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culture

Historicist: Queen of the Great Lakes Aflame

The 1949 fire aboard the SS Noronic took 199 lives. As the worst disaster in Toronto's history, the tragedy led to both heroism and a grisly aftermath.

Built in Port Arthur in 1913, the S.S. Noronic was—measuring 362 feet in length with a gross tonnage of 6,095—the largest cruise ship operating on the Great Lakes. She was also the most luxurious. The Canada Steamship Lines vessel featured walls and ceilings of fine oak, teak, and cherry wood, as well as hand-carved panelling lining her hallways—all of it polished with lemon oil to a spotless sheen.

For 36 years, well-heeled passengers aboard “The Queen of the Great Lakes” enjoyed her fine dining room, beauty parlour, library, children’s playroom, observation decks, and extravagant ballroom. As Mike Filey notes in Toronto Sketches 10 (Dundurn Press, 2010), the Noronic usually travelled between the port cities on Lakes Michigan, Superior, and Erie. So, on the evening of September 16, 1949, she attracted the admiring attention of passersby when she pulled into Toronto on what would turn out to be her final voyage—and the worst disaster in Toronto history.

Docking that evening at Pier 9 (near the present-day ferry docks), the Noronic was captained by William Taylor, a 65-year-old with 37 years experience with the Canada Steamship Lines. As the vessel was stopping for the night before continuing its seven-day cruise to Prescott and through the Thousand Islands, many of her 524 passengers and 171 crew members disembarked for a night on the town. With 16 left on duty, the captain also left the ship to dine with local friends. For those passengers who remained aboard (and any Torontonians who came to visit), dancing continued in the ballroom until past midnight. Passengers returned at various hours, but no one knew how many passengers were actually aboard that night.

Taylor returned to the Noronic at 1:25 a.m. At 2:38 a.m. the captain was roused by a steward, Ernest O’Neil, and informed that the ship was on fire.

Moments earlier, Donald Church, a passenger returning to his stateroom, had smelled smoke and discerned a faint crackling sound coming from within a locked linen closet. Church had summoned O’Neil to unlock the door. But as soon as they’d opened it, flames burst into the corridor.

Feeding on the wooden corridor walls, saturated with lemon oil and varnish from decades of polishing, the fire spread rapidly. Fire protection regulations introduced by the Canada Shipping Act of 1934 hadn’t been made retroactive to antiquated vessels like the Noronic. There was no fire suppression system and, as Church and O’Neil discovered when they tried to douse the blaze with a fire hose, what little safety equipment was there wasn’t in working order. Without fire bulkheads or proper deck compartmentalization to contain the fire, in a matter of minutes half of the ship was aflame.

While O’Neil ran to warn the captain, Church awoke his own family and dashed off the ship. Taylor sent First Mate Gerry Wood to sound an alarm on the ship’s whistle. But, in the intense heat, the whistle seized and emitted a single menacing howl that echoed through the night.

After finishing an evening shift at the Goodyear plant in New Toronto at 1 a.m., 27-year-old Donald Williamson was making his way downtown to meet friends. He was passing through the waterfront when he heard the Noronic‘s piercing whistle.

He rushed to the pier to find the ship engulfed in flames and frantic passengers jumping into the water, bobbing and clinging to any available debris to stay afloat. Without a second thought, Williamson hopped onto a painter’s raft nearby and, stripped to his pants, he began pulling survivors from the cold water.

He described the heat- and smoke-choked scene to the Star‘s Jim Rankin on September 11, 1999: “It was just like a big chimney, and the fire went through there like hell.”

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