The Noronic Disaster in 1949 – 122 people burn to death on Toronto’s waterfront

The following quote is from the book “Arse Over Teakettle,” a story about a young boy and his family in Toronto during the 1940s. The novel includes a graphic retelling of the events surrounding the burning of the luxury passenger ship the “Noronic,” at Pier 9 on the Toronto waterfront. The ship was built in 1913 at Port Arthur, Ontario, its enormous hull 362 feet long and 52 feet wide. It was the largest passenger liner on the Great Lakes, capable of accommodating almost six hundred passengers.

On 14 September, it departed from Detroit, with five hundred and seventy-four passengers and a crew of one hundred and eighty, for its final cruise of the season. It picked up many passengers at Cleveland, and sailed toward Toronto. It was scheduled to continue its journey from the port of Toronto to Prescott and the Thousand Islands. It never completed its journey.

                  From “Arse Over Teakettle.”   Photo_37

During the early hours of Saturday, 17 September, about two in the morning, all was quiet aboard the “Noronic.” The evening’s parties had ended, the copious pouring of alcoholic drinks having ceased. People were sitting in the lounge, quietly talking and enjoying a final cigarette. On the deck, at the bow, an elderly gentleman was puffing on a cigar and gazing at the flickering lights of the Toronto skyline. The well-illuminated Royal York Hotel towered into the air, dominating the scene.

Some passengers had departed the ship earlier in the evening to visit friends in the city. Others intended to have a drink in a downtown bar or perhaps dance in a nightclub. A few of them were now returning, some staggering a little as they crossed the gangway to board the ship, their exuberant voices echoing in the early-morning air. Two stewardesses from the “Cayuga,” who had been visiting some stewards from the “Noronic,” descended the gangway to return to their ship, which was moored at the other side of the pier. They waved to the revellers who were boarding. Care-free laughter floated in the still air, as the women pulled their fur-trimmed jackets around them to ward away the chilly breezes blowing from the lake. No hint of the impending disaster crossed their minds. They were anticipating a peaceful few hours of sleep, and were anxious to welcome the pleasures of the following day aboard the luxurious liner, considered the “Queen of the Inland Seas.”

However, it was not to be. At 2:30 a.m., they detected smoke below deck. To this day, much confusion exists about the events of that fatal night. One newspaper reported that a passenger detected smoke while walking a deserted corridor on the bow of the ship, on the starboard side. On investigation, he discovered it emanated from beneath the door of a linen closet. Another newspaper asserted that the smoke was first seen coming from a private stateroom on C-deck at the ship’s stern. Whatever the source of the smoke, when the door (linen cupboard/stateroom) was opened, a fierce back-draught sucked the flames into the corridor. They exploded along the hallway, sweeping unopposed like a tidal wave. The oil-polished wood panelling on the walls instantly ignited, spreading the flames throughout the vessel. The time was 2:30.

Passengers in the lounge playing cards later confirmed that they had smelled smoke shortly after 2:30 and had raised the alarm. Three women in a cabin below deck, who were also playing cards, detected the smoke. As they fled, they banged on doors and shouted. Some of those inside the cabins ignored the screaming women, as they thought that they were the last of the revellers from the late-night drinking parties. However, despite these early warnings, no fire

alarm was heard aboard the ship until 2:38. During that brief span of time, the flames reached almost half of the ship’s decks.

When the officers in the Noronic’s wheelhouse finally became aware of the fire, the ship’s whistle erupted in short blasts, and then continued non-stop for ten or twelve minutes. The “Cayuga” was anchored on the other side of the pier. As it sailed to safety in the harbour, its captain was instructed to blow its whistle to assist in awakening the passengers aboard the ill-fated vessel. Lives were saved because of these actions, as the noise awakened people, who helped spread the alarm. Only a skeletal crew remained on the “Noronic,” but the cabin boys and stewards who were aboard raced frantically along the corridors, knocking on cabin doors, and helping passengers to escape. However, by this time the passageways were becoming engulfed in flames and smothered with smoke.

It was soon discovered that the fire extinguishers were not in working order. A man later claimed that there was no acid in them. The fire hoses were almost useless as there was little pressure. It was like trying to extinguish the fires of hell with a child’s water pistol. The fire trucks had difficulty approaching as the pier was crammed bumper to bumper with automobiles. Finally, at 2:41, they set to work extinguishing the fire. Meanwhile, people continued to flee to safety. Though it was only fifteen minutes since the fire had begun, it had already spread from bow to stern.

The fire burned for over three hours. During this time, passengers fled and rescues were attempted. Three separate explosions were seen. Finally, at 6 a.m., the Noronic’s seams burst and the ship settled, stern first, into the water. A great hissing noise erupted as water gushed into the inferno inside the hull. Within minutes, the rail of the passenger deck was level with the edge of the wharf. Meanwhile, radio news stations commenced broadcasting the horrifying events to an awakening city.

To purchase the book and read the full story of the “Noronic Disaster, as well as view graphic photos of the event:

The author’s Home Page:

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