In an era when sailing the inland seas
was considered de rigueur, the SS Noronic,
flagship of the Canada Steamship Lines and the largest
passenger cruise ship on the Great Lakes, sailed more
than a thousand safe voyages in her 37-year career.
There was no reason to believe another voyage from Windsor
and Detroit to the Thousand Islands and back would be
But on the night of September 16, 1949, docked in the
safe harbour of Torontos famed Pier
9 at the foot of Yonge Street, she became a deadly inferno
in just fifteen minutes.
compiled by Chris Edwards
first sailing, south from Port Arthur, could have been her last.
It was November, and the famous gales of the Great Lakes were indeed
in full force. The SS Noronic was almost caught in The Great
Storm of 1913. According to the Marine Review, The situation
on the Great Lakes was unprecedented. Since the lakes have been
commercially navigated, no such conditions have ever been met with
before and many centuries may pass again until such a phenomenon
may again be experienced.
reached a height of 35 feet; on Sunday, November 9, the wind blew
for 16 straight hours in excess of 80 miles an hour. From the head
of Lake Superior down to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, ships
and crew fought a life-and-death battle for survival.
vessels went down with all hands lost; eight others were completely
destroyed, with 20 more left stranded on reefs and islands. Worse
still, more than 250 able seamen lost their lives (look for The
TIMES coverage of The Great Storm of 13 in a future
to leave on her maiden voyage on the day of the storm, the Noronic
instead stayed safe and sound in Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay),
Ontario. She was 362 feet long with a 52-foot beam. Her draft was
28 feet and a gross tonnage of 6,095 made her a large vessel for
a lake cruiser. She had originally been ordered by the Northern
Navigation Company, but later was sold to the Canadian Steamship
Lines for its Great Lakes passenger fleet.
few days after The Great Storm of 13, the Noronic set sail
from Port Arthur to Sarnia, which remained her home port until her
Noronic at port in Detroit.
The Queen of the Lakes
Noronic had an impressive pose when docked, as she towered over
the land by five decks. In her glory days, she epitomized the ultimate
in Great Lakes cruising the likes of which we shall never
Noronic was one of the finest ships ever to sail on the Great Lakes.
First-time passengers marvelled at her great dining room, the length
of her promenade decks, the curving sweep of her carved staircases,
her teak, cherry and oak walls, the pampered comfort of her staterooms.
Noronic was known on both shores as The Queen of the Inland
Seas. In the early days, she seldom sailed without a band
leaving Detroit on her northern route, she headed to Point Edward
and an eight-hour layover while she took on supplies. For onshore
entertainment, passengers were ferried to Canatara Park, where they
were served a sumptuous lunch by shipboard waiters and waitresses,
complete with white linen tablecloths, shining silverware, and chilled
outstanding feature was the great dining hall, offering a panoramic
view through giant floor-to-ceiling windows and fresh-cut flowers
on each table. The ships cuisine was equal to the great restaurants
of the day.
observation lounge on B deck included large windows and over-stuffed
leather chairs. At night, it was converted into a ballroom, and
the ships resident orchestra provided live music for dancing.
games, euchre tournaments, gala costume balls, writing rooms, a
full library, a music room, buffet bars, souvenir stands, supervised
playroom for children, barber shop and beauty parlour kept the patrons
busy. Passengers were provided with a daily newspaper-printed on
Noronic plied the waterways between Canada and the United States
for years, as did her sister ships, the SS Huronic and the SS Hamonic.
As if a harbinger of things to come, the Hamonic caught fire in
1945. The dock itself was on fire and the crew were unable to build
up enough steam to get her out of harms way before the ship
caught fire. Fortunately, since the fire was on the dock, passengers
and crew had fair warning and were able to escape. Only one fatality
was suffered in that event.
1949, the Noronic was 36 years old, yet still considered the finest
and largest ship of her kind afloat on the Great Lakes. She had
never once been in dire peril from the weather, nor did she ever
once call for assistance while cruising the lakes.
Cruising the Inner Seas
one time there were more people asleep on boats on the Great Lakes
than on any ocean in the world.
