It was late. The Noronic was quiet. The ship was docked at the foot of Yonge Street, gently rocking in the dark waves. Almost everyone on board was already fast asleep. It was two-thirty in the morning; most of those who had enjoyed a night out in the city had come back to their rooms and gone to bed. Hundreds of passengers were tucked beneath their sheets.Don Church was still up, though, heading back to his room from the lounge. He worked as an appraiser for a fire insurance company, so he knew what it meant when he found a strange haze in one of the corridors. He followed it back to its source: smoke billowed out from under the closed door of a linen closet. The most deadly fire in Toronto's history was just getting started.
The Noronic had first set sail all the way back in 1913: in the glory days of Great Lakes cruise ships. In the late-1800s and early-1900s, the Great Lakes were filled with luxury liners. The ships carried hundreds of passengers from ports on both sides of the border, steaming across the lakes in style. It was a major industry for nearly a century. As a member of the Toronto Marine Historical Society put it: "At one time there were more people asleep on boats on the Great Lakes than on any ocean in the world."
The SS Noronic was one of the biggest and most decadent of them all. They called her "The Queen of the Lakes." She had a ballroom, a dining hall, a barber shop and a beauty salon, music rooms and writing rooms, a library, a playroom for children, even her own newspaper printed on board for the passengers.
|The SS Noronic in 1930ish|
Storms were far from the only danger. Ships capsized or collided with each other. They sank. Many — like one of the Noronic's own sister ships, the Hamonic — burst into flame. In the early days of the industry, there were essentially no meaningfully-enforced safety regulations at all. And even when the first new laws were introduced, there were loopholes for existing ships. The Noronic was shockingly unprepared for an emergency. But no one seemed to think that was a big deal: for 36 years, she sailed without incident.
Right up until 1949. That September, the Noronic left Detroit for a week-long trip to the Thousand Islands. The cruise brought her to Toronto on a cool Friday night, docked at Pier 9 (right near where the ferry terminal is today). Her passengers and crew streamed ashore to enjoy the city. And when they came back at the end of the night, all was quiet and calm. For a while.
By the time Don Church discovered the source of the smoke, it was already too late. And when he finally found a bellboy to help him, the bellboy didn't pull the fire alarm; instead, he got the keys to open the closet door. A hellish backdraft burst into the corridor. The flames spread quickly. When Church and the bellboy tried to use a fire hose, the hose didn't work. Neither did any of the others. Even worse, the ship's hallways were lined with wood paneling: for decades now, the wood had been carefully polished with lemon oil. It was the perfect fuel for the flames. Meanwhile, stairwells acted like chimneys, funneling oxygen to the blaze.
Eight minutes later, the ship's whistle jammed while issuing a distress signal and let loose with one endless, piercing shriek. By then, half the ship was already on fire. In a few more minutes, the rest of the Noronic was in flames, too. Survivors later said the whole thing went up like the head of a match.
|Firefighters fighting the fire|
At first, the dead were pulled from the wreckage and piled up on the pier, but there were so many that eventually the Horticultural Building at the CNE was turned into a makeshift morgue. (Today, that same building is home to the Muzik nightclub.) For the next few weeks, the authorities struggled to identify the bodies. It was next to impossible. No one even knew how many people had been on board the ship. Some of them were unregistered: guests from Toronto visiting friends. Some had registered under fake names: taking a romantic cruise with someone who wasn't their spouse. Most of the passengers were American, so their families would have to make the grim journey north to see if they could identify any of the charred remains. Even then, many of the bodies were burnt so badly they were unrecognizable. Entirely new techniques of x-ray identification had to be developed. It was one of the very first times that dental records were ever used forensically. Eventually, the death toll was pegged at 119 lives. To this day, no one is entirely sure that number is quite right. But if it's anywhere close, it's the most people ever killed by a single disaster in the history of Toronto.
WARNING: THE LAST TWO PHOTOS IN THIS GALLERY INCLUDE COVERED BODIES
|The Noronic (via blogTO)|
|The Noronic in Sault Ste-Marie, 1940 (via the Vancouver Archives)|
|Dining in style on the Noronic (via Torontoist)|
|On board the Noronic in 1941ish (via the Vancouver Archives)|
|The Noronic burns (via Cities In Time)|
|The Noronic burns (via the Toronto Star)|
|The Noronic burns (via the Toronto Archives)|
|The skyline watches over the wreckage (via the Toronto Archives)|
|The wreckage of the Noronic (via the Cleveland Plain-Dealer)|
|The Royal York, in the distance, took in survivors (via the Toronto Archives)|
|The wreckage of the Noronic (via the Toronto Archives)|
|The Noronic sank in the shallows (via Citizen Freak)|
|A diver searches the wreckage (via the Toronto Star)|
|The wreckage (via Wikipedia)|
|The wreckage (via the Toronto Archives)|
|A body gets pulled from the wreckage (via the Cleveland Plain-Dealer)|
|The makeshift morgue at the Horticultural Building (via the Toronto Star)|
Ellis McGrath wrote a song about it, which you can stream here.
A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead
Coming September 2017 from Dundurn Press
Available for pre-order now