The Daily Graphic
January 10, 2005

Back to The Press Page

Doctor loves the railroad

Monday January 10, 2005

PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE — The life of Dr. William Hobbs has been steeped in railroad lore.
Coming to Western Canada to practice medicine in 1959, he was riding aboard a CPR passenger train out of Montreal, rounding the Great Lakes when the conductor called out: “Is there a doctor on board?”
A female passenger had gone into labour and needed to deliver her baby on the train.
Dr. Hobbs was happy to oblige.
“I’ve always been a railway enthusiast,” Hobbs said after his guest appearance on Shaw Cable local community access’s Railroad Memories in December.
“I grew up with the steam locomotives of Europe. They were around me, they fascinated me.”
He was born in Alderney, Great Britain, a small spot in the Channel Islands just off the northern coast of Normandy, France. During the German bombing blitz of Great Britain between 1940 and 1941, he was evacuated along with his family to the southwest of England to Penzance, in Cornwall County.
It was here as a youngster Dr. Hobbs fell in love with the railroad.
“In Penzance, you’d see the trains every morning,” he said. “Every kid was interested in steam trains at that time.
“We used to go down into the rail yard from this one platform high above the rail yard. Those were the great steam trains of the Great Western Railway, and I just loved them.”
Hobbs was further inspired by the works of American steam locomotive artist Howard Fogg, whose depictions of steam engines roaring across the 20th century American landscape earned Fogg the title of Dean of Railroad Artists.
When Hobbs emigrated to Canada in 1959, he came upon the wave of what he terms the “brain drain” of British doctors from Great Britain to Canada during the late 1950s and 1960s.
“Every doctor in England was coming to Canada at that time,” he exclaimed. “Nine-hundred doctors a year for 10 years came to Canada during that period, and the schools there were only turning out 1,100 a year,” he said, still with his easy, British accent.
Hobbs was an artist before he was a doctor, but recalled one had a very difficult time supporting one’s self as an artist.
Lucky for Hobbs, British medical schools at the time recruited students based on artistic ability in endeavours such as painting or violin. Hobbs’ proficiency as a painter earned him a place at University of Bristol’s school of medicine.
“I was a proficient painter, so they let me become a doctor,” he said, which required leaving West of England School of Art for the university.
When he arrived in Canada, Hobbs was placed in the community of Wawota in southeast Saskatchewan, about 45 minutes from the Manitoba border.
A few months after settling in Wawota, two Canadian Pacific Railway officials paid a visit to Hobbs and offered him additional work as CPR doctor for the CPR’s Broadview division. Hobbs was also presented with what he describes as a “beautiful engraved” leather passport wallet -- a gift for delivering that baby aboard his inaugural train trip into Canada, a memento he still cherishes.
It was then Hobbs fell in love with Canada, its people and its railroads.
“I thought, ‘These Canadians are great’,” he said, adding it’s not the country, but the people who live there, which make a country great.
“I love Canada, I’d never leave it. I think it’s the greatest country on earth.”
He soon began applying his artistic skill documenting other things he considered great about Canada.
“What is Canada?,” he asked. “Canada is the Hudson’s Bay Company and the railroad.”
This is why Dr. Hobbs feels it is important to preserve the authenticity of Canada’s railway stations on canvas, as well as through restorative efforts such as Portage la Prairie’s Save the CPR Station Committee of Portage Heritage Inc.
Having bought and fully restored his own railway station in Gainsborough, Sask., in the early 1970s, before selling it to a local farmer who has since let it fall back into disrepair, Hobbs speaks as someone who doesn’t just mythologize the artifacts of old, but as one who actively works to return them to their former beauty.
Speaking on the country’s old railway station heritage, “They (Canadians) can’t let that go,” he said.
“Railway stations are the cathedrals of Canada,” he asserted. “Just as the churches spread Christianity through Europe, the railway was responsible for the spreading of European civilization throughout Canada.”
He said he paints old stations because to him, they’re a magnificent part of the country’s landscape in which no other Canadian artist specialized.
“What have you got to paint here?” he asked. “Everyone was painting wildlife and grain elevators, but no one was doing railway stations.”
And as a nod to Hudson’s Bay and the aboriginal heritage of the country, Hobbs includes a rendering of a native person wrapped in the company’s distinctive striped blanket in every one of his railway station painting.
Among his works is a painting of the CPR station in Portage.
Save the CPR Station committee co-chairman Vic Edwards is currently negotiating the sale of that Hobbs painting, which will net the committee $1,000.
Hobbs is also letting the committee sell reproductions of the work to raise funds for the restoration of the Portage CPR station.
Edwards said the sale of the Hobbs reprints has already raised $600 for the committee, with the possibility of future sales.
“It all adds up,” he said. “His interest in (painting) railroad scenes gives us a great means of raising money for the committee.
“And there’s no decline in interest among people. All we needed was an opportunity to display his work, and that’s what the outlet at the mall gives us,” he said, referring to the Save the CPR store at Portage la Prairie Mall.
In November, representatives from Corbett Cibinel Architects and One Bad Ant Architecture presented the Save the CPR committee with a business plan to restore and renovate the 111-year-old rail station on Third Street N.E. Once finished, it will be known as Portage la Prairie CPR Heritage Centre and Park.
The plan includes an interpretive centre inside the rail station, and an exhibit that will feature videotaped actors telling stories abut railroad life.
The group estimates the cost to create the new CPR Heritage Centre and Park at $1.4 million, which would include $586,000 for architectural and construction costs, $398,000 for the exhibit, and $395,000 for landscaping.
Edwards said the committee has raised, to date, around $147,000 toward the project, an approach he said will be taken in steps.
The train station was damaged by a fire in November of 2002.
Hobbs agrees every little bit helps and hopes to continue contributing any way he can.
“All I’m doing is painting these, and the money helps small towns,” he said.
“In a place like Portage, this is not a big thing, and an awful lot of money is going to be needed for the station -- lots, hundreds of thousands to get it back.
“It plays a very small part, the prints, but every little bit helps. You know?”