The imposing white house at the corner of St. Paul Street West and Yates Street is Oak Hill, the second family home of Welland Canal magnate William Hamilton Merritt. The present building was constructed between 1858 and 1860 to replace Merritt's first family home, originally built in 1824 but destroyed by fire in 1858, possibly set by an unknown arsonist.
Merritt's distinctive family home bears many Italianate and Classical architectural details, some of which were added later in the building's history. Notable features include its hipped roof, bracketed eaves line and round-topped windows. Originally brick, the home has subsequently been stuccoed and painted. The first floor windows are partially covered by wrought iron railings. Classical details were added in small pediments over the first floor windows and the large entrance portico, also with a pediment.
The original stone garden wall and remains of the terraced gardens around the house can still be found along Yates Street, and there is a large and well-preserved brick coach house at the rear of the building.
The basement of the home contains sealed entrances to underground tunnels that lay beneath the property. One tunnel is connected to the coach house from the main building, and another two tunnels extend to the banks of the Twelve Mile Creek. William Hamilton Merritt was a member of the Refugee Slaves Friends Society, which helped slaves who had escaped from the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. The tunnels are purported to have been used as hiding places for runaway slaves making their way north to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Less nobly, the tunnels were allegedly used by bootleggers during the Prohibition days. The tunnels were sealed over for safety reasons in 1967.
From the lofty vantage point of their riverbank garden, the Merritts could look out over the many mills and other businesses that were located along the valley of the Twelve Mile Creek, at that time still part of the Welland Canal. At the base of the hill were several mills and factories, including the large Taylor & Bate Brewery. Opposite their home on the other side of the Canal was the famous Shickluna Shipyards, the largest shipbuilding operation in the Great Lakes region during the mid-1800s. There is a plaque commemorating the Shickluna Shipyards on the west side of Yates Street near St. Paul Street, adjacent to the garden wall of the Merritt Estate.
The home remained in the family after Merritt's death in 1862. Merritt's son, Jebediah Prendergast Merritt, postmaster of St. Catharines for almost twenty years, inherited the property, and lived there until his death in 1900.
The house was subsequently inherited by the elder Merritt's granddaughter, Catherine Welland Merritt. When the Burgoyne Bridge was constructed in 1914, St. Paul Street West was re-aligned, assuming its present trajectory much closer to the front of the estate.
During the First World War, Catherine let the government use the house as a military convalescent home for wounded soldiers. The family moved back in after the war.
In 1923, the Merritt family donated the land and gardens around the home to the City of St. Catharines as Oak Hill Park. Over the years, Oak Hill Park has fallen into disrepair. However, the grounds along Twelve Mile Creek below the family estate are still traversed by the Merritt Trail, part of the City's extensive pedestrian trail network.
Catherine Merritt sold the house in 1928. For the next 10 years, the building was an inn. The tunnels beneath the property were purportedly used for bootlegging illicit liquor from the late 1920s until about 1930, when prohibition ended in most of Canada.
In 1938, Yates Street resident E.T. Sandell, owner of the Taylor & Bate Brewery and Silver Spire Broadcasting Company, purchased the Merritt estate. He moved the studios of CKTB, St. Catharines' first radio station, from the Welland House Hotel into the old Merritt home. The "TB" in the radio station's CKTB call letters stands for 'Taylor & Bate'.
CKTB-AM still broadcasts out of Oak Hill, along with FM stations CHRE-FM and CHTZ-FM.
An interesting footnote: Oak Hill has long been purported to be haunted, and reports abound about ghostly apparitions, strange sounds and odours, and other paranormal phenomena emanating from various parts of the venerable old home.
Oak Hill was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, Part IV
There is a plaque commemorating the Shickluna Shipyards on the west side of Yates Street near St. Paul Street, adjacent to the garden wall of the Merritt Estate.
To the south, across St. Paul Street West is a bronze statue of William Hamilton Merritt surveying the area first settled by non-aboriginal peoples in the late 1780s, demobilized soldiers of British and West African origin from Butler's Rangers.
Designated Heritage Properties Yates Street and area. planning citydepartments cityservices www.stcatharines.ca http:/Yates Street Heritage Conservation District
Astral Media Radio G.P. Niagara
Oak Hill, William Hamilton Merritt Estate
12 Yates Street
St. Catharines, Ontario