By DAN FOX
With a year and a half of work under its belt, the Princess Sophia Ad Hoc Committee has made headway towards its goal: A tandem set of displays providing information on the worst maritime tragedy to occur on the west coast of the United States.
The SS Princess Sophia left Skagway’s port on Oct 23, 1918 with 343 aboard.
That same evening, while blinded by a snowstorm, she struck the Vanderbilt Reef on her way to Juneau. According to “Skagway: City of the New Century,” two days later, with weather deemed too rough for a rescue by smaller boats, the Princess Sophia broke apart. All aboard, save one dog, perished.
“It’s an unknown story, except for a few historians around here,” said committee member Jeff Brady. “A lot of locals don’t know about it, but it was the largest marine disaster on the west coast in the United States. It was kind of lost in the headlines back at the end of World War I, but it was devastating for the north.”
Brady, and Skagway historian and committee member Carl Mulvihill, said the fallout from the tragedy was far-reaching. Eighty members of the White Pass & Yukon Route River Boat Division lost their lives in the event, along with many prominent northerners.
Walter Harper, a Native Alaskan from Fort Yukon and one of the first men to summit Denali was lost along with his bride Frances Harper. John Pugh, the district collector of U.S. Customs, who’d been in Skagway to supervise the mass-exodus of workers for the winter, was lost in the sinking. Mulvihill said Pugh’s Canadian counterpart had also been aboard the Princess Sophia.
One of the main purposes of the committee is increasing awareness of the tragic sinking of the Sophia and the time period in which she sailed the inside passage.
The plan is to place a plaque in Centennial Park to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the tragedy in October 2018, accompanied by a storyboard to explain the events surrounding the Princess Sophia’s sinking.
“In 1918, you just traveled on the rivers,” Mulvihill said. “There were no highways, no airways, so if you couldn’t travel on the river, you didn’t go anywhere. So, we were really isolated in the wintertime.”
In addition to the plaque, Skagway Museum will also be getting a “pod” display – a photo exhibit with built in audio and interactive screens.
The committee has the money it needs to get the pod squared away, but it is still looking for donations to help with the costs of the Centennial Park plaque and storyboard.
Pricing and costs are being finalized now, and will be presented to the Borough Assembly when ready. The hope is to get the museum’s pod exhibit delivered in March 2018.
One interesting facet of the project, and of the impending displays and exhibits, is the backdrop of post-Gold Rush Skagway, said committee member and National Parks Service Historian Susannah Dowds.
“A lot of times I think Skagway is presented for its Gold Rush history, so it’s [the display] a really great way to jump back into other parts of Skagway history,” Dowds said.