SS NORISLE: Lake Huron’s Lady In Waiting

SS NORISLE: Lake Huron’s Lady In Waiting

By Tom Rinaldi / June 6, 2016

A Canadian nonprofit has developed an ambitious plan to reactivate the historic Great Lakes steamer NORISLE, a retired Lake Huron ferry that has lain idle since the 1970s. The proposal by the S.S. Norisle Steamship Society would restore the vessel and return her to service as a small luxury cruise ship operating seasonally on the Great Lakes. If realized, the repurposed vessel would be the only historic steamship carrying passengers on overnight voyages in North America. But for want of funding, the plan exists only on paper, and NORISLE faces an uncertain future.

NORISLE makes a picturesque sight at her permanent berth in Manitowaning, Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Photo © 2015

NORISLE makes a picturesque sight at her permanent berth in
Manitowaning, Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Photo © 2015 Thomas Rinaldi

As proposed, the restored NORISLE would carry 58 passengers and 31 crew in rebuilt accommodation. The ship would cruise throughout the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, with itineraries reaching from Montreal to Sault Ste Marie. Notably, the plan calls for the restoration of her historic steam machinery, though her boilers would be converted from coal to oil burning. Having laid the groundwork for the conversion by undertaking asbestos abatement and extensive feasibility studies, the nonprofit is now exploring various partnership strategies to fund and sustain the ship’s proposed new role.

S.S. NORISLE sailed on Lake Huron from 1946 to 1974. Photo © Marine Rail Museum, Courtesy of the S.S. Norisle Steamship Society 

S.S. NORISLE sailed on Lake Huron from 1946 to 1974. Photo © Marine
Rail Museum, Courtesy of the S.S. Norisle Steamship Society

NORISLE entered service 1946 to link Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula (about 300km northwest of Toronto) with Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron. She served until 1974, when she was replaced by a modern roll-on/roll-off car ferry (the MV CHI CHIMAUN, still in service; a running mate, MS NORGOMA of 1950, is preserved as a museum ship at Sault Ste Marie, Ontario). After her retirement, NORISLE found new livelihood as a floating event space, nightclub and museum ship moored at Manitowaning on Manitoulin Island, until various operational difficulties forced her closure in 2006.  Amid concerns for the vessel’s future, the nonprofit S.S. Norisle Steamship Society organized in 2008 to study alternate reuse scenarios for the vessel.

A forward lounge awaits new life. Photo © 2015 Thomas Rinaldi

A forward lounge awaits new life. Photo © 2015 Thomas Rinaldi

Head-on view of NORISLE’s sculpted forward superstructure. Photo © 2015 Thomas Rinaldi

Head-on view of NORISLE’s sculpted forward superstructure. Photo © 2015 Thomas Rinaldi

While it would be unique in North America, an operation of the kind proposed for NORISLE would not be without precedent. A number of historic vessels of similar size run luxury cruise itineraries in Scandinavia. In North America, the historic river steamer DELTA QUEEN operated in a similar capacity until 2008. Although conventional modern cruise ships offer Great Lakes itineraries seasonally, the nonprofit Society sees an opportunity to use the ship as a unique heritage tourism venture in which NORISLE’s historic character is part of the attraction. But for the time being, the vessel continues to languish unused, a version in miniature of the famous SS UNITED STATES, waiting for what comes next.

SS NORISLE At A Glance:

Length: 214’-6”

Beam: 36’

Decks: Six

Speed: 12 knots

Original Passenger Capacity: 200 passengers, 50 vehicles

Engines: Steam, Triple Expansion Reciprocating

Year Built: 1946

Shipyard: Collingwood Shipbuilding, Collingwood, Ontario, Canada

For more on the SS Norisle Steamship Society, see www.norisle.com.

For more history of Lake Huron’s Manitoulin Island ferries, see The Motorists’ Shortcut: 100 Years of the Owen Sounds Transportation Company by Richard Thomas (2014)

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