SS Noronic Disaster – The Inferno on Toronto’s Waterfront

1930 - The SS Noronic moored in Toronto harbour. The luxury Great Lakes cruise ship took her maiden voyage in 1914 and was the flagship of Canada Steamship Lines
1930 – The SS Noronic moored in Toronto harbour. The luxury Great Lakes cruise ship took her maiden voyage in 1914 and was the flagship of Canada Steamship Lines (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1429)

On the evening of Friday, September 16, 1949, the Great Lakes luxury cruise ship, the SS Noronic, docked at Pier 9, once near today’s Jack Layton Ferry Terminal (between the foot of Bay St and Yonge St). She was dubbed the “Queen of the Lakes,” the flagship of Canada Steamship Lines. The steamer was coming in from Detroit and Cleveland and scheduled to travel to Prescott, Ontario, in the morning. On the last excursion voyage in her 36th season, the Noronic was carrying 542 mostly American passengers and 171 crew.

The Queen of the Lakes

Carefree guests aboard the 6-deck floating hotel were treated like royalty. On ratio, there was one crew member to pamper every three passengers. The dining salon spanned the width of the vessel. Every table in the 278-seat dining room had white table clothes, fine china, silver cutlery, fresh flowers and uninterrupted views of the passing scenery.

The observation salon featured large picture windows, grand high-back chairs, and an inlaid oak floor that became a dance hall in the evening. Other amenities included a social hall, writing room, music room, chapel, children’s playroom, beauty salon, barber shop, smoking room, lounge, buffet bar and more.

The Tragedy’s Timeline

1919 - The Dining Room aboard the SS Noronic spanned the width of the ship and could serve 278 guests. Every table had white table clothes, fine china, silver cutlery, fresh flowers and unobstructed views of the passing scenery
1919 – The Dining Room aboard the SS Noronic spanned the width of the ship and could serve 278 guests (Toronto Public Library 37131104907498D_V5_N1)

It should be noted that vessels in the Great Lakes operated on Standard Time; however, Toronto was on Daylight Savings Time and was 1 hour ahead. The times mentioned below are shipboard times.

When the ship, also affectionately known as “The Norey,” berthed in Toronto for its overnight stop that September evening, many passengers and 156 crew members disembarked to take in the city’s nightlife. That included the ship’s experienced Captain, William Taylor, who went to spend the evening with friends. A few members of the Norinic’s remaining crew carried out a patrol of the ship, but this did not include a close inspection of the passenger decks.

By the early hours of Saturday morning, the dance had ended, card games were over, parties in the staterooms were wrapping up, and passengers that had gone ashore were back onboard. Most were in their rooms and in bed for the night, including the Captain, who had returned to the ship just after 1 am.

At around 1:30 am, a passenger named Mr Church was returning to his room from the lounge when he noticed smoke coming from a locked hallway linen closet in the port quarter. He quickly found head bellman Ernest O’Neill, who unlocked the door. The oxygen fuelled the blaze, and the fire extinguisher on hand was not enough to put out the flames. The two went to get a hose, but when they turned on the water, none came out.

The heat was intense, and the fire spread rapidly, feeding on the wood-lined walls that had been lemon-oiled for years. The ship’s design and the lack of separation between decks only intensified the fire. Mr Church, who happened to be a fire insurance specialist, realized how out of control the situation was. He ran to wake his family and get off the Noronic. Approximately 5 to 7 minutes had passed from when Mr Church met bellman O’Neill to when the ship’s alarms sounded. The first officer Gerald Wood blasts the klaxon horn to warn sleeping passengers. The ship was equipped with a public address system, and only three weeks prior, a ship-to-shore telephone was installed, which could have been used to contact the Toronto Fire Department; however, neither was used.

Unimaginable panic and chaos ensued.

On the dock, the watchkeeper noticed the flames and, at 1:34 am, raised the alarm with authorities. At 1:41 am, when the first equipment from the Toronto Fire Service arrived, the ship was already almost entirely in flames.

September 17, 1949 - The roaring inferno on the SS Noronic while docked at Pier 9 lit Toronto's night sky. A Toronto fireboat is battling the fire from the harbour. 119 people lost their lives in the disaster
September 17, 1949 – The roaring inferno on the SS Noronic while docked at Pier 9 lit Toronto’s night sky. A Toronto fireboat is battling the fire from the harbour (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1518)

Those who could escape used the gangway, some descended ropes or ladders, others climbed over the railings to jump into the harbour or onto the dock and some dove through the windows in their cabins. Don Williamson was driving home from a shift at a nearby tire factory. He got on a painter’s raft and began pulling passengers from the water. Over 1,000 firefighters, police and passers-by assisted, but in the end, 119 people perished.

