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SS Noronic

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SS Noronic in Prescott, 1939
SS Noronic in Prescott, Ontario 1939.
NameSS Noronic
OwnerCanada Steamship Lines
BuilderWestern Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Co., Port Arthur
LaunchedJune 2, 1913
Nickname(s)"The Queen of the Lakes"
FateDestroyed by fire, September 17, 1949
General characteristics [1]
TypePassenger ship
Tonnage6,095 GRT
Length362 ft (110 m)
Depth28 ft 9 in (8.76 m)
Propulsion1 × 3-cylinder triple expansion engine, single shaft, 1 screw.
Speed16 knots (30 km/h; 18 mph)
Capacity600 passengers

SS Noronic was a Canadian passenger ship that was destroyed by fire in Toronto Harbour in September 1949 with the loss of at least 118 lives.[2]: 152 [3]: 179 [4]


SS Noronic after launching on June 2, 1913 in Port Arthur, Ontario.

In 1910 the Northern Navigation Company, a subsidiary of the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company, engaged in an operating agreement with the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR), for the construction of a new ship. While Northern did not immediately propose to build a new steamer at that time, the addition of new cabins for the Huronic was also under consideration.[5]

In mid-January 1911, shipping entrepreneur James Playfair made a bid to purchase the Northern on behalf of himself and his associates. The offer was subject to approval by the GTR, concerning the previous operating agreement. Playfair's offer was to purchase the company at C$1,250,000 for the C$1,000,000 worth of stock and other terms. Northern's president, W. J. Sheppard, communicated the offer to GTR president Charles Melville Hays, who in turn discussed the matter with his company's passenger and freight departments. Hays asked Sheppard if he would consider whether or not the business outlook would warrant the company to place an order for a steamship of equal capacity and general style to Hamonic, to run in the line with that vessel.

Hays did not approve of the proposed transfer of ownership and the deal with Playfair fell through. However, Playfair then went to work to change his mind and managed to secure the GTR's approval. On February 6, Hays notified that, under the agreement with the two companies, Northern would provide a new steamship within eighteen months. The new vessel would be ready no later than the opening of navigation in 1913, and would probably be 400 feet long.[6] Hays' untimely death aboard the Titanic likely contributed to a delay to the start of construction.


SS Noronic travelling through the Sault Ste. Marie canal, circa 1948

SS Noronic was launched June 2, 1913, in Port Arthur, Ontario.[7] She was built by the Western Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company for Canada Steamship Lines.

Built for passenger and package freight service on the Great Lakes,[8] Noronic had five decks, was 362 feet (110 m) in length, and measured 6,095 gross register tons. At maximum capacity, she could hold 600 passengers and 200 crew. One of Canada's largest and most beautiful passenger ships at the time, she was nicknamed the “Queen of the Lakes."[9]: 146 

Passenger decks were labelled A, B, C, and D, and none had direct gangplank access to the dock. The only exits were located on the lowest deck, E deck. There were two gangplanks on the port side and two on the starboard side, and only two were operational at a time.[9]: 146 

Noronic had eight fleetmate ships: City of Midland, Doric, Germanic, Ionic, Majestic, Waubic, Huronic and Hamonic.[10] Hamonic burned in 1945 and Huronic was retired and scrapped in 1950.[11]



On September 14, 1949, Noronic embarked on a seven-day pleasure cruise of Lake Ontario from Detroit, Michigan, United States.[3]: 177  She departed from Detroit and picked up additional passengers at Cleveland, Ohio, from where she was scheduled to travel to Prescott, Ontario, and the Thousand Islands before returning to Sarnia, where she would have remained over the winter.[12] Noronic was carrying 524 passengers, all but twenty of whom were American,[13] and 171 crew members, all Canadian.[3]: 177  The captain on the voyage was Capt. William Taylor.[3]: 179  Noronic docked for the night at Pier 9 in Toronto Harbour at 7:00 p.m. on September 16.[2]

