OILLE (Oill), GEORGE NICHOLAS, machinist, manufacturer, and businessman; b. in March 1817 in Pelham Township, Upper Canada, eldest of eight children of George Nicholas Oille and Elizabeth Decker; d. 28 March 1883 at St Catharines, Ont.
Details concerning George Nicholas Oille’s early life and education are few. He apparently had a “natural genius for mechanics” and was entirely self-taught, “never even having served a brief apprenticeship.” He may have worked at the Niagara Harbour and Dock Company, a foundry for steamboats at Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake), before arriving in St Catharines some time in 1847. As a consequence of the concentration of industry encouraged by the opening of the Welland Canal, St Catharines had developed into the major centre for the flour-milling industry in the Niagara peninsula and was becoming a hub of shipping. By 1850 Oille had erected a “large and extensive Furnace and Machine Shop,” known as George N. Oille’s Machine Shop and Foundry, where he was employing 30 workers in June 1856. In that year he manufactured a wide range of goods including mowers, cream separators, two-horse rail power engines, railway car wheels, axle-trees, steam-engines, and boilers, and his sales were reported at approximately $15,000.
The nature of the industrial growth of the Niagara peninsula in the 1860s caused Oille to begin specializing in the construction of marine engines. In 1861 he agreed to supply Louis Shickluna, St Catharines’ major shipbuilder, with a boiler for a ship to serve on the passenger run between St Catharines and Toronto. By 1863 Oille’s foundry employed ten men for work on the engines and boilers of a propeller – a sailing craft fitted with an engine – owned by James Norris and Sylvester Neelon, prominent St Catharines merchants, and named the America. Launched by Shickluna’s shipyard in 1863, the America, like most of that yard’s vessels, was designed to carry flour to Montreal. In April 1864 the City of Toronto, a 615-ton passenger ship, began operation at Niagara; Oille had not only provided the boiler but also the 365-horsepower engine. A month later, Shickluna launched a 137-foot tugboat, Samson, in which all the internal machinery and engines had been built by Oille from plans drawn by Cyrus Dean, locomotive superintendent of the Welland Railway Company.
Despite Oille’s initial successes with marine engines, competition for contracts was strong. In 1863 and 1864 Shickluna launched at least four other propellers, but their engines had been supplied by either John Gartshore of Dundas or the Davidson and Doran firm of Kingston. By 1866, however, Shickluna was again using Oille’s foundry. The propeller City of London, launched in April 1866, was designed to ply between Port Stanley and other Lake Erie towns. Oille produced a condensing type of steam-engine for the craft, experimented in load distribution by placing the machinery six feet farther forward than was usual, and connected to the boiler an apparatus for flooding any part of the vessel with steam and water in case of fire. The informal contracting arrangement between Oille and Shickluna carried on into the 1870s. Between 1868 and 1873 Oille supplied the engines and boilers for seven propellers built by Shickluna, most of which were used in the flour and wheat trade with Montreal.
Oille’s ability in constructing machinery for propellers is again evident with the Prussia, another vessel constructed by Shickluna, put into service in June 1873. He not only manufactured its low pressure engines but also designed a special steam crane for the ship’s deck. George and his brother, Lucius Sterne, a prominent physician in St Catharines, were among the shareholders who owned the ship, which was designed primarily to carry passengers.
Although Shickluna was his largest customer, Oille’s reputation had secured him contracts with other local shipbuilders. In 1865 he installed a 60-horsepower oscillating engine in a passenger steamer constructed by Melancthon Simpson in St Catharines and he supplied the engines for the propeller Alma Munro, owned by the Elgin Transportation Company of Port Stanley and constructed by Andrews and Son of Port Dalhousie (now part of St Catharines).
The career of George Nicholas Oille is an excellent example of how after 1850 industrial development combined with local circumstances to create specialists in certain new urban areas. Oille’s innovative mechanical ability contributed much to the development of the marine engine, so vital to the shipbuilding and shipping industries of the St Catharines area. A man with few close friends, he was totally dedicated to his business and widely respected for his accomplishments.
Rutherford B. Hayes Library (Fremont, Ohio), Great Lakes coll., Marine papers, F. E. Hamilton. St Catharines Public Library (St Catharines, Ont.), Louis Shickluna scrapbook; Vert. file, Niagara peninsula – Ships and shipping. Globe, 29 March 1883. London Advertiser (London, Ont.), 29 March 1883. London Free Press, 21 April 1870. Mail ([Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.]), 27 April 1864. St. Catharines Constitutional (St Catharines), 30 April, 12 Nov. 1863; 12 April 1866; 16 April 1868. St. Catharines Evening Journal (St Catharines), 28 June 1838; 26 June 1856; 25 July 1861; 17 May 1864; 11 May 1865; 1 May 1869; 10 March 1871; 25 April 1872; 28 April, 9 June 1873. H. G. J. Aitken, The Welland Canal Company: a study in Canadian enterprise (Cambridge, Mass., 1954). James Croil, Steam navigation and its relation to the commerce of Canada and the United States (Toronto and Montreal, 1898; repr. Toronto, 1973). [F.] B. Cumberland, A century of sail and steam on the Niagara River (Toronto, 1913). G. P. de T. Glazebrook, A history of transportation in Canada (Toronto, 1938; repr. 2v., 1964; New York, 1969). Harlan Hatcher, Lake Erie (Indianapolis, Ind., and New York, 1945). R. S. Taylor, “The historical development of the four Welland canals, 1824–1933” (ma thesis, Univ. of Western Ontario, London, 1950). G. N. Tucker, The Canadian commercial revolution, 1845–1851 (New Haven, Conn., 1936; repub., ed. H. G. J. Aitken, Toronto, 1964). D. B. Tyler, Steam conquers the Atlantic (New York and London, 1939). E. A. Cruikshank, “Notes on the history of shipbuilding and navigation on Lake Ontario up to the time of the launching of the steamship Frontenac, at Ernesttown, Ontario, 7th September, 1816,” OH, 23 (1926): 33–44. C. H. J. Snider, “Mighty Maltese of Shipman’s Corner,” Inland Seas (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 (1969): 323–25. J. W. Watson, “The changing industrial pattern of the Niagara peninsula,” OH, 37 (1945): 49–58.