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The SS Noronic Disaster

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Nicknamed “The Queen of the Lakes,” SS Noronic was launched in 1913. She could accommodate 600 passengers and 200 crew and had a gross weight of just over 6,000 tons. On September 14, 1949 the ship left Detroit, Michigan for a seven-day cruise of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

SS Noronic Cruises

Originally built for the Northern Navigation Company, the Noronic “was one of the finest and most popular of the Great Lakes passenger ships” (Library and Archives Canada).

She boasted a ballroom with a full orchestra to accompany passengers, all of whom knew how to dance waltzes, quicksteps, and foxtrots. There was a beauty salon, library, and music room. And, of course, the dining was of a high standard.

With her wood-panelled staterooms, the Noronic was not built for the entertainment of men on the Ford assembly line; it was for the factory owners, and bankers.

The Last Fateful Voyage of the SS Noronic

The ship left Detroit and headed down the Detroit River to Lake Erie. She crossed the lake and put in to Cleveland, where more passengers joined the cruise.

With 574 passengers and 131 crew aboard, the plan was to travel through the Welland Canal into Lake Ontario and to call in at Toronto. From there, the cruise was to head to the Thousand Islands region at the eastern end of Lake Ontario before returning to Detroit. But, the cruise never got farther than Toronto.

At 6 p.m., on September 16, she docked at Toronto Harbour. Most of the passengers and crew left the ship for a night on the town, although Toronto in the 1940s was a long way from party central. The city and the province of Ontario was still in the grip of Protestant rectitude, which dictated that having fun was a sign of moral collapse. Many parts of the city were still dry, and its worthies wore title “Toronto the Good” with virtuous superiority.

The Noronic Catches Fire

By 1 a.m. on September 17, pretty much everybody was back on board and tucked in for the night. At 1:30 a.m., passenger Donald Church was in one of the vessel’s lounges when he saw smoke coming from a linen closet. When the door was opened, air rushed in and fed the flames. Church tried to douse the blaze but no water came out of the fire hose he used.

The captain and crew were alerted but the Toronto Fire Department was not called until 2:30. By the time fire fighters got to the scene, the top three decks of the Noronic were engulfed in flames. The fire spread rapidly as the wood panelling, oiled to a fine sheen for decades, proved to be highly combustible.

The Noronic ablaze.

The Noronic ablaze.

There was no orderly evacuation from the burning vessel. Corridors were filled with smoke, disorienting passengers. There were only two gangplanks to the dock, way down on a lower deck that few people could reach.

The Toronto Star described the scene: “It was an eerie sight as the passengers slid down ropes and dived off. Some had their clothing ablaze and were screaming with pain. Others were cut, their faces masks of blood. They said they had dived through windows in their cabins when they couldn’t find the doorway to the hall.”

By 5 a.m., the flames had been doused but the Noronic was a smoldering wreck. By 7 a.m., the grim task of recovering bodies began; many were burned beyond recognition. The total number of dead was never established and estimates ranged between 118 and 139. Then, the questions started.

A passenger escapes down a rope with the blaze in the background.

A passenger escapes down a rope with the blaze in the background.

Noronic Inquiry

The Kellock Commission was struck by the Canadian government and charged with investigating the disaster. The commission decided the fire started in the linen cupboard, perhaps because a crew member had carelessly discarded a cigarette. There was plenty of criticism of how the fire was handled.

Nobody had thought to call the fire department in the early minutes of the blaze. No crew members had gone to wake passengers so they could get off the ship, having been more concerned with their own safety. The vessel’s warning whistle emitted not much more than a feeble squeak.

In addition, there had been no emergency drills to inform passengers about muster stations and evacuation procedures. And, all the vessel’s fire hoses malfunctioned.

The ship’s master, Captain William Taylor, came in for blame as well. Supreme Court Justice R.L. Kellock ordered the 65-year-old’s master’s certificate to be suspended for a year. He retired before the suspension ended.