City hospitals were jammed with the many injured. Conference rooms in the King Edward Hotel and the lobby of the Royal York Hotel were utilized as emergency rooms, first aid stations and places of refuge.

A survivor described the flames as “rolling through the ship like a waterfall,” while a witness said, “it went up like a paint factory.” The fire could be heard above Front St and seen for miles; however, it reverberated around the world.

Thirty-seven fire hoses were trained on the blaze. A firefighter said the inferno was so white-hot that the water turned to steam before even reaching the ship. By dawn, the fire was finally out, and the twisted metal ruins of the SS Noronic were smouldering. The weight of the water used to fight the fire caused the ship’s stern to settle and rest on the slip’s shallow floor with its lower decks underwater. At approximately 7:40 am, firefighters were able to board the vessel. That morning, the grim duty of recovering those who had perished began.

The Horticulture Building Becomes a Morgue

Officials realized that the city morgue could not handle the number of dead. The city’s Chief Coroner contacted the CNE’s General Manager and requested a room for a morgue. The Horticulture Building became a vast impromptu morgue.

City services were mobilized, and soon the area around the building was as busy as if the Exhibition was on. Bodies were transferred from the SS Noronic to the Horticulture Building. Morticians embalmed the bodies using spray guns while a corps of doctors, dentists, and radiologists began the monumental duty of identifying the victims. Everything was carefully cataloged, and their work took five months to complete. During this time, relatives and friends came from the United States to the Horticulture Building to identify and claim their loved ones.

In January 1950, the remains of five unidentified passengers of the SS Noronic were laid to rest at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Later that year, a stone memorial was installed on the site of their graves.

The SS Noronic Inquiry & Aftermath

After a federal inquiry into the tragedy by the Kellock Commission was completed in November 1949, shipping laws were tightened. All ships were mandated to have fire-resisting bulkheads, a continuous fire patrol system, an automated fire alarm, sprinkler systems, and trained firefighting personnel aboard. Captain Taylor was suspended for one year; however, during that time, he retired.

In 1954, Canada Steamship Lines was ordered to pay a total of $2,150,000 to 669 Noronic survivors and family members of the deceased.

On the 50th anniversary of the disaster, Ontario Heritage Trust installed a plaque on Toronto’s waterfront at the foot of Bay St. It’s located just west of the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal docks, about 100 m west of where the SS Noronic burned.

The SS Noronic tragedy remains to this day, the worst loss of life in Toronto’s history.

Did You Know?

1941 - For 36 seasons, the SS Noronic carried passengers on fun-filled summertime pleasure cruises through the Great Lakes and St Lawrence River. In this photo, passengers are making the letter V for victory while aboard the ship in Sault Ste Marie
1941 – For 36 seasons, the SS Noronic carried passengers on fun-filled summertime pleasure cruises through the Great Lakes and St Lawrence River (City of Vancouver Archives, CVA-586631)
  • Completed in 1913, the SS Noronic was built in Port Arthur, or what we know today as Thunder Bay, by the Western Dry Dock & Shipbuilding Company.
  • The vessel was built for the Northern Navigation Company. Later that same year, the company merged with Richelieu & Ontario Line to become Canada Steamship Lines.
  • The SS Noronic could carry 588 passengers and 187 crew. She was 117 m or 385 ft in length. The steel decks aboard the vessel included the Main, Spar, Promenade, Observation, Boat and Hurricane.
  • She took her maiden voyage in 1914 and, for 36 seasons, carried passengers on fun-filled summertime pleasure cruises through the Great Lakes and St Lawrence River.
  • What is the origin of the name NORONIC? “NO” came from the first two letters of the Northern Navigation Company. “RO” represented the Richelieu & Ontario Line. And the last syllable, “NIC” – the company had a tradition of ending their ship names with nic.
  • The SS Noronic was built to be both a cruiseliner in the summer months and a freight carrier during the off-season.
  • No crew members died in the disaster.
  • Metal scrap from the ship’s charred decks and hull was processed into cars and household tools.
  • The fire aboard the SS Noronic marked the beginning of the end of the passenger cruise ship industry on the Great Lakes.

