Mosborough engineer considered the best in Canada

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

It would be improper to leave Mosborough, the subject of last week’s column, without a few words about the hamlet’s most celebrated son.

The name of Joseph Hobson is known today largely to railway historians, but in his day he was the best known engineer in Canada.

The Hobsons were at the centre of the early history of Mosborough. Joseph Hobson Sr. (1786-1874) left the old family homestead of Mosborough in Derbyshire, England, arriving in Guelph Township about 1830. He settled on land of the Canada Company, and purchased some 270 acres of it in 1840.

Joseph Hobson Jr. was born on the Guelph Township farm in 1834. He attended the old Paisley Block log school, and later the Grammar School in Guelph. He then went to Toronto to apprentice as a surveyor with the firm of Tully and Co.

By the time he was 20 he had joined the firm of Gzowski and Company, which, during the 1850s, became the leading engineering and contracting firm in Canada.

Gzowski and Company had the contract for building the Grand Trunk Railway from Toronto to Sarnia, and the route of the line west of Guelph cut through the Hobson farm.

Young Joseph Hobson may have made the acquaintance of Gzowski’s crews when they worked through Guelph Township; the timing seems more than a coincidence. In any event, Hobson worked on the Grand Trunk line until construction ended in 1858.

There was little formal training for engineers in the 1850s. Hobson followed a typical course. Beginning as a lowly surveyor, he moved up to work as a location engineer, planning the exact path of the rail line. From this work he progressed to small bridges and drainage work, and then on to larger projects, which on railways meant bridges.

The details of the next 15 years of Hobson’s life are somewhat obscure. In the late 1850s he was a member of the Guelph surveying firm Hobson and Chadwick. He lived in both Guelph and Berlin (now Kitchener), and continued to work in the Wellington County area during the 1860s.

Hobson planned dams and mill races on the Speed River in Guelph in 1862 and 1868. In addition to these assignments he continued to do work for Gzowski and Company on bridge contracts.

One account of Hobson’s life states that in 1867 he was appointed a division engineer on the Intercolonial Railway in Nova Scotia. Sandford Fleming, who was the chief engineer of the line, makes no mention of Hobson in his engineering history of the Intercolonial. However, it is entirely possible that Hobson may have had a short-term assignment.

In any case, Hobson’s skills as an engineer had advanced rapidly. In 1870 the Grand Trunk Railway hired Gzowski and Company to construct a bridge over the Niagara River between Buffalo and Fort Erie. They appointed Joseph Hobson, then only 36 years old, as the site engineer. Construction of the bridge took two years. Hobson’s work on the project firmly established him at the top of his profession in Canada.

When the bridge was completed, Hobson received an offer from the Grand Trunk’s rival, the Great Western, to become the line’s chief engineer. This line ran from Windsor to Hamilton, where it forked to Toronto and Niagara Falls. It controlled and operated the Galt and Guelph and the Wellington, Grey and Bruce (WG & B) Railways, which traversed Wellington County.

In his new job, Hobson had new construction to supervise (notably the line from Palmerston to Kincardine), but most of his energy went to rebuilding older bridges and improving track, both on the main line and the branches.

In particular, the WG & B, though only a few years old, had been built on the cheap. Wooden bridges, which rotted quickly, had to be replaced, grades reduced, and drainage improved to prevent heaving track and washouts.

In the late 1870s and early 1880s Hobson replaced virtually every bridge on the WG & B. The bridge over the Grand (near the Wellington County Museum) had to be completely reconstructed. Hobson replaced a five-span wooden bridge with a three-span steel truss bridge. It survived until 1909, when the Warren truss bridge, which still stands, replaced it, though employing much of Hobson’s masonry work.

Other major projects were the stone bridges over Swan and Cox Creek between Elora and Guelph, which Hobson completed in 1879, and which survive as sound as ever 120 years later.

In his bridge work, Hobson became a fanatic for solid foundations and abutments. This was expensive work initially, but resulted in structures that could cope with the severities of the Canadian climate.

