Joseph Hobson (1834-1917)
Buy the Book

By Ross W. Irwin, P.Eng.

A precise surveyor/engineer who connected Canada to the United States by bridge and tunnel.


Joseph Hobson was born in England in 1807. Coming to Canada, he was among the first to settle on the Paisley Block just west of Guelph, Ontario, in 1832. He was a large landowner, owning 453 acres of division B, Concession I, Lots 7, 8 and 9 of Guelph Township, Wellington County. By 1861, he was living in a 1 ½-storey frame house, but was only cropping 95 acres. Joseph Hobson and his wife Margaret had two sons. Joseph Hobson, the subject of this biography, was born on March 4, 1834, and his brother John Hobson in 1835.

Joseph was a shy, retiring man who shunned publicity. Joseph married Elizabeth Laidlaw (d. 1911) of Guelph in 1856. They had four daughters and two sons. The eldest son, Robert (b. 1861), became president of the Steel Company of Canada, Hamilton. The younger son, John Irvine, became treasurer of Canada Steamship Lines, Montreal.

Education and Training

Joseph Hobson attended the Paisley block log schoolhouse and other schools in the Guelph area. Later he went to Toronto, where he lived for seven years, to apprentice with John Tully, D.P.S., as a land surveyor. During his apprenticeship, he prepared plans of the town of Berlin (Kitchener) and Guelph. He changed his apprenticeship to C. Schofield, under whose tutorage he passed his final exam and qualified as a provincial land surveyor on October 3, 1855.

Upon completion of his apprenticeship, he went with the firm of Gzowski and McPherson, which had the contract to build the Grand Trunk Railroad (GTR) between Toronto and Guelph. The railway was opened in July 1856.


In March 1858, Hobson returned from Toronto to become the county engineer for Waterloo and lived in Berlin. Land surveying and civil engineering were indistinguishable in those early days. The county engineering position was not a full-time job, and he also engaged in private surveying. For example, in 1863, he surveyed the township of Bidwell on Manitoulin Island for the Dominion Government. Colonel Gzowski engaged Hobson as assistant engineer on the construction of the Grand Trunk Railway from St. Marys to Sarnia. The railway was opened in 1860. He was also engaged to do a number of railway surveys in Ohio, Michigan and in Nova Scotia. Hobson lived in Guelph from 1866 to 1875. He moved to Hamilton in 1875.

From June 1869 to April 1970, he was appointed assistant engineer to George Lowe Reid, chief engineer of the Great Western Railway (GWR), for the building of the Wellington, Grey and Bruce Railway for the GWR from Guelph to Southampton, which was extended to Kincardine, with branches to Owen Sound and Wiarton.

C.S. Gzowski and D.L. McPherson were appointed contractors for the construction of the International Bridge across the Niagara River between Bridgeburg (Fort Erie) and Black Rock (Buffalo) in April 1870. The bridge was 3651 feet long and cost $1 million. The engineering staff consisted of E.P. Hannaford, engineer-in-chief, GTR, and his resident engineer, Joseph Hobson, who lived permanently on the site. When the bridgework was completed in November 1873, he was appointed chief assistant engineer of the GWR, and in October 1875, upon the resignation of Sir John Kennedy, the chief engineer of the Northern and Northwestern Railways and the GWR. In 1882, following the amalgamation of the GTR and the GWR, he was appointed chief engineer of the GTR, west of Toronto.

Car ferries were used for cross-river railway traffic in Sarnia. The first meeting to discuss the building of a tunnel from Sarnia to Port Huron was held on October 15, 1886. Sir Henry Tyler, president of the GTR, agreed with the concept and chose the site. He appointed Hobson to design and build the St. Clair River railroad tunnel. The tunnel was completed in 12 months, and the first train ran through it on October 27, 1891. It was the longest subaqueous tunnel in the world at that time. The tunnel was 6026 feet long and with the approaches measured 11,550 feet. The cost was
$2.7 million. Men dug the tunnel using a hydraulic travelling shield in a compressed air (22 psi) environment. The tunnel was started from both sides of the river and met in the centre within one-half inch of line. Hobson was appointed chief engineer for the entire GTR system on February 1, 1896, extending from Portland, Maine, to Chicago, Illinois.

The great railway suspension bridge, located two miles below the falls in Niagara, was opened in 1854 and connected the GWR with the Michigan Central Railway to serve the Buffalo and Boston areas. It had been completed by John Augustus Roebling, who designed the famous Brooklyn Bridge 28 years later. The bridge was modified twice. Joseph Hobson was chief engineer of the GTR when the suspension bridge was replaced with a steel arch bridge. The design was by Leiffert L. Buck, an eminent American engineer. The arch bridge was completed in August 1897.

In 1897, Hobson was chief engineer for the replacement of a wrought-iron tubular structure of the old Victoria Bridge in Montreal with a double-track steel-truss span. This major project was completed without interfering with the railroad traffic. The original bridge had been designed by Sir Robert Stephenson, son of the inventor of railroad locomotives. The Prince of Wales (Edward VII) opened it in 1860.

Hobson retired in 1907, but was retained as a consultant to the railway until his death at his home in Hamilton in December 1917, at the age of 84.

Joseph Hobson was a member of the Canadian and American societies of Civil Engineering and the Institution of Civil Engineers of Great Britain. He must have been a sportsman, as he held membership in the Caledon Mountain Trout Club.

Copyright © 2009 by Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario. All Rights Reserved.
This website and its content are protected by copyright law. No content may be copied, published, distributed, downloaded or otherwise stored in a retrieval system, transmitted or converted, in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise, for any use other than personal or educational.