SS Noronic Photos

1930 - The SS Noronic moored in Toronto harbour. The luxury Great Lakes cruise ship took her maiden voyage in 1914 and was the flagship of Canada Steamship Lines
1930 – The SS Noronic moored in Toronto harbour. The luxury Great Lakes cruise ship took her maiden voyage in 1914 and was the flagship of Canada Steamship Lines (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1429)
1919 - The Grand Saloon of the SS Noronic. Amenities aboard the luxury cruise ship included a social hall, writing room, music room, chapel, children’s playroom, beauty salon, barber shop, smoking room, lounge, buffet bar and more
1919 – The Grand Saloon of the SS Noronic. Amenities aboard the luxury cruise ship included a social hall, writing room, music room, chapel, children’s playroom, beauty salon, barber shop, smoking room, lounge, buffet bar and more (Toronto Public Library 37131104907498D_V5_N1)
1919 - The Dining Room aboard the SS Noronic spanned the width of the ship and could serve 278 guests. Every table had white table clothes, fine china, silver cutlery, fresh flowers and unobstructed views of the passing scenery
1919 – The Dining Room aboard the SS Noronic spanned the width of the ship and could serve 278 guests. Every table had white table clothes, fine china, silver cutlery, fresh flowers and unobstructed views of the passing scenery (Toronto Public Library 37131104907498D_V5_N1)
1920s - Looking southeast from the Toronto Harbour Commission Building at 60 Harbour St towards the SS Noronic (the ship on the right) docked at the foot of Bay St
1920s – Looking southeast from the Toronto Harbour Commission Building at 60 Harbour St towards the SS Noronic (the ship on the right) docked at the foot of Bay St (Ports Toronto Archives, PC1-1-9444, Arthur Beales – photographer)
Date unknown - The SS Noronic in Toronto harbour with the Terminal Warehouse on Queens Quay W in the background
Date unknown – The SS Noronic in Toronto harbour with the Terminal Warehouse on Queens Quay W in the background (Ports Toronto Archives, PC1-1-9447, Arthur Beales – photographer)
1931 - SS Noronic in the Toronto harbour. The ship could carry 588 passengers and 187 crew. She was 117 m or 385 ft in length
1931 – SS Noronic in the Toronto harbour. The ship could carry 588 passengers and 187 crew. She was 117 m or 385 ft in length (Library and Archives Canada a098385)
1941 - For 36 seasons, the SS Noronic carried passengers on fun-filled summertime pleasure cruises through the Great Lakes and St Lawrence River. In this photo, passengers are making the letter V for victory while aboard the ship in Sault Ste Marie
1941 – For 36 seasons, the SS Noronic carried passengers on fun-filled summertime pleasure cruises through the Great Lakes and St Lawrence River. In this photo, passengers are making the letter V for victory while aboard the ship in Sault Ste Marie (City of Vancouver Archives, CVA-586631)
Date unknown - The Rouille and the SS Noronic in Toronto harbour
Date unknown – The Rouille and the SS Noronic in Toronto harbour (Ports Toronto Archives, PC1-1-9440, Arthur Beales – photographer)
September 17, 1949 - The roaring inferno on the SS Noronic while docked at Pier 9 lit Toronto's night sky. A Toronto fireboat is battling the fire from the harbour. 119 people lost their lives in the disaster
September 17, 1949 – The roaring inferno on the SS Noronic while docked at Pier 9 lit Toronto’s night sky. A Toronto fireboat is battling the fire from the harbour. 119 people lost their lives in the disaster (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1518)
September 1949 - Workers and trucks along Pier 9 beside the fire-ravaged SS Noronic. In the distance is the Royal York Hotel
September 1949 – Workers and trucks along Pier 9 beside the fire-ravaged SS Noronic. In the distance is the Royal York Hotel (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 100, Item 499)
September 1949 - Officials aboard the charred SS Noronic. The inferno broke out while docked at Pier 9, near today's Jack Layton Ferry Terminal
September 1949 – Officials aboard the charred SS Noronic. The inferno broke out while docked at Pier 9, near today’s Jack Layton Ferry Terminal (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 100, Item 505)
September 1949 - The twisted metal decks of the SS Noronic after the fire. Pillars between decks buckled from the extreme heat. The tragedy resulted in mandates to improve safety on ships which included having fire-resisting bulkheads
September 1949 – The twisted metal decks of the SS Noronic after the fire. Pillars between decks buckled from the extreme heat. The tragedy resulted in mandates to improve safety on ships which included having fire-resisting bulkheads (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 100, Item 471)
September 1949 - Officials, workers and trucks on Pier 9 between the Canada Steamship Lines shed and the SS Noronic after the fire
September 1949 – Officials, workers and trucks on Pier 9 between the Canada Steamship Lines shed and the SS Noronic after the fire (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 100, Item 470)
September 1949 - The twisted metal Hurricane Deck of the SS Noronic after the fire. In the distance on the left is the Royal York Hotel and on the right is the Canadian Bank of Commerce Building
September 1949 – The twisted metal Hurricane Deck of the SS Noronic after the fire. In the distance on the left is the Royal York Hotel and on the right is the Canadian Bank of Commerce Building (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 100, Item 461)
September 1949 - The aftermath of the fire on board the SS Noronic
September 1949 – The aftermath of the fire on board the SS Noronic (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 100, Item 463 )
September 17, 1949 - Captain William Taylor of the SS Noronic
September 17, 1949 – Captain William Taylor of the SS Noronic (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 136606)
September 1949 - Workers on Pier 9 at the aftermath of the fire onboard the SS Noronic
September 1949 – Workers on Pier 9 at the aftermath of the fire onboard the SS Noronic (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 100, Item 497)
September 1949 - The charred ruins of the SS Noronic at Pier 9 on Toronto's waterfront
September 1949 – The charred ruins of the SS Noronic at Pier 9 on Toronto’s waterfront (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 100, Item 507 )
September 1949 - The aftermath of the SS Noronic disaster
September 1949 – The aftermath of the SS Noronic disaster (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 100, Item 462)
September 1949 - City employees sifting through the fragile remains of the SS Noronic
September 1949 – City employees sifting through the fragile remains of the SS Noronic (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 100, Item 502)
September 19, 1949 - The weight of the water used to fight the fire aboard the SS Noronic caused the ship's stern to settle and rest on the slip's shallow floor with its lower decks underwater
September 19, 1949 – The weight of the water used to fight the fire aboard the SS Noronic caused the ship’s stern to settle and rest on the slip’s shallow floor with its lower decks underwater (Library and Archives Canada a145793)
September 1949 - Nurses and cots in the Horticulture Building at Exhibition Place. The cots were for relatives and friends to rest who came to identify their loved ones
September 1949 – Nurses and cots in the Horticulture Building at Exhibition Place. The cots were for relatives and friends to rest who came to identify their loved ones (Toronto Police Museum and Discovery Centre)
2022 - The heritage plaque, located near the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal at 9 Queens Quay W, reads: 