Fearful of new competitive pressures, the Grand Trunk absorbed the Great Western Railway in 1882, giving it a virtual monopoly in much of southwestern Ontario. The Grand Trunk, recognizing that Hobson’s abilities exceeded those of their own staff, appointed him engineer for all the lines between Toronto and Chicago.

Ever since the Grand Trunk had become a player in the American grain trade, the crossing of the St. Clair River had been a frustration. Ferries plying across the river dodged other traffic, and sometimes became frozen in by ice. Yards on both sides of the river clogged quickly with freight cars. Traffic ranged between 200,000 and 300,000 cars per year.

The Grand Trunk made preliminary surveys in 1882. A bridge appeared to be impractical, so a tunnel was the only alternative. Two years later the directors incorporated a subsidiary firm, the St. Clair Tunnel Company, to do the work.

The directors agreed to the appointment of Joseph Hobson as engineer with some reservations. Sir Henry Tyler, the Grand Trunk’s president, had little faith in Canadian engineers.

This was a shocking display of bias, in light of some outstanding Canadian engineering achievements in the late 19th century, and numerous cases of bungling by imported British engineers.

Joseph Hickson, the Grand Trunk’s general manager, insisted on Hobson, and eventually he prevailed.

Hobson did further preliminary work in 1885, but the difficulties, plus the estimated costs, spooked everyone, and the project went on the back burner until 1888.

By then the St. Clair bottleneck had grown worse. When the Canadian government agreed to a 15% subsidy for the tunnel, Hickson and Hobson made up their minds to go ahead with the project, which, at 6,000 feet, would be the longest underwater tunnel in the world.

After long reflection, Hobson decided to use a tunneling shield, a technique at that time relatively undeveloped.

The shields devised by Hobson were steel cylinders 21 feet in diameter. Hydraulic jacks pushed the shields forward into the clay beneath the river like a cookie cutter.

Labourers removed the material within the shield into carts, which were hauled back to the surface. Then the shield was pushed ahead another two feet, and the digging process was repeated.

Another crew at the rear of the shield installed the tunnel lining. This was made of inch-thick steel plates bolted together.

Hobson tunnelled from each bank, with the shields meeting beneath the river. Once the crews were under the river, Hobson pressurized the tunnel, using compressed air to keep water and soft mud out of the tunnel. At one point he raised the pressure to 28 pounds. Hobson received much criticism for using this unproven technique. Rapid decompression produced severe cases of bends in his workers.

Three died and several were crippled from the effects.

Though reckless with compressed air, Hobson was notable for his care in other areas. He had a paranoid fear that the shields would not meet properly beneath the river, and constantly rechecked the alignments.

He provided bright electric light and fresh air for the crews, and scheduled eight-hour shifts so that the work could progress around the clock with well rested labourers.

At the peak in late 1889, more than 600 men were on the project.

The two shields met in August 1890. Hobson himself helped dig the last few feet. He took a couple of puffs on a celebratory pipe with his men, then checked his alignments. The shields were misaligned by less than a quarter inch.

Newspapers and magazines had followed the tunnel closely as it neared completion through the summer of 1890. Hobson had become both a popular celebrity and an engineer respected for his innovative and efficient methods.

The Grand Trunk, then the largest railway in the world, appointed Hobson chief engineer in 1896. There are stories that he was offered a knighthood, but declined it. He continued as chief engineer until he retired to his home in Hamilton in 1907.

Hobson’s later work included replacing Roebling’s Niagara River suspension bridge in 1899, and rebuilding and double tracking the Victoria Bridge at Montreal.

A modest and agreeable man, Hobson throughout his life retained ties with Guelph and Mosborough, where his younger brother John continued the family farm. His wife, Betty Laidlaw, also had family ties to Mosborough.

Joseph Hobson died at his home in Hamilton in December 1917 at the age of 83, surviving his wife by six years. The couple had four daughters and two sons. The latter did well in Canadian business: Robert Hobson became president of the Steel Company of Canada, and Irvine Hobson was treasurer of Canada Steamship lines.

Hobson’s obituary was published in nearly every major newspaper of the day in Canada, most of them on the front page.

There is no plaque at Mosborough for Joseph Hobson, but a strong argument can be made for one.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on March 1, 1999.

Thorning Revisited