal and steam, a period of galloping technological advancement and social and economic change. The CPR finally connected the Pacific Ocean and British Columbia with central Canada, completing the most difficult section of the first Canadian transcontinental railway. It fulfilled a central condition of British Columbia’s entry into Confederation, and allowed people and cargo to move from the Atlantic to the Pacific in about 10 days. Beyond the symbolism, it cemented Canada both as a North American nation within the British Empire and as a viable industrial economy.

Sandford Fleming, then a director of the CPR, looked on as the last spike was driven into the cold ground that day in 1885. A Scots-born surveyor and railway engineer, Fleming’s association with the transcontinental railway began almost a quarter-century earlier. He pitched a plan for a coast-to-coast railway to the Parliament of the Province of Canada in 1862. He worked as chief railway engineer on the Intercolonial Railway throughout that decade, connecting much of Atlantic Canada with Quebec. He led an arduous expedition across the country and through the Rocky Mountains to find a viable route for a railway across the continental divide in 1872.

With him on that journey, serving as expedition secretary, was George Grant. Grant was a Nova Scotian minister, writer, and speaker with a wide reputation as a passionate and influential proponent of Confederation. His literary account of Fleming’s expedition, Ocean to Ocean, was a bestseller upon its release in 1873. The book was an effective mover of public hearts and minds toward supporting Confederation for its moral and economic advantages.


CEMENTING A FUTURE: When George Grant became Principal of Queen’s College in 1877, funding from the Presbyterian Church was drying up and the Province of Ontario did not support denominational schools. Grant and Fleming hatched a plan to offer applied science programs and to put Queen’s on course for growth and prosperity.

A lifelong friendship blossomed between the two men on that expedition. After Grant was appointed principal of Queen’s College in 1877, he ensured that Fleming was named chancellor at the earliest opportunity. Over the next two-and-a-half decades, the two applied the same collaborative vigour to cementing a future for Queen’s, and for Queen’s Engineering, as they did for the transcontinental railway.

Queen’s had a much smaller physical footprint in the 1880s than it does today. With farmland immediately to the east, campus included lots of open, grassy space, and was bounded by Union, Stuart, Arch, and Gordon Streets. The north-facing entrance to campus was on Union Street, leading onto what is now 5th Field Company Lane. The original limestone gate pillars are still in place there, no doubt smoother and more rounded now with the passing decades. Only Summerhill, Theological Hall, and the Old Medical Building were in place then.

Ontario Street and the waterfront to the southeast was entirely industrial land with several railway sidings, piers, grain silos, a locomotive factory, a shipyard, and infrastructure for the coal economy. Between 1876 and 1896, a series of four profound economic depressions, sometimes collectively called the Long Depression, afflicted North Atlantic economies and deeply impacted the future shape of Kingston and of Queen’s. One of the effects of those crises, and of changes in transportation technologies of the time, was a growing concentration of economic influence, industry, and population in Toronto and Montreal. Kingston struggled. So did Queen’s.

When Grant became principal in 1877, the Presbyterian Church had virtually stopped providing financial support for Queen’s, but the school was ineligible for provincial government support because it was a denominational school. Grant wanted to build a modern university with several diverse faculties.

By 1885 Grant had a plan for a college of practical science and agriculture that would bring needed operational funds to Queen’s and serve as a reputational departure from the school’s church-affiliated roots. Opposition from the provincial government was fierce, but Grant was determined that Queen’s be independent and that it stay in Kingston, serving Eastern Ontario. He started a capital drive for a new science building, and in 1888 Kingston grocer, businessman, and philanthropist John Carruthers donated $10,000 to the cause. It was almost half the money needed for the job. The building was christened Carruthers Hall and opened by Fleming in 1891.

Carruthers Hall

SCIENCE BUILDING: Kingston businessman John Carruthers donated $10,000 toward the construction of a new science building, Carruthers Hall. It was an early necessary step in establishing applied science and engineering programs at Queen’s. For Carruthers it was in investment in keeping Queen’s in Kingston.

Despite the new purpose-built facilities, Ontario legislators were still determined that post-secondary institutions offering degrees in applied science belonged in Toronto rather than in Kingston. Undeterred, Grant and his associates realized that, despite an obvious need for mining expertise in Ontario, there were then no mining schools in the province. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Ontario launched several royal commissions on the development of its natural resources in Northern Ontario, and this seeded a tremendous desire to train men to tap into these resources.

Further, a small mining boom north of Kingston at the time was attracting investor interest. If the province would not let Queen’s launch an official faculty of applied science, Grant reasoned, perhaps it would sanction and partially support a separate, unrelated, and non-degree-granting school of mining and agriculture in Kingston. Investors in need of skilled mine managers and builders could even be convinced to cover some of the costs of the venture. Once the school was open, Grant could press on with plans to build a faculty of practical science by conferring Queen’s College degrees upon graduates from the new school of mining and agriculture.