J. Wolf, 1909-1987
the early 20th Century, lake travel had become primarily a means
of pleasure. Dozens of luxuriously equipped vessels plied the waters
of the great inland seas, offering everything from one-day
excursions to two-week cruises.
nearly 100 years, from the early 1800s, packet boats with a dual
freight and passenger role were the predominant mode of transportation
within the region. However, as vessels grew in size, and iron hulls
and steam power advanced in sophistication, the demand grew for
ships that were in fact floating hotels rather than freight boats.
became quite luxurious rivalling the quality of accommodation
on the great ocean liners of the day. Overnight cruising also came
into its own, and by the 20s and 30s, there were many
lines offering ships with all levels of accommodation.
Chicago, Duluth and Georgian Bay Transit Company operated two well
known vessels, the North American and South American
that offered 7-day cruises between Detroit and Duluth or Detroit,
Montreal and the Saguenay. The South Americans last voyage,
after 50 years service, was in 1967, to the Montreal Exposition.
Steamship Lines offered service from Detroit to Montreal and the
Saguenay Fjord, with service to Toronto and other lake ports with
their three ships the Noronic, Hamonic and
Huronic. Canadian Pacific connected their rail heads
with a cruise on either the Assiniboia or the Keewatin
between Port McNicoll and Thunder Bay.
the coming of steam, fire dangers were greatly increased and numerous
tragedies occurred from an almost lack of knowledge as to cause
and prevention. The various Steamboat Acts called for pumps and
the construction of most ships was such that even in iron and steel
steamers, there were wooden decks and minor bulkheads with combustible
paints and furnishing. The presence of long passageways and staircases
that acted as chimneys increased the ships vulnerability.
All this practically guaranteed that once any fire started, it would
sweep through the vessel with the explosive force of a blow torch.
fire fighters dread ship fires because of their complexity and difficult
access. Comments from land-based fire fighters include: its
like fighting a house fire by going down the chimney or smoke stack
and that steel box conducts heat like you wouldnt believe.
have been many famous fires on the lakes. One such catastrophe has
been referred to as the holocaust of September 8, 1934
when the U.S. Liner Munroe Castle burned in sight of
the New Jersey coast. One hundred and thirty-seven souls were lost.
Munroe Castle, just four years old, was considered the finest and
most luxurious vessel in the American passenger service, built to
1929 fire convention standards.
was the custom in all ships of the period, highly combustible linens
and furnishings in the cabins and public rooms outweighed the advantages
of the fire resistant partitions required by the convention. Fire
swept remorselessly through The Castle shortly after being detected
in the writing room. Some people were burned to death in their cabins,
some escaped by life boat and a few actually swam ashore
a distance of 8 miles.
1949, the era of passenger vessels on the Great Lakes was drawing
to a close. Ships built following a century-old tradition were almost
all ghosts, their names echoing from out of the mists of the past:
The Put-in-Bay, City of Detroit, The Western World.
one drama had yet to play out
an event that would finally bring sailing vessel fire safety on
board and into the modern era: the burning of the SS Noronic.
the summer of 49, the Noronic ran passengers from The Border
Cities (Windsor, Walkerville and Detroi) to Duluth, Minnesota. This
itinerary was revised in September, and her seven-day voyage began
in Windsor/Detroit, continued to Cleveland, then onto Toronto, the
Thousand Islands, and Prescott, Ontario, before returning to Detroit.
September 14, she weighed anchor from her berth in downtown Detroit
at 11 a.m., crossed Lake Erie to Cleveland to pick up more passengers,
then sailed through the Welland Canal into Lake Ontario.
this fateful voyage, 524 passengers, consisting mostly of Americans
from Cleveland, were enjoying a late-summer excursion to Canada
and the layover in Toronto. A crew of 171 looked after their safety
and catered to their every whim.
6 p.m. September 16th, the Noronic slid into her Canadian Steam-ship
Line berth in Toronto Pier 9 at the foot of Yonge Street.
With her bow facing north, and her starboard side secured along
the dock, passengers and some crew soon set out to venture amid
downtown Toronto, a city growing in sophistication in post WWII
the 171 crew, only 16 were on duty that night. Included among those
who went ashore was the Captain William Taylor, who returned at
this hour, most of the passengers had also re-boarded, along with
an unknown number of guests who accompanied passengers to the ship.
It was a cool night with the temperature around 60 degrees and a
steady wind from the southwest. Many of those who remained on the
ship would not live to see the sunrise. Instead, their peaceful
slumber would become a collective nightmare of panic and chaos
fire on the water.