By DAN FOX
Skagway receives the lion’s share of its 1,300,000-plus annual visitors through the waters of the Lynn Canal.
The Lynn Canal is the longest, deepest fjord in North America, and for thousands of years, the waterway has served as a major transportation route to Skagway, Interior Alaska and the Yukon Territory.
Alternatives to passenger ships arrived in the form of small planes in the 1920s and a year-round road to the Yukon Territory in the 1980s, yet maritime travel continues to be an important transportation method in Southeast Alaska. Cruise ships, ferries and private vessels consistently dot the icy waters of the Lynn Canal.
The 90-mile stretch of water has been well-traveled, and today modern navigation aids have made travel by ship one of the most reliable modes of transportation to and from Skagway. This was not always the case; without modern navigational equipment, rough shorelines and temperamental weather created a challenge for even the most experienced navigators.
Fall 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the worst shipwreck in not only the Lynn Canal, but the worst maritime disaster on the West Coast of the United States.
In October of 1918, almost 360 people perished when the SS Princess Sophia sank in the waters between Skagway and Juneau, a tragedy largely forgotten by all but a few.
Not One Survivor Left
The Sophia was a ship serving in the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) fleet, one of many transportation companies that ran steamers in and out of Skagway’s port in 1918.
The single-funnel steamer, registering 245 feet long with a passenger capacity of 250, sailed from Skagway’s port on Oct. 23, 1918, with at least 353 passengers and crew aboard. On the ship was a mix of seasonal workers, miners, businessmen and women and families.
Running three hours behind schedule, the boat left Skagway’s dock at 10:10 p.m., and took to the Lynn Canal, according to The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down with Her, by Ken Coates and Bill Morrison. Conditions were initially stable, but as the Sophia passed Battery Point – barely 16 miles out of Skagway – the weather began to worsen.
Soon, the Sophia was practically sailing blind.
“If the ship had left on time, it may have avoided the storm,” said Jeff Brady, Skagway historian and author. “We’ll never know, though.”
Despite ferocious winds and heavy snows, Leonard Locke – captain of the Sophia – kept her steaming at full speed.
Lacking the navigational bells and whistles modern ships enjoy, ships of that period navigated by blaring their whistles and listening to the sound echo from shore, or by taking compass headings from known positions along the route.
As she chugged on, the Sophia found herself close to the middle of the Lynn Canal, rather than nearer the side where she ought to have been. Off-course, she was headed right for the Vanderbilt Reef – a large, submerged mountain that hunkers smack in the center of the Lynn Canal. Where the reef sits, the Canal is only six miles wide. The reef only ever gets as high as 12 feet out of the water and is all but submerged in higher tides.
How the Sophia got off course is unknown, but the cold facts of history saw the steamer run aground on Vanderbilt Reef at 2:10 a.m. on Oct. 24, 1918.
Instead of crumpling the bow and dropping the Sophia into the water then and there, when she struck the rocks at full steam the ship slid up and onto the reef. Rapid deceleration tossed belongings and people to the floor and into bulkheads. After the ear-peeling shriek of metal on stone, the stunned and abruptly-awoken passengers picked themselves up as the wind howled and the Sophia’s twin screws vainly swam against the air.
Torment of Tantalus
“Princess Sophia ran aground on Vanderbilt Reef at 3 o’clock [British Columbia Time],” read the message conveyed to the Canadian Pacific Railway. “Ship not taking any water unable to back off at high water fresh northerly wind ship pounding assistance on way from Juneau.”
While the ship was not taking on water, she was stuck on the reef.
A distress call immediately went out, and in Juneau work was immediately undertaken to mount a rescue. The violent weather prevented any effort to unload the ship’s passengers, however.
Over the next two days, the passengers and crew of the Sophia made the best of their situation as the weather and sea seemed to only worsen. Rescue ships had been able to sail close to the Sophia, within hundreds of yards even, but no lifeboats were put into the tempestuous seas. Skagway historian Carl Mulvihill noted that because of the reef directly under her keel, the Sophia’s lifeboats would have run the risk of being crushed against the rocks of Vanderbilt Reef in the choppy water.
While they were stranded there, passengers saw a veritable fleet of hopeful rescue ships sailing the waters around Vanderbilt Reef, but the order to evacuate the Sophia was never given.
Eventually, on the eve of Oct. 25, the rescue ships had to seek shelter for the night from worsening weather, lest they fall in trouble as well.
At 5:20 p.m. on Oct. 25, the Sophia’s last message was received: “Taking water and foundering, for GOD’s sake come and save us!”