It was a scheme, a ruse, a fast one, crafted to circumvent government education policy and to establish a legitimate faculty of applied science at Queen’s under the guise of an independent, semi-private, vocational school intended to train miners and farmers. It would never work today, but it worked then.

The School of Mining and Agriculture Act was passed in the Ontario legislature in 1893, and the School of Mining and Agriculture opened in Carruthers Hall, the same building in which Queen’s students were already studying math and science, in October of that year. There were three instructors attached to the new school: Dr. William Goodwin, Professor William Nicol, and Lecturer Willet Miller. Grant wasted no time developing Queen’s curricula and faculty — in deed if not in name — for the School of Mining and Agriculture. By 1894-95, the university calendar listed Queen’s Science Professor Nathan Dupuis as Dean of a Faculty of Practical Science at Queen’s, while students of the School of Mining and Agriculture could earn a four-year degree in Mining Engineering.

Still, the new school and faculty was something of a wobbly bicycle for the first few years. Members of the first graduating classes could be counted on one hand. There were no academically trained engineers among the instructors, and courses and experts were cobbled together from whatever sources were available. There was solid expertise in geology and chemistry but large knowledge gaps in other engineering disciplines. That knowledge was needed.

In the late 19th century, the Second Industrial Revolution began. It hinged, in part, on the application of chemicals and heat to industrial processes. This underscored the role of applied science and the need for properly trained engineers in this area. Faculty members at the University of Toronto, now with their own mining engineering program, worked to discredit Queen’s fledgling Mining Engineering degree and to poach mining industry partnerships and related government contracts.

Goodwin, a New Brunswicker, was trained as a chemist at the University of Edinburgh, the University of London, and in Heidelberg, Germany, under the famous chemist Robert Bunsen. He started at Queen’s as a chemistry professor in 1883, and, 10 years later, served as the first director of the School of Mining and Agriculture. If Grant and Fleming masterminded the scheme and navigated the politics necessary to get the new school started, Goodwin kept it going from within.


MINING PIONEER: Dr. William Goodwin was among the first professors of The School of Mining and Agriculture and the first Dean of the Faculty of Applied Science. His pioneering work in the mining industry established Queen’s solid reputation for Mining Engineering. It was the toe-hold that allowed the development of departments in all other engineering disciplines in the early years of the 20th Century.  

He built the credible reputation it needed to survive and grow. He was passionate about mining, mentored students who helped shape the Canadian mining industry through the 20th century, and travelled the province offering instruction to miners and prospectors, earning friends and allies one handshake at a time. In the process he forged the industry and government partnerships that earned the school legitimacy even in the face of competition with the larger, better equipped, more established engineering schools at McGill and the University of Toronto.

By 1897 the Ontario government finally granted permission for the School of Mining and Agriculture to become officially affiliated with Queen’s College. Provincial money began to flow, allowing Queen’s to offer expanded programs and to invest in new buildings and facilities. Carruthers Hall was enlarged and Fleming and Ontario Halls were open for students by 1903. Though agricultural and veterinary programs failed to flourish, departments of Mining Engineering, Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, and Chemical Engineering emerged during the next few years.


FIRST DEGREE: In 1894, the first year of operation for the School of Mining and Agriculture, Queen’s College offered honours degree programs in Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics but there was on only one four-year degree on offer, Mining Engineer (M.E.).

There were a few further hurdles that needed clearing. Queen’s College remained a denominational university affiliated with a technically separate and non-denominational School of Practical Science until 1912. That’s when the link to the Presbyterian Church was formally broken and Queen’s College was renamed Queen’s University at Kingston. Then in 1916, in the thick of the horror of World War I, provincial and federal legislation added the Faculty of Applied Science to the Queen’s University charter. It was the last formality to establishing the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science at Queen’s.

Grant guided Queen’s though a period of uncertainty onto a real formative path and he lived long enough to see the Faculty of Practical Science earn legitimate recognition. He died in 1902 after serving as Queen’s principal for almost 25 years.

Fleming’s legacy stretches far beyond Queen’s. From his contributions to the transcontinental railway, and later to the first transatlantic submarine telegraph cable, he is a significant figure in Canadian history. He saw more of Queen’s successful formative years and virtually all of the establishment of the Faculty of Applied Science, continuing as chancellor until his death in 1915.

Goodwin became dean of the Faculty of Practical Science after Dupuis retired in 1911. He later became the first dean of the Faculty of Applied Science before retiring in 1918. He died in 1941.

Further Reading