With the New Year of 2016 on our doorstep, and a newly-elected federal government promising change, it seems timely to put the spotlight one of Canada’s most unusual National Historic Sites. It’s the former Shickluna service (gas) station in the town of Port Colborne in Ontario’s Niagara Region.
What’s the connection, you well might ask, between a small-town gas station and our newly-elected federal government? The answer comes in one word–“history.”
Shickluna has the distinction of being the only service/gas station in Canada to be named a National Historic Site.
And while this designation alone is cause for praise, the future for the L.J. Shickluna Site is a clouded one. It joins at least two other National Historic Sites in Ontario–the former Bowmanville Boys’ School and the once gracious Bellevue House in Amherstburg on the historically-endangered list.
Let’s travel back in time first to the island of Malta. One of the smallest nations in the world at only 122 square kilometers, Malta lies in the Mediterranean Sea, 80 km south of Italy.
It’s in this nation of mariners, that the Maltese Shickluna family had made their fortune in the ship-building industry.
The Canadian connection to the Shickluna clan finds its beginning in 1808. In that year, one Louis Joseph Shickluna was born into the powerful family. Following tradition, it was hoped that one day, Louis would take over the family business.
But this young man had other plans. At age 23, Louis boarded a sailing ship for the British colony of Canada. Adventure was tops on Louis’ list of priorities.
Disembarking at Quebec City, Louis first found work at a shipbuilding company. By the next year, he’d moved on to Youngstown, New York.
But not for long. By the mid-1800’s Great Lakes shipping was booming, thanks in a large part to the opening of the Welland Canal in 1833. Seeing his long-term future here, Louis returns to Canada.
He chooses the Niagara area, along the shores of Lake Erie to make his mark and founds his own shipping company. Over the next half-century the Shickluna shipyards work at full-throttle, producing some the most advanced Great Lakes sailing ships of the day—some 140 in total.
In the process the Shickluna name became synonymous with wealth, power and innovation in the Canadian shipping industry.
On Louis’ death in 1899, his son Joseph stepped into his father’s large shoes. But the great age of shipping was inevitably drawing to a close. If the Shickluna dynasty was to maintain its financial and social standing, they would need to diversify.
That future seemed to point to the automobile.
With car ownership growing exponentially across Canada and the U.S., in the early years of the 20th century, gas and service stations were springing up across the nation. In 1924, third generation Canadian Louis Shickluna joined the entrepreneurial crowd and planned to open his own business.
He’d chosen Port Colborne just east of the town of Fort Erie to start his business. But this would be no ordinary “get your gas and grease job here” type of commercial establishment. Young Louis Shickluna had plans for something special.
Working with the Imperial Oil Company, Louis brought built a fair measure of architectural flair to his proposed business establishment. It would be designed in the California Mission Revival architectural style—one that drew its inspiration from the Spanish missions in California.
Gabled pediments, massive supporting pillars, broad overhanging eaves and red Spanish tile roof define the decidedly southwest American style.
(One of the best-known examples of California Mission architecture is featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo which is set north of San Francisco. )
California Mission architecture was a rarity north of the 49th parallel. No doubt Louis Shickluna’s gas station must have caused more than one driver to do a double-take.
Early September 2015 sees your intrepid National Historic Site explorers heading southwest from Waterloo Region to the Niagara Region along the Lake Erie shore.
The area is home to a number of Sites, including the previously profiled Point Abino Lighthouse and several Sites connected to the War of 1812-14. But we’re most eager to see NHS Shickluna, surely one of the most curious Sites in our travels across Ontario.
Historical research has little-prepared us for the sad reality of Canada’s only gas station National Historic Site. Standing on a weed-choked property, with derelict rubble propped against the building, Shickluna is boarded and closed. Its white stucco paint has peeled and the exterior is vandalized with graffiti.
“It doesn’t even have a plaque indicating what it is,” I comment to Louis. We leave with no fond memories of Canada’s gas station tribute to the California Mission architectural style.
A chat with local residents following our Shickluna visit gives us was no solace. It does reveals Port Colborne’s mood about the town’s only National Historic Site.
“It’s an eyesore,” says one resident. “And right on the main street. It makes the town look bad.”
Another puts blame on the National Monuments and Sites Board for allowing a “national treasure” to deteriorate so shamefully.
Still another shares the Shickluna buzz around town.
“A developer bought it a few years ago and is just waiting till there are enough complaints that the town will order it torn down as a hazard and eyesore.”
He continues the Port Colborne scuttlebutt. “The word is that demolition is what the developer wants in the first place– National Historic Site or no National Historic Site.
“You mark my words,” our “mole” predicts. “You’lI see high- priced condos on the property in 5 years. “
Under 10 years of Conservative government, Parks Canada which oversees National Historic Sites, has been stripped to the bare bones, both financially and with respect to resources. History lovers hope that a Prime Minister with a history university degree will be kinder.
If you feel that preserving Canada’s heritage is a priority for the new Liberal government, let your MP know. I have.
The former Shickluna Service Station in Port Colborne was designated as a National Historic Site in 1995.