The winds and high tide had spun her stern round off the reef, tearing away most of the ship’s hull in the process.
After 40 hours on the reef, the Sophia sank. Watches recovered from the bodies of passengers had been stopped at 6 p.m. by the freezing waters of the Lynn Canal.
After she sank
Fallout of the death of all aboard the Sophia was far-reaching, and especially hard-hitting for many of the interior towns of Alaska and the Yukon.
“The impact of the event was probably felt stronger in this area of the world than anything probably since the Gold Rush, between the Gold Rush and World War II,” Brady said, referencing the Klondike Gold Rush – an event that put Skagway on the map. “In terms of the lasting impact on the region.”
A number important and well-loved figures went down with the Sophia. Walter Harper, one of the first men to summit Denali, was lost along with his bride Frances. According to Skagway, City of the New Century, by Jeff Brady, the couple was on their honeymoon, and had been married in early September. The newlyweds were traveling to Pennsylvania, where Walter planned to become an ambulance driver, and Frances – a nurse – wanted to join the Red Cross.
John F. Pugh, district collector of U.S. Customs for Alaska – one of the most important civil officials in the young territory – had traveled to Skagway to help with the load of people coming south from the Yukon, and had expected to return promptly to Juneau. Pugh was the only Juneau resident to perish on the Sophia. His Canadian counterpart was also aboard the vessel.
Murray and Lulu Mae Eads, the former a hotel investor and the latter being a former dance hall queen of Dawson City, were also aboard the Sophia. Many seasonal workers, miners, business owners and families went down with the ship, and the number of victims was hard-hitting to many of the smaller northern communities. Eighty-seven members of the White Pass & Yukon Route riverboat service were lost in the wreck, according to The Final Voyage of the Princess Sophia, by Betty O’Keefe and Ian Macdonald.
White Pass was critical to transportation of goods and people at the time. With its train and riverboat services, the company was one of the only ways to get resources and people into interior Yukon and Alaska.
“There was no Alaska Highway then, so all freight heading into the Yukon came through here [Skagway],” Brady said.
The loss of so many trained employees would be a big setback for White Pass. The short operating season for the riverboats would ensure that replacements would be hard-pressed to get experience on the waterways quickly.
Dawson City, a town of 800 people, had 126 of its citizens aboard the Sophia when she sank. An editorial published in the Dawson Daily News titled “Keep Heart” said that the “hand of sorrow” had fallen on the town.
“Few tragedies, indeed, take at one fell stroke such a heavy percentage of those so well known in a community,” the editorial states. “In few places are the residents so closely knit by common interests and so well-acquainted and so deeply concerned in the welfare one of the other as in this remote locality.”
Newspapers and residents cried for changes to naval navigation in the aftermath of the Sophia’s sinking.
An editorial in the Daily Alaskan commented on the “most appalling” case, and proclaimed that the incident could have been avoided.
“The route from Seattle to Skagway is, roundly, 1,150 miles,” the editorial, titled “In the Name of Humanity,” reads. “For years congress has been petitioned to build more and more lighthouses in Alaska. British Columbia is much better lighted, but there is room for improvement.”
The editorial called for the governments of the United States and Canada to “remedy this great wrong,” study and adjust the naval needs existing in the inside passage. Another article cited James Wickersham, a longtime delegate to the U.S. Congress from Alaska, as promising to do all he could to place a light and signal on Vanderbilt Reef, so an “accident of that kind can never occur there again.”
Along with Dawson, other communities felt the losses hard as well. The Princess Alice, another CPR steamer that had been involved in the recovery of the bodies, had been laden on Nov. 9, 1918, with 156 of the recovered dead. Sixty-two of them were destined for Vancouver, 25 for Victoria and the majority of the rest going to Seattle.
Dubbed the “Ship of Sorrow” by the media, the Alice pulled into Vancouver, bringing a somber cloud to a city happily cheering for the end of a war. She made port on Monday, Nov. 11: Armistice Day, a day that many were celebrating. As the revelry was reaching its peak, the Alice pulled into Vancouver at 11 p.m. with its macabre cargo.
Amidst the happy undercurrents surrounding the end of World War I, people came to the docks to claim the bodies of dead friends and family.
Could it happen again?
Mulvihill said it’s been difficult to find records of definite changes made in the aftermath of the wreck.
The unlit buoy that marked Vanderbilt at the time of the Sophia’s sinking was eventually replaced with two consecutive lighthouses, one put in place sometime after the accident, and a second one built in 1930.