At 2:30 a.m., passenger Don Church noticed smoke in the aft part of the starboard corridor on C deck. Church followed the smell of smoke to a small room off the port corridor, just forward of a women's washroom. Finding that the smoke was coming from a locked linen closet, he notified bellboy Earnest O'Neil of the fire. Without sounding the alarm, O'Neil ran to the steward’s office on D deck to retrieve the keys to the closet. Once the closet was opened, the fire exploded into the hallway; it spread quickly, fueled by the lemon-oil-polished wood paneling on the walls.[9]: 147 

Church, O'Neil, another bellboy, and another passenger attempted to fight the blaze with fire extinguishers, but were forced to retreat almost immediately by the spreading flames. To his dismay, O'Neil found the fire extinguishers to be out of order. Church rushed to his stateroom on D deck, and fled the ship with his wife and children.[9]: 147–148  Meanwhile, O'Neil ran to the officers' quarters and notified Captain Taylor. First Mate Gerry Wood then sounded the ship's whistle to raise the alarm. It was 2:38 a.m., only eight minutes after the fire began, but already half of the ship’s decks were ablaze.[9]: 148 

Twenty-seven-year-old Donald Williamson was the first rescuer on the scene. After working a late shift at a nearby Goodyear Tire plant, the former lake freighter deckhand wanted to see Noronic, which he knew was in port. Williamson arrived to the sound of the ship's distress whistle, as the fire was quickly growing and people were frantically jumping into the lake. Spotting a large painters’ raft nearby, he released it and pushed it into a position near the ship's port bow. As people leapt from the burning ship, he pulled them from the water to the safety of the raft.[14]

Responding to a "routine" box call, Toronto police constables Ronald Anderson and Warren Shaddock turned their "accident" car onto Queen's Quay in time to see the ship erupt in flames as high as the mast. Their cruiser was immediately surrounded by survivors, many in shock, some on fire. A passenger alerted Anderson to those in the water and those on the decks, some in flames.[14] Anderson stripped his uniform off, jumped into the frigid, oily water, and began to assist Williamson on the raft.[14] Fireboats joined the rescue operation, plucking others who jumped into the water from the ship. Among those officers was Jack Marks, who went on to become Toronto's chief of police.

Crew members had to smash portholes to drag some passengers out of their cabins. Moments before the whistle sounded, the pier's night watchman noticed the flames coming from the ship and contacted the Toronto Fire Department. A pumper truck, a hose wagon, a high-pressure truck, an aerial truck, a rescue squad, the deputy chief and a fireboat were dispatched to the scene. Ambulances and police were also dispatched. The first fire truck arrived at the pier at 2:41 a.m.[1]

Passengers escape by rope

By this time, the entire ship was consumed in flames. Only fifteen crew members had been on the ship when the fire broke out,[15] and they failed to make a sweep of the upper four decks to wake passengers; those who did wake up were awakened by screaming and running in the corridors. Most of the ship's stairwells were on fire, and few passengers were able to reach E-deck to escape down the gangplanks. Some passengers climbed down ropes to the pier.[9]: 148  The scene was later described as one of great panic, with people jumping from the upper decks engulfed in flames and some falling to their deaths onto the pier below. Others were trampled to death in the mad rush in the corridors. Still others suffocated or were burned alive, unable to exit their cabins. The screams of the dying were said to be audible even over the sounds of whistles and sirens.[9]: 150 

The first rescue ladder was extended to B deck. It was immediately rushed by passengers, causing the ladder to snap in two.[1] The passengers were sent tumbling into the harbour, where they were rescued by a waiting fireboat. Other ladders extended to C deck held firm throughout the rescue.[9]: 150 

After about twenty minutes, the metal hull was white hot, and the decks began to buckle and collapse onto each other. After an hour of fighting the blaze, Noronic was so full of water from fire hoses that it listed severely toward the pier, causing firefighters to retreat. The ship then righted itself, and firefighters returned to their original positions. By the end, more than 1.7 million gallons (6.4 million litres) of water had been poured on the ship from 37 hoses.[9]: 151 

