Fire! Fire! Luxury Cruise Ship “SS Noronic” and many passengers Lost in 1949 Blaze
“Queen of the Great Lakes” was the finest and largest fresh-water cruise ship. Ignited in a closet, flames soon engulfed the SS Noronic at a Toronto dock.
A luxurious passenger ship, the SS Noronic plied the waters of the Great Lakes. Cruise ships toured the fresh water lakes just as liners cruise the oceans today. The Noronic had an unblemished reputation for excellence and quality, providing customers with wonderful, decadent cruises of the Great Lakes for nearly 37 years.
Luxury and Opulence Aboard
Owned by Canada Steamship Lines, the Noronic was a beautiful five-decked vessel with walls of polished wood, expansive window vistas and luxurious accommodations. Guests dined in the spacious dining room and danced in the opulent ballroom, entertained by the inviting strains of orchestra music. A beauty salon and barber shop were part of the amenities, along with a library and children’s play room. Passengers could play bingo or cards in games room, or read the daily newspaper hot from the presses onboard the ship. The Noronic earned the honorary title of “Queen of the Great Lakes.” Then on a dark summer night, disaster struck.
Setting sail on September 14, 1949, SS Noronic “weighed anchor from her berth in downtown Detroit a 11 a.m., crossed Lake Erie to Cleveland to pick up more passengers, then sailed through the Welland Canal to Canada,” said Chris Edwards in “The Burning of the Noronic” on Walkerville Times. The Noronic cruise was popular – there were 574 passengers on the cruise, attended by 131 crew members.
Docked at Pier 9 of the Canada Steamship Lines in Toronto, Ontario two days later, passengers disembarked for an exciting adventure in the bustling city. Passengers and guests returned to the vessel as the evening turned to night, settling into their comfortable beds. Only a few crew members had remained on board; Captain William Taylor had gone ashore himself to visit Toronto, returning to his vessel in the early morning hours of September 17th.
Smoke from a Linen Closet
A passenger on deck at 2:30 a.m. noticed a problem. He observed “smoke coming from a door to a walk-in closet, used to store linen,” said Edwards. The door was locked. Finding help and an extinguisher, the closet door was opened. Fuelled with fresh oxygen, the flames exploded out into the hallway. A fire hose was found but precious little water came out. Giving up, the men ran to sound the alarm.
Engulfed in Minutes
The fire devoured the dry, polished wood of the ship. Roused from their sleep, passengers awoke from pleasant dreams to a nightmare; many could not escape the smoke and flames filling the narrow hallways and cabins. “Within 10 minutes, the Noronic was a raging inferno,” said “Shipwreck Investigations: Inland Waters” at Library and Archives Canada. The Toronto Fire Department came to the rescue within minutes of receiving the call but the vessel and many passengers were beyond help. “By 5 a.m.,” said Shipwreck Investigations, the well-appointed ship “was a smoldering ruin, a victim of a devastating fire that left over one hundred dead and scores injured.”
When the final count was made, 119 passengers were dead, many burned beyond recognition. Almost all of those who perished were American passengers from Cleveland. No crew members perished.
Strict Fire Regulations Ordered
An inquiry into the catastrophe could find no cause for the fire. Recommendations were made for better firefighting equipment, automatic alarms and improved emergency training. New and rigorous laws were put in force, but the effect was to cause the end of the Great Lakes cruise business. “Ships were soon withdrawn from service as a result of the strict new fire regulations,” noted Edwards. The renovations were just too costly to be feasible.
Built in 1913 at Western Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company of Port Arthur, Ontario (now Thunder Bay), the SS Noronic was one of the largest and most magnificent passenger ships in the Great Lakes. With a length of 362 feet, a height of 52 feet and width of almost 25 feet, the cruise ship had a gross tonnage at just over 6,900. SS Noronic made her first voyage in 1914, the first of over 1,000 safe voyages sailing the Great Lakes waters under the Canada Steamship Lines.
Another Linen Closet Fire
The year after the Noronic catastrophe, the cruise ship Quebec suffered a similar fire near Tadoussac, Quebec. Many were injured and seven passengers died. “Comparisons were made to the Noronic disaster, especially when federal investigators determined that the fire had been deliberately set in a locked linen closet,” stated “Shipwreck Investigations.” No one was imprisoned for the crimes.
The bygone era of elegant ships plying the Great Lakes may be gone, but smaller vessels are now filling the void for avid passengers desiring a sea-faring experience without the salty water.
- Edwards, Chris, “The Burning of the Noronic,” Walkerville Times
- “Shipwreck Investigations: Inland Waters,” Library and Archives Canada
This article was first published on Suite101.com in September 2012. (C) Susanna McLeod