There have been other shipwrecks in the region since the Sophia went down, but none with the astounding loss of life. The MV Queen of the North sank in 2006 after she ran aground on Gil Island in the waters of British Columbia.
The sinking was not immediate; she drifted for an hour and 17 minutes, giving almost all passengers time to board lifeboats. Only two people were unaccounted for after the abandonment, and were declared dead. The accident was attributed in part to a failure to order a required course change. In 1952, the Princess Kathleen ran aground at Lena Point with 459 aboard, another result of miscommunication. All were rescued, as were all the passengers on the Prinsendam, which caught fire in the Gulf of Alaska in 1980.
While it is hard to predict a human error, modern ships are equipped with sonar, highly-accurate charts, GPS, radar and professionally-trained crews. An additional safeguard exists in the form of highly-trained and well-equipped search and rescue personnel stationed in many communities along major water passages.
Remember the Sophia
In spite of the fallout from her sinking, very few today recall the Princess Sophia tragedy.
Visitors to any northern town in the modern day, even those heavily impacted by the wreck, would be hard-pressed to find a memorial commemorating the disaster.
To all but a few, the Sophia is at best peripheral knowledge; a story overshadowed by other major events of her time.
A conjunction of large-scale events took place around the time the Sophia sunk. Though news of her sinking – as every such tragedy is sure to – dominated headlines for a time, other things captured the public eye: the World War I Armistice and end of the Great War; the Spanish Flu was still ravaging the country and world at large.
“The First World War was just ending,” Mulvihill said. “The last battles were being fought.”
Further clouding the story is a lack of knowledge. The Sophia’s log was never recovered, and no survivors lived to testify and tell the tale of the steamer’s 40-hour imprisonment on the Vanderbilt Reef.
The state of communication in that era may have played another factor.
“You didn’t have Facebook or internet or anything,” Mulvihill said. “And radio communication from the Sophia to Juneau was probably the max.”
The shortcomings of communications in 1918 are perfectly exemplified by some of the newspapers’ reporting of the Sophia incident.
The Sophia had already gone beneath the waves by the time the Vancouver Sun ran a story stating “Princess Sophia Reported Safe – She Rests Easily on Rocks with Four U.S. Government Boats Standing By.”
Location, too, may have played a role in the Sophia fading from widespread memory.
“We’re so far north out of the continental U.S. where most the people live and that’s where their interests were,” Mulvihill said. “So a shipwreck that far north wasn’t as interesting as what was happening overseas.”
Almost a year after the sinking, the Dawson Daily News published an editorial titled “Remember the Sophia,” which called for the flags in town to be lowered on the anniversary of the disaster.
Despite proclamations that those lost on the Sophia were forever enshrined in the “hearts of Dawson,” the north – and the rest of the world – did sadly forget about the ill-fated ship for the most part.
There are still those who do remember the Sophia, and hope to spread the story of her harrowing 40-hour imprisonment on the Vanderbilt Reef. Brady and Mulvihill are part of Skagway’s Princess Sophia Committee, which has worked with the Maritime Museum of British Columbia to bring a brand-new exhibit to the Skagway Museum that lays out the facts of the incident in detail. The exhibit had its grand unveiling at AB Hall on May 7, and was moved to the Skagway Museum on May 9.
The committee is also aiming to put in place a plaque in Skagway’s Centennial Park this October, which would be accompanied by a storyboard explaining the events surrounding the Sophia’s sinking, with a map to point out the key points along her final journey, and it is still collecting funds to that end.
Today the Sophia still sits at the bottom of the Lynn Canal. Under 60 feet of water, her bow sits on a submerged section of Vanderbilt Reef. Her stern lays a bit deeper, resting over 130 feet beneath the waves. The old CPR steamer has been overgrown with sea growth, turned into a reef of her own.
Instead of passengers looking to escape the cold north for the winter, she’s populated with sea creatures swimming her halls and staterooms, perfectly at home in the icy depths of the Lynn Canal.
• KHNS History Talk – “The October Exodus and the Princess Sophia,” Susannah Dowds, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Nov. 2016
• KHNS History Talk – “The Princess Sophia,” Anne Lattka, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Nov. 2016
• Maritime Museum of British Columbia
• Skagway, City of the New Century, Jeff Brady, Lynn Canal Publishing, 2013
• The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down with Her, Ken Coates & Bill Morrison, University of Alaska Press, Oct. 1991
• The Final Voyage of the Princess Sophia: Did they all have to die?, Betty O’Keefe and Ian Macdonald, Heritage House Publishing Company LTD., 1998
• The Daily Alaskan, Aug. 1902, Dec. 1918 and Jan. 1919