"THE "NORONIC" DISASTER On the evening of September 16, 1949, the "Noronic", a Great Lakes cruise ship carrying 524 passengers, docked at Pier 9, 100 metres east of here. At 1:30 the next morning, a passenger noticed smoke seeping from a locked closet. Crew members fought the fire, but it erupted into a life-threatening inferno before they could waken everyone aboard. Passengers descended the gangway, climbed down ropes, leapt onto the dock, or jumped into the harbour. Firefighters, police and passers-by assisted, but 119 perished. All but one were American passengers. An inquiry resulted in stricter fire safety enforcement which forced older cruise ships out of service and caused a decline in passenger shipping on the lakes."

Ontario Heritage Foundation, an agency of the Government of Ontario
2022 – The heritage plaque, located near the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal at 9 Queens Quay W, reads:

“THE “NORONIC” DISASTER On the evening of September 16, 1949, the “Noronic,” a Great Lakes cruise ship carrying 524 passengers, docked at Pier 9, 100 metres east of here. At 1:30 the next morning, a passenger noticed smoke seeping from a locked closet. Crew members fought the fire, but it erupted into a life-threatening inferno before they could waken everyone aboard. Passengers descended the gangway, climbed down ropes, leapt onto the dock, or jumped into the harbour. Firefighters, police and passers-by assisted, but 119 perished. All but one were American passengers. An inquiry resulted in stricter fire safety enforcement which forced older cruise ships out of service and caused a decline in passenger shipping on the lakes.”

Ontario Heritage Foundation, an agency of the Government of Ontario
SOURCE