MANITOWANING—The fate of the S.S. Norisle still hangs in the balance as the vessel is tied up in legal proceedings.
“We haven’t heard anything,” said S.S. Norisle Steamship Society Chair Dave Ham regarding the society’s lawsuit against the Township of Assiginack.
Assiginack CAO Alton Hobbs was unable to comment on the lawsuit stating that, “it is before the courts.”
As The Expositor previously reported, the society began legal proceedings earlier this year since learning of the municipality’s plans to sell the historical ship to the Tobermory Maritime Association (TMA) to be sunk and used as a dive site. Neither side has been able to comment on the matter since the legal proceedings began.
It was The Expositor’s understanding that in 2017, according to the original 1975 agreement between the Township of Assiginack and the Ministry of Transportation (MTO), the Norisle’s ownership would revert back to the province. However, the paper has learned this isn’t the case.
“The Township of Assiginack purchased the S.S. Norisle in 1975 and assumed full ownership of the ship,” said Gordan Rennie, regional issues and media advisor with the MTO. “There was no provision for returning the ship to the ministry or the province. The ministry’s historical involvement was due to the reporting relationship of Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC) to the MTO. In 1977, the reporting relationship of the ONTC moved from the MTO to Northern Development.”
Last year, Assiginack council carried a motion asking the MTO to reassume ownership and responsibility of the vessel as they claimed the ship had “outlived its useful life as a community/tourist attraction.”
“Prior to the decision to sell the Norisle to Owen Sound or Assiginack, the ship had been advertised for sale and the high bid received was $36,100,” said Mr. Rennie. “Since the sale to the township was for less than market value, a clause was added to the sale agreement requiring the ministry’s permission to resell or dispose of the ship. Sometimes known as an “anti-flip” or profit recovery clause, this is common practice when the ministry sells an asset to a municipality for less than market value. The standard time period for this on property sales is five years. The township was released from the clause in 2016.”
The S.S. Norisle was the first passenger steamship built in Canada after WWII and was named the ‘Norisle’—‘Nor’ a contraction of the Northern Region of Lake Huron and ‘Isle’ in reference to Manitoulin Island.
The Norisle was built in Collingwood in 1946. A hand-fired, coal-burning steamship, it provided seasonal passenger ferry service from 1947 to 1974 between Tobermory and South Baymouth.
“From 1971 to 1977 the ONTC reported to the MTO,” Mr. Rennie told The Expositor. “In 1974, the ONTC retired the S.S. Norisle from the Tobermory to South Baymouth ferry route as the ship was at the end of its service life. It was replaced by the Chi-Cheemaun in 1975. Several stakeholders suggested the S.S. Norisle be repurposed for continued service on the Great Lakes. A ministry review found it was not economically feasible to repurpose the Norisle.
According to a March 18, 1974 government document provided by the MTO, prepared by HW Adcock, the assistant deputy minister of Operations, Research and Development at the time, the province explored numerous ideas for the ship and its sister ship, the M.V. Norgoma, upon their retirement.
“The older of the two vessels (built in 1946), it is powered by a coal burning steam engine which would require conversion to oil or replacement with diesel engines,” states the document. “Estimates obtained in 1970 for repowering were in the order of $650,000. Added to this would be the cost of upgrading safety standards for continued long term use of the vessel which was estimated at $225,000 in 1973. This produced a total of $875,000 to retain the vessel in service without providing any significant changes to the physical amenities available such as staterooms, dining facilities, etc.”
Because of the costs, the report notes that alternative use of the Norisle was not considered economic.
The Norgoma was built in 1950 and re-engined to diesel in 1964. The report stated that the vessel could be adapted for continued use.
Alternative uses outlined in the report were for the Norgoma to be converted into a cruise ship for operating in Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, used as a ferry-cum-cruise ship as is and used for ferry service between Meldrum Bay and De Tour Village in Michigan.
The report concluded that “studies do not indicate a feasible use for these vessels after they have been retired from Tobermory-South Baymouth service.”
The Norgoma was sold to Sault Ste. Marie for $1 and sits in the harbour as a tourist attraction. Today it is still used as a museum, operated by the St. Mary’s River Marine Heritage Centre.
After the decision was made to sell the ships, “several communities and commercial interests expressed an interest in purchasing the Norisle. Public tenders were called and yielded a high bid of $36,100 for purchase of the ship,” Mr. Rennie told The Expositor. “During this process, the government of the day agreed to a request from the mayor of Owen Sound to sell the ship to the city for $1 as part of a planned municipal maritime museum. After several months of consideration, the city council decided not to take the ship.”
“After months of debate, Owen Sound city council has finally decided it doesn’t want the S.S. Norisle,” states a page one article ‘City won’t take Norisle’ from the Tuesday, March 11, 1975 edition of The Owen Sound Sun-Times. “The alderman indicated at council’s regular meeting Monday, they were fed up discussing the vessel and felt it would cost the city too much money to turn it into a marine museum.”
After Owen Sound decided not to take the ship, the Township of Assiginack requested the Norisle to be part of their maritime museum. “MTC sold the ship to Assiginack for $1 and it has been owned by the township since 1975.”
A Thursday, July 24, 1975 edition of The Manitoulin Expositor reported on the Norisle’s historic arrival at Manitowaning.
“The S.S. Norisle made its last trip on Sunday; although it was not under her own power, the log book is filled out for a twenty hour period, an historic document recording a historic trip,” said The Expositor article written by Rob Ashley. “The Norisle left Owen Sound at 5:06 Saturday night and arrived at Manitowaning harbour at 1:15 pm on Sunday. People waved, horns honked and an organist played ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ as the ship was nudged into her docking space beside the co-op building by the tug Ivan Purvis. The S. S. Norisle has reached her final home.”
Whether the Manitowaning harbour will remain the Norisle’s final home is still to be determined.