Tragedy, Marriage and the Great Lakes
All of my life I’ve never lived very far from the north shore of Lake Ontario. In a sense, it has been my compass point even though I don’t actually see it most of the time. I never noticed it until I went to visit my sister in the London, Ontario area. I soon discovered that southern awareness had disappeared and I had to think about which direction was which. It was a really odd sensation.
Lake Ontario is one of the Great Lakes which is the largest inland freshwater system in the world encompassing 94,600 square miles. The primary lakes are Ontario, Erie, Michigan, Huron and Superior.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s cruise ships traveled the waters of the Great Lakes. The opening of the fourth Welland canal in 1913 linking Lake Erie and Lake Ontario expanded the market for luxury travel. The luxury steamships on the Great Lakes rivaled the great ocean liners on their cruises.
Planes had not yet made travel fast and convenient. Ships and trains were the mode of travel most in use. Steamships offered luxurious accommodations for people wanting to travel the waters of the lakes stopping at destinations on both sides of the Canada / US border. The cruises were popular and profitable to the ship lines. A lack of meaningful safety regulations helped keep their costs down.
The SS Noronic
One of the ships, the SS Noronic, was owned by Northern Navigation Co in 1913. At the time it was one of the largest steamships on the Great Lakes able to carry up to 600 passengers on five decks. Not long after its maiden voyage Canada Steamship Lines purchased Northern Navigation Co, making CSL one of hte largest lines in the country.
The Noronic would be referred to as “The Queen of the Lakes”. She was outfitted in luxury including: a ballroom, dining hall, barber shop, beauty salon, music & writing rooms, library, children’s playroom and even had its own newspaper printed on board for the passengers. The passage ways were lined with wood that had been oiled with lemon oil frequently over the 40 years the shipped sailed the great lakes.
The Noronic’s Final Voyage
On September 14, 1949 the SS Noronic set out from Detroit for what was to be the last trip of the season. After a stop in Cleveland the ship had 529 American passengers and a crew of 171 Canadians. The cruise was to stop in Prescott, Ontario, the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River, Toronto and then back to Detroit. It would then sail to Sarnia, Ontario where it would winter.
Today the location of where the 1949 pier for the Toronto stop can be found in the lobby of the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel. In the itnervening years between 1949 and today the shore of Lake Ontario has been pushed out into the lake which has resulted in a major Hotel chain located where the Noronic once docked.
The Noronic docked on September 16. Most of the passengers and all but 15 of the crew went into the city. Most returned around 1:30am and the ship settled in for the night.
Around 2:30am a passenger noticed smoke on Deck C which ended up being traced to a linen closet. A bellboy was located to investigate and rather than sounding an alarm he ran to get keys to open the closet from the Steward’s office on Deck D. Opening the door provide air to fuel the smoldering fire, giving it life.
As the flames spread fueled by the well oiled wood lining the corriders and open stairwells creating a chimney effect. Fire extinguishers proved to be useless, the fire hose didn’t work properly and there hadn’t been any emergency drills. Within 10 minutes half the ship was on fire.
Captain Taylor was notified and the first mate sounded the ship’s whistle. The whistle jammed into an unrelenting shriek that would continue like a death knell for the ship.
Panic raced through passengers made worse by there not being an emergecy exit on each deck. There was one exit passageway for the entire ship. Most of the crew exited the ship immediately. The Captain and the remaining crew raced through parts of the ship they could reach trying to direct passengers. In some instances they smashed out windows to get the passengers off the ship.
Desparation led to many passengers jumping off the ship. Many jumped into the cold waer, others onto the pier injuring themselves. One passenger died on the pier. Some didn’t jump clear of the ship and landed on other decks, injuring themselves.
The chaotic desparation continued as fire and rescue started to arrive. As they tried to swing ladders up to the ship to fight the fire, passengers were jumping onto them. Some broke and in one case a truck was toppled. Many passengers were injured.
Trying to get people out of the water using ladders saw people all trying to climb at the same time, pulling them into the water. Ropes were used to bring people up. Despite the chaos, only one person drowned.
Any vehicle willing to help was pressed into service to help ferry injured to nearby hospitals. Many of the injuries were burns. As the passengers were being tended to, fire boats started arriving to fight the fire on the water side and fire trucks organized to fight it from the pier side.
Hours Later the Fire is Out
By 5:30am the last of the fire was extinguished. The heat had been so intense, parts of the ship had warped. The name on the bow of the ship was at the waterline. Divers would have to engaged to search for some of the dead. It would 10am before the shell cooled enough to allow any to venture onboard.
Many years later, I met Edwin Feeney who was a reporter for the Toronto Star at the time. He was one of the first reporters allowed onboard. He had retired when I met him. During a conversation I brought up the subject of the Noronic because of some family history I’m going to talk about in a moment. His face took on a pained look and shuddered. The images he’d seen that day were too horrific, he didn’t want to talk about what he saw.
The locations of the bodies onboard and how they died reflected the panic and chaos reported by the survivors. Some bodies were never found. In total 118 were found but 139 were believed to be the total losses.
The Marriage That Changed Plans
Of consequence to no one but members of my family, September 17, 1949 was the day my parents were to be married. My mother’s maid of honour worked at the Royal York Hotel at the time.
There were locations in Toronto that became temporary morgues to deal with the overflow from the hospitals. The Royal York Hotel became a reception centre for the passengers and families. Eileen was among the staff called back into work to facilitate this.
Changes to the wedding party were quickly made with my aunt stepping in as maid of honour.
The burning of the SS Noronic became part of our family history which is why 73 years later I’m reminded on September 17 not only how long my parents would have been married were they still alive, but also of the anniversary of an event the average person has never heard of.
My parents did celebrate their 50th anniversary a few months before my mother died in early 2000. We tried to locate Eileen to invite her to the reception for their 50th but my mother had lost touch with her and we were unable to track her down.
Images are Public Domain with Attribution:
Shadowspub is a writer from Ontario, Canada. She writes on a variety of subjects as she pursues her passion for learning. She also writes on other platforms and enjoys creating books you use like journals, notebooks, coloring books etc.
NOTE: unless otherwise stated, all images are the author’s
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