The fire was extinguished by 5:00 a.m., and the wreckage was allowed to cool for two hours before the recovery of bodies began. Searchers found a gruesome scene inside the burned-out hull. Firefighters reported finding charred, embracing skeletons in the corridors. Some deceased passengers were found still in their beds. Many skeletons were almost completely incinerated, resulting in forensic dentistry being reportedly used to identify remains for the first time.[16][17][18] Glass had melted from every window, and even steel fittings had warped and twisted from the heat.[9]: 151  Every stairwell had been completely destroyed, save for one near the bow.[9]: 151 


The burned-out hull of Noronic

The death toll from the disaster was never precisely determined. Estimates range anywhere from 118[2]: 152 [3]: 179  to 139 deaths.[9]: 151  Most died from either suffocation or burns. Some died from being trampled or from leaping off the upper decks onto the pier. Only one person drowned. To the anger of many, all 118 of those initially killed were passengers. (One crewmember, Louisa Dustin, later died of her injuries; she was the only Canadian victim, and the 119th fatality.)[3]: 179 

An inquiry was formed by the House of Commons to investigate the accident. The fire was determined to have started in the linen closet on C deck, but the cause was never discovered.[15] It was deemed likely that a cigarette was carelessly dropped by a member of the laundry staff.[2]: 146  Company officials suspected arson.

The high death toll was blamed largely on the ineptitude and cowardice of the crew, too few of whom were on duty at the time the fire began and none of whom attempted to wake the passengers. Also, many crew members fled the ship at the first alarm, and no member of the crew ever called the fire department. Passengers had never been informed of evacuation routes or procedures.[9]: 152  The design and construction of the 36-year-old ship were also found to be at fault; the interiors had been lined with oiled wood instead of fireproof material, exits were only located on one deck instead of all five, and none of the ship's fire extinguishers were in working order.[9]: 152 

Captain Taylor was hailed as a hero in the weeks after the fire. During the fire, he broke windows, pulling trapped passengers from their rooms, and was among the last of the crew to leave the vessel.[9]: 148–150  However, the Canadian Department of Transport inquiry into the disaster blamed both Taylor and Canada Steamship Lines for failing to take adequate precautions against fire, and ordered Taylor's master's certificate suspended for one year. A witness made an accusation that Taylor had been under the influence of alcohol during the fire; Taylor denied this, and other witnesses testified that he was behaving normally.[19]

Noronic, which settled to the bottom in shallow water, was partially taken apart at the scene. The upper decks were cut away, and the hull was re-floated on November 29, 1949. It was towed to Hamilton, Ontario, where it was scrapped. Her sister ship, the smaller Huronic, was retired and scrapped in 1950. By 1967, Canada Steamship Lines phased out its remaining passenger ships from the fleet due to new international regulations relating to ships containing wood and other flammable materials.[20] Civil lawsuits for Noronic were settled for just over C$2 million.

Noronic's whistle is displayed in a nautical museum on Toronto's Waterfront.[21] The Ontario Heritage Foundation placed a plaque near the site of the disaster on its 50th anniversary.[22]

The hull of Charles A. Reed, Toronto's wooden-hulled fireboat, was damaged by the fire's extreme heat, triggering city council to seek to replace her with a more powerful, modern, steel-hulled vessel.[23]


