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
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.
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?
- 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
- Ontario Heritage Trust plaque
- Northern Navigator, Vol 5, No 1, 1919
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Sep 17, 1949, pgs 1 & 2
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Sep 17, 1949, pgs 1, 7 & 14
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Sep 19, 1949, pg 1
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Sep 19, 1949, pg 1
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Sep 21, 1949, pg 15
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Oct 12, 1949, pg 1
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Nov 22, 1949, pg 1
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jan 18, 1950, pg 8
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Sep 16, 1950, pg 15
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Sep 18, 1950, pg 5
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jan 30, 1954, pg 1
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Feb 19, 1962, pg 27
- The Noronic is Burning by John Craig (1976)
- Ladies of the Lake II by James Clary (1992), pgs 35-60
- Ship Building History: Canada Yards: Port Arthur
- Bad Day HQ YouTube Channel: Disasters of the Century | Season 3 | Episode 8 | Noronic Fire
- Photos: Denise Marie for TorontoJourney416
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library, Ports Toronto Archives, Library and Archives Canada, City of Vancouver Archives & Toronto Police Museum and Discovery Centre
- Video: Bad Day HQ YouTube Channel