NEELON, SYLVESTER, businessman and politician; b. 7 Jan. 1825 in New York State; m. first Cinderella Read (d. 1882), and they had three daughters and two sons; m. secondly 31 Dec. 1884 Louisa Latham Chisholm in St Catharines, Ont.; they had no children; d. 31 Dec. 1897 in Toronto.
Sylvester Neelon’s parents, who arrived in Upper Canada from New York in 1832, must have been among the thousands of immigrants attracted to the Niagara area by the boom that followed the completion of the first Welland Canal in 1829. The canal made St Catharines, where the Neelons settled, at once a port, a ship-building centre, and, through the use of excess water in the canal to produce power, a major industrial site.
Whether Sylvester was ever a seaman is not known for sure. He styled himself captain in later years but other wealthy ship-owners and builders also affected that title without ever having been master mariners. What is known is that in April 1852, at the age of 27, Neelon made his first appearance in local business records as a partner in the mercantile and shipping firm of Norris and Neelon. James Norris, a native of Scotland who had come to St Catharines about 1840 as a mariner, was another rising star in the local business world. Norris and Neelon were to join Patrick Joseph Larkin and James Murray in a group of business leaders popularly known as the “Big Four.”
The barque E. S. Adams, launched in 1857 by Abbey Brothers in Port Robinson, is the first ship known to have been built exclusively for Norris and Neelon, although at the time they owned at least four other sailing vessels. During the 1860s at least six more vessels were built for them, all by Louis Shickluna in St Catharines. A newspaper report from 1868 indicates that the fleet of Norris and Neelon had grown to 14 or 15 sail- and steam-powered vessels, with a total value estimated at $300,000. Among the steamers – several of which had engines built by George Nicholas Oille* – were the propeller-driven ships America and Dominion and the tug Samson.
One of the industries in the Niagara area that benefited particularly from the conjunction of canal transport, water-power, and, by mid century, the advent of railways was flour-milling. The demand for flour was increased by the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 with the United States and by the American Civil War. St Catharines was in an advantageous position for this trade. Around 1863 Norris and Neelon purchased a mill at the foot of Geneva Street from the canal-builders Oliver Phelps and William Hamilton Merritt*. When the partnership of Norris and Neelon was dissolved about 1868, Neelon retained the Phoenix Mill, as the operation was then called, and he soon added to his holdings the Ontario Flour Mill in nearby Port Dalhousie. In 1882 a new four-storey stone building was constructed to house the Geneva Street mill. Not surprisingly, Neelon also operated a cooperage, where barrels for the shipment of flour and of most other goods were manufactured. In 1871 the shop, located close to his St Catharines mill, employed 25 men and boys and turned out 75,000 barrels a year.
Neelon’s growing position in the community was manifesting itself in a number of ways. In 1865 he built a handsome Italianate-style house, which still stands, at the corner of King and Academy streets. The following year he was asked to be a provisional director of the Intercolonial Steamship Company, formed to provide direct communication between the Great Lakes and the Maritimes. About the same time he was a founding director of the St Catharines General and Marine Hospital [see Theophilus Mack*].
After his partnership with Norris ended, Neelon had continued to have his own leading role in Great Lakes shipping. In 1870 the propeller Europa was launched in St Catharines, the first vessel known to have been built for Neelon in his own right. Shickluna, his son Joseph, and Andrews and Son of Port Dalhousie all constructed ships for Neelon’s fleet. Prominent among them were the schooner G. M. Neelon, named for Neelon’s son George Mortimer, and the steamer Leonard S. Tilley, innovative in its composite construction of wood and iron. In 1877, according to one source, Neelon, George Campbell, and J. C. Graham, as joint owners of the steamships Asia and Sovereign, joined the Great Lakes shipping firm of J. and H. Beatty and Company, which was then reorganized as the North West Transportation Company.
Branching out from shipping and milling, in which he had prospered, Neelon became in the 1870s a director of the Security Permanent Building and Savings Society, later the Security Loan and Savings Company and one of the institutions that helped apply local capital to new growth. He sat on the St Catharines Board of Trade, formed in 1867. He was one of the founding directors of and a shareholder in the St Catharines Street Railway Company, incorporated in 1874, and was active in the building of the St Catharines and Niagara Central Railway. Around 1877, with Samuel Woodruff, Patrick Joseph Larkin, Noah Phelps, and John Conlon, Neelon was involved in the founding of the Lincoln Paper Mill. Neelon owned a dry-goods and clothing business and a tavern on St Paul Street, and his interest in forests in Ohio extended his influence to the international scene.
Success in business and prominence in his community led Neelon into politics. That arena proved more dangerous to him than commerce. By 1871 he was a town councillor in St Catharines but he had greater ambitions. In 1875, running as a Liberal, he was elected for the provincial riding of Lincoln, but was charged with corrupt electoral practices. Witnesses testified at his trial that he had paid them as much as $20 each for their votes. Neelon was unseated and he unsuccessfully contested the subsequent by-election. Finally, in the general election of 1879, he achieved his goal of becoming the mpp for Lincoln, which he represented until 1886.
Even in his sixties Neelon was entering into new ventures. He formed a construction company in partnership with John Elliot, evidently to bid on the masonry contract for Toronto’s new city hall, which they won in 1889. After Elliot’s death two years later Neelon carried on until 1893, when the work was taken over by the architect, Edward James Lennox*.
Not a great deal is known of Neelon’s personal life. A son, James William, had died in 1871 at the age of 19 and a family tragedy may have been involved. Two of his daughters married into other prominent families in St Catharines, the Helliwells and the Bensons. Neelon died suddenly in Toronto on 31 Dec. 1897 at the age of 72. His son George and his friend Captain James Murray were appointed executors of his will. His second wife, Louisa, received an annuity of $800 a year and the balance of the estate was divided, with one-half going to his son and one-quarter each to his two daughters, Louisa Helliwell and Augusta Benson. He was buried in St Catharines and the bells of St George’s Church (Anglican), which normally would have chimed in the New Year, were silenced.
AO, MS 490. Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston (Kingston, Ont.), Reg. of lake vessels, 1860. NA, RG 31, C1, 1871, St Catharines, Ont. St Catharines Hist Museum, File material on Norris & Neelon. St Catharines Public Library, Special Coll., Neelon family notes. York County Surrogate Court (Toronto), no.1973 (mfm. at AO). Constitutional (St Catharines), 24 Sept. 1868. Globe, 18 May 1874, 17 Sept. 1883, 6 May 1884. St. Catharines Evening Journal, 16, 25 April 1872; 28 April, 22 Sept. 1873. Standard (St Catharines), 3 Jan. 1898. Weekly News (St Catharines), 1 May, 25 Sept. 1873. Brant County directory, 1890. Canada directory, 1857–58. CPC, 1883. Illustrated historical atlas of the counties of Lincoln & Welland, Ont. (Toronto, 1876; repr. Port Elgin, Ont., 1971), 83. Ont. directory, 1869, 1871, 1882. St. Catharines directory, 1863–82. E. [R.] Arthur, Toronto, no mean city, ed. S. A. Otto (3rd ed., Toronto, 1986), 266. Standard, 15 Aug. 1986, 24 Jan. 1987.