  1. ^ a b c "Death of a Great Lakes Queen". lostliners.com. Archived from the original on 6 February 2010. Retrieved 25 November 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d Bourrie, Mark (2005). Many a Midnight Ship: True Stories of Great Lakes Shipwrecks. University of Michigan Press. pp. 145–153. ISBN 0472031368. Retrieved 1 January 2016.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Filey, Mike (2012-11-10). Toronto Sketches 11: "The Way We Were". Toronto: Dundurn. pp. 177–179. ISBN 978-1459707658.
  4. ^ "S. S. Noronic Fire Worst Inland Marine Disaster in Century". Fire Engineering. 1949-10-01. Retrieved 2019-03-20.
  5. ^ The Railway And Marine World magazine, December 1910
  6. ^ The Railway And Marine World magazine, March 1911
  7. ^ "Noronic (1134014)". Miramar Ship Index. Retrieved 8 January 2020.
  8. ^ Canadian Railway And Marine World magazine July 1913
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Varhola, Michael J.; Hoffman, Paul G. (October 2007). "A Fiery Demise for the Queen of the Lakes". Shipwrecks and Lost Treasures, Great Lakes: Legends and Lore, Pirates and More!. Globe Pequot. ISBN 9780762744923. Retrieved 3 January 2021.
  10. ^ The Railway And Marine World magazine, July 1911
  11. ^ "The Canadian Steamship Line: Noronic, Huronic, and Hamonic – Zenith City Online". Zenith City Online. Retrieved 17 December 2014.
  12. ^ "Noronic Hit by Disaster on Last Trip". The Ottawa Journal. 17 September 1949. p. 1. Retrieved 31 December 2015 – via Newspapers.com.
  13. ^ "682 Aboard Asleep When Disaster Hits Liner at Toronto Pier". The Ottawa Journal. 17 September 1949. p. 1. Retrieved 31 December 2015 – via Newspapers.com.
  14. ^ a b c Filey, Mike (September 1993). "Heroes of Noronic". More Toronto Sketches: The Way We Were. Dundurn. pp. 155–156. ISBN 978-1459713758. Retrieved 1 January 2016.
  15. ^ a b Hauch, Valerie (17 September 2015). "The day the S.S. Noronic turned Toronto's waterfront into a deadly inferno". The Toronto Star. Retrieved 4 January 2016.
  16. ^ Susan McLennan. "The Noronic Fire – Toronto's Disaster with the Greatest Loss of Life". Reimagine. Retrieved 2019-03-20. Medical examiners came in from other parts of Canada and from the US to help with the difficult task of identification. For the first time, dental records were used to identify the dead. The ID process went on for almost a year, as some of the victims were no more than piles of ash and jewelry.
  17. ^ "Last Surviving First Responder to Toronto's Greatest Disaster Marks the 65th Anniversary of the Noronic Fire". Marketwired. Toronto. 2014-09-16. Archived from the original on 2018-07-07. Retrieved 2021-01-24. The disaster gave birth to the use of dental records being used to identify the dead. Medical examiners came in from other parts of Canada and the US to help ID the victims.
  18. ^ Adam Bunch (2016-01-26). "Toronto's most deadly disaster: the nightmare on the SS Noronic". Spacing magazine. Retrieved 2019-03-20. Even then, many of the bodies were burnt so badly they were unrecognizable. Entirely new techniques of x-ray identification had to be developed. It was one of the very first times that dental records were ever used forensically. Eventually, the death toll was pegged at 119 lives.
  19. ^ "Owners, Pilot, Blamed For Ship Tragedy". The Troy Record. 22 November 1949. p. 7. Retrieved 1 January 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
  20. ^ Tales of Tragedy and Triumph: Canadian Shipwrecks, a virtual museum exhibition at Library and Archives Canada
  21. ^ Looker, Janet (2000). "The Noronic Fire". Disaster Canada. Lynx Images. p. 141. ISBN 1-894073-13-4.
  22. ^ Mike Filey (2019-09-21). "THE WAY WE WERE: 119 tragically killed in SS Noronic inferno 70 years ago". Toronto Sun. Retrieved 2019-09-23.
  23. ^ Mike Filey (2016-07-23). "Meet the 'Iron Guppy': The past and future of Toronto's waterfront tugs and fireboats". Toronto Sun. Archived from the original on 2019-03-19. Retrieved 2017-03-29. An interesting feature of the "Charles A. Reed" was the fact it was a wooden craft and suffered damage when it was used to help fight the SS Noronic waterfront disaster in September, 1949. The unsuitability of the "ancient" fireboat was used by several city councilors as they pursued the acquisition of a new fireboat.