The judge “blamed destruction of the ship and the high loss of life on the failure of the owners and the captain to assure proper fire-fighting precautions aboard ship” (Canadian Press).

Canadian Steamship Lines, the owner of the SS Noronic, did not have liability insurance; compensation of $2.15 million (about $23 million in today’s money) was paid by the company to the families of those killed.

The Noronic's deck twisted and buckled by the heat of the fire.

The Noronic's deck twisted and buckled by the heat of the fire.

Was it Arson?

Canada Steamship Lines (CSL) suspected the fire was deliberately set, and the company had good reason to think that was a possibility.

Less than a year later, there was a fire aboard another CSL cruise ship, the SS Quebec. She was in the St. Lawrence River and the quick-thinking skipper docked the vessel at Tadoussac. The fire was brought under control but still seven passengers lost their lives, while many others were injured.

Investigators found that the blaze started in a locked linen closet just as the Noronic fire had, and that the flames had been started intentionally. Nobody was ever charged with the arson.

Improved fire regulations were enacted as a result of the disaster and cruise ship owners decided the cost of retrofitting vessels to meet the new standards was prohibitive. CSL, along with other operators abandonned the Great Lakes passenger cruising business.

Bonus Factoids

  • A sister-ship of the Noronic, the SS Harmonic, caught fire while docked at Sarnia, Ontario in July 1945. While the ship was destroyed, all passengers and crew survived.
  • All the passenger victims of the Noronic disaster were American citizens while only one member of the all-Canadian crew perished in the fire.
  • In November 1913, Noronic was ready to leave the Port Arthur, Ontario shipyard where she had been built. However, a massive storm known variously as the “White Hurricane,” the “Big Blow,” and the “Freshwater Fury,” roared across the Great Lakes Basin and delayed her departure. Over six days, starting on November 6, the tempest destroyed 19 ships, killed more than 250 people and caused damage valued at about $130 million in today’s money.

Sources

  • “Investigation the Noronic.” Library and Archives Canada, February 14, 2006.
  • “Once Upon a City: The Day the S.S. Noronic Turned Toronto’s Waterfront into a Deadly Inferno.” Valerie Hauch, Toronto Star, September 17, 2015.
  • “Cruise Ship Noronic Burned 10 Years Ago.” R.J. Anderson, Canadian Press, September 16, 1959.
  • “1949: 118 Die Aboard Cruise Ship SS Noronic.” CBC Archives, August 18, 1977.
  • “September 17, 1949 – 6O years ago – The SS Noronic Fire: a Toronto Disaster – A fire at Sea.” Michael L. Grace, Cruise Line History, September 17, 2009.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 30, 2020:

It wasn't as if the Canada Steamship Lines didn't have precedents to draw on. Here's a report from the Maritime Injury Center:

Back in 1930 the SS Morro Castle caught fire while taking passengers from Havana, Cuba to New York. The ship beached in New Jersey and had to be completely scrapped. The accident led to the deaths of 137 people, both passengers and crew members. The incident was a terrible one, but it did spur changes in ship fire safety and led to the inclusion of fire doors, fire alarms, drills, and safety procedures and the use of fire-retardant materials on ships."

There have been scores of ship fires since

DW Davis from Eastern NC on December 30, 2020:

A shipboard disaster of devastating consequences worthy of the story being told and retold. How many of us were not aware that such passenger ships once sailed the Great Lakes as recently as 70 years ago. Thank you for sharing this bit of hidden history.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on December 30, 2020:

Well narrated.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on December 30, 2020:

I didn't know of this, so it was really interesting to read. The video was very interesting to watch too.

Ann Carr from SW England on December 30, 2020:

A fascinating account of this awful disaster, Rupert. At least these days safety is paramount but one would think there would be procedures put in place by then. I can't imagine the horror experienced by those poor travellers.

Thanks for the education.

Ann

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