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Mid-Week Mugging: The sight of that orange bridge still makes my mouth water

In this week's Midweek Mugging, North Bay-based journalist Stu Campaigne looks back to his childhood and that much-anticipated highway stop
View from the iconic orange footbridge spanning Highway 11 of Webers restaurant. Photo by Stu Campaigne.

NORTH BAY — After a day trip down to Toronto to secure my son's passport (did you know that the closest office that could provide services was in North York? Maybe that's a whole other column), I was grateful to see the orange bridge that marks Webers and to pull in to one of my favourite spots. Having conquered the insanity of Highway 400 on a late Friday afternoon, and with only 200 kilometres to go before home, a meal at Webers does not make the cottage traffic lighter, but it does give the brain some relief from worrying about how the guy that just passed you at 140 km/h or so can go so fast while hauling a trailer and talking on his phone at the same time.

Webers was built on burgers and shakes but has the loyalty of generations of happy customers to thank for its longevity. Although it is a stretch to call Webers a local business, you would be hard pressed to find someone from North Bay and area who, if they have not eaten at Webers, could not tell you what the orange footbridge is there for.

Summer memories for northern Ontarians often include Webers. Many trips to the cottage or Canada's Wonderland were made with stops at Webers. Even trips north from southern spots to canoe in Algonquin Park that ended up being disasters, tainted by rain and mosquitoes, were ameliorated by stopping while headed home, crossing the famous orange bridge in sopping wet clothing to have a meal at Webers while laughing about the misfortunes experienced in the wilderness. 

One of my favourite childhood memories is of waiting at the counter at Webers, mesmerized by the grill cooks singing along and flipping the burgers in sync and to the beat of Chilliwack's "My Girl," which was blaring from the kitchen stereo. It seemed like the greatest place in the world to work, and to an eight-year-old boy, it was already the greatest place in the world to eat. Any time I hear that song, I am instantly transported back to the mid-1980s.

Webers opened in 1963 and gained popularity through the 1970s. Southbound burger lovers often raced across Highway 11 to get their fix. After a median was installed to stop the practice, in 1981, customers risked life and limb by hopping over that barrier to get to the other side. The next year, the province added a fence atop the median, ending the dangerous sprint across to the restaurant. In 1983, Webers purchased a bridge that had been used at the CN Tower's SkyWalk over Front Street in Toronto. That famous orange footbridge was the first, and is still, the only privately-owned bridge spanning a public highway in Ontario.

Webers purchased train cars to be used as eating areas in addition to the picnic tables on the grounds. Three CN train cars were secured and are used for meat processing. Since 1987, Webers has been making fresh hamburger patties for each day. 

With family in the Niagara Falls area, and Dad later in staff college in the GTA, we made several trips up and down Highway 11, as far back as before the road bypassed many of the little towns along the way. Decades later, it seems like we always argued over who would sit in the front seat, always stopped for gas in Severn Bridge, and we always ate at Webers.

My parents were committed, after separating, to having my brother and I visit our father regularly while he was stationed in Toronto and they often split the drive from North Bay, meeting in the Huntsville area so that we could switch vehicles. The travelling back and forth can be hard for anyone, let alone two active boys like us who began to squirm in our seats mere minutes into the journey.

The promise of a charbroiled burger from Webers, if we behaved, was a parenting technique often employed by our parents, and assured that every trip northbound or southbound within 100 km of that iconic orange bridge was a smooth one.