Whitby’s Merryweather Steam Engine boasting a colourful 150 year-old past

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Published September 1, 2022 at 12:16 pm

The Merryweather Steam Fire Engine, now enjoying her golden years on display at the Whitby Central Library, has seen it all its century-and-a-half of service.

Born in England, she arrived in Canada after winning over her prospective buyers by launching a stream of water 145 feet in the air over the weathervane of the steeple of the All Saints Anglican Church in downtown Whitby.

The steam engine was on the front lines fighting fires for the Town of Whitby and beyond for 54 years and her first real test came in her first year of service: she is credited for saving downtown Oshawa from destruction by fire on the night of December 8, 1872.

The fire originated in George Hodder’s clothing and hat store on Simcoe Street and according to Jillian Passmore of the Oshawa Museum Blog, a man named CW Smith jumped on a horse and raced to Whitby for the Merryweather steam fire engine, which was a new acquisition at the time and considered to be the pioneer engine of Canada. “Fire stations in Whitby and Kingston had tested the Merryweather, but Oshawa put it to the real test during the fire of 1872.”

The Gibbs block, a large building on the south side of King Street was destroyed and 19 buildings were damaged or destroyed in the blaze, which was determined to be arson. A fellow named Fitzmaurice, who owned the drug store adjacent to Hodder, was sentenced to three years in jail for instigating the fire for insurance purposes.

Oshawa would go on to purchase its own Merryweather machine at a cost of $5,600 in 1875.

But the old must eventually make way for the new and progress forced the Merryweather’s retirement, though it took two motorized firetrucks to replace her in 1926.

(One year after the steam engine’s first ‘retirement’ the same church in Whitby that hosted the Merryweather’s sales demonstration in 1872 was nearly destroyed by fire. Perhaps the Merryweather was retired too early?)

In any event, her retirement was short-lived, and after a short eight-year furlough from active duty the Merryweather was given to the York Pioneer and Historical Society in Toronto in 1934 to be put on display.

How long she lived there is unclear, but it is known she served as a CNE hot dog stand and was wheeled out for Labour Day parades before a veteran entertainment promoter named Jack Fisher acquired the now nearly 100 year-old steam engine in 1965 and put her to work guarding celebrities at the Beverly Hills Motor Hotel in suburban Toronto; a hotel more known for the strip club downstairs and cheap beer than any musical act on the main level.

Fisher opened the ‘Hills,’ as it came to be known by locals, and its Hook & Ladder Club as a Vegas-style nightclub featuring ‘B’ class entertainers and just-past their-prime acts like Xavier Cugat, Cab Calloway, the Andrews Sisters and Rich Little.

And despite critics saying Fisher had lost his mind opening up a downtown club in the middle of nowhere – apologies to Jane & Wilson residents of the 60s and 70s who thought they lived ‘somewhere’ – he packed the place most nights, prompted bidding wars with downtown showcases like the King Edward Hotel and the Royal York’s Imperial Room.

Beverly Hills Motor Hotel, home to the Merryweather for 17 years, in 1967.

It helped that the Hook & Ladder Club was no small venue, either. At 850 seats, it was the largest lounge room in Metropolitan Toronto. And outside standing guard was the Merryweather, whose history was already as colourful as the acts inside.

According to Jamie Bradburn’s Tales of Toronto blog, boxer Rocky Marciano was on hand when the hotel officially opened on June 1, 1965, though after he talked to the press, the former heavyweight champ vanished. “Fellow pugilist George Chuvalo tried to locate the room Marciano was rumoured to be holed up in, but nobody acknowledged his door-knocking. But the evening wasn’t a total waste for Chuvalo – his wife won a free two-night stay in a raffle.”

The Hills, the Hook & Ladder Club and the Merryweather all enjoyed about 13 years of notoriety before the lounge was converted into a Medieval Times-type restaurant in 1978. Four years later the hotel was sold and the Merryweather given to local fire authorities. She shifted locations several times until she was given a fresh coat of paint and placed in the lobby of Toronto Fire Services headquarters following amalgamation in 2000.

The Merryweather was returned to Whitby in 2006, where she was placed in her present place of honour at the downtown library.

And after 150 years of saving lives and fighting valiantly at devastating fires, playing a starring role in parades, serving as a glorified hot dog stand, perhaps being there for a lap dance or two (being a grand old dame and a true professional, she kept her gaze at eye level) and bearing witness to some of world’s greatest entertainers, the Merryweather deserves her final retirement.

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