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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  Land Sea Air  >  Ships and Boats
The Sinking of the Princess Sophia
By Jennifer Houdek Page 1 of 2   Next ยป

Over the last century, many ships have fallen prey to Alaska's harsh, unpredictable seas. However, the sinking of the SS Princess Sophia is known as the worst maritime disaster in the Pacific Northwest, when all 269 passengers and 73 crewmembers died in the waters off Alaska.

The SS Princess Sophia was ordered in May 1911 by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company and built in Paisley, Scotland, by Bow, McLachlan & Company. She was 245 feet long and 44 feet wide. The ship left Scotland on February 19, 1912, taking three months to reach the destination: Vancouver, British Columbia. Her official maiden voyage began on June 7, 1912, as part of the Canadian Pacific Inside Passage run, just two months after the fateful sinking of the SS Titanic.

The Princess Sophia was designed to hold 350 passengers, 100 more than normal, by the addition of more "buoyancy tanks" to the ship. The tanks not only allowed the ship to hold more weight, but were designed as flotation devices, including ropes for passengers to hold onto should the need arise. In the aftermath of the Titanic, oceangoing ships were required to have enough lifeboats for all on board, along with other life-saving devices.

Although the Princess Sophia was not considered a fancy ship, it did boast comfortable accommodations for the 250 passengers in first and second class. The ship also had an observation lounge that was paneled in maple and a dining room that could seat 112 people. While they dined, passengers could view the lovely Alaska coast out of the room's large windows. First-class passengers enjoyed a social hall with a piano.

The people boarding the ship in Skagway were ready to go "Outside" for the winter. Although the Klondike gold rush had ended years ago, many miners spent their summers looking for gold and their winters in warmer climes of the Lower 48. The Princess Sophia and her sister ship, the Princess Ann, were the last ships headed to Vancouver, B.C., before winter.

On October 23, 1918, the Princess Sophia departed Skagway under the command of Captain Leonard Locke. It was 10:10 p.m., more than three hours behind schedule because of blizzard conditions. Kenneth Coates, author of The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down With Her, explained that the captain had been discouraged from departing based on a statement from the Canadian Pacific Railway. It had read: "While we have a published schedule, bear in mind that the Company do not [sic] wish any risk whatever run in order to maintain this schedule, take no chances in foggy or stormy weather."

Despite rough seas, blinding snow, and darkness, Captain Locke ordered that the ship depart Skagway and head for Juneau. The next scheduled port of call would be Wrangell by October 24, then Ketchikan, and onward to Prince Rupert, B.C., on the 25th. By the 26th the Princess Sophia was to be in Alert Bay, B.C., and finally end her voyage on the 27th in Vancouver, B.C., where passengers would connect with other transportation to the Lower 48. However, the ship and all on board would be lost before they even reached Juneau.

For four hours, the Princess Sophia steamed down Lynn Canal at full speed into the snowy darkness. Unaware that the Sophia had veered slightly off course, the captain, crew, and passengers were caught off guard as the ship violently struck Vanderbilt Reef, some 30 miles north of Juneau. Initially panic spread throughout the ship. Their fears were quickly dissipated, however, when Captain Locke reassured them that the Sophia would be freed from the reef when the tide came in. As soon as word of the shipwreck reached Juneau, rescue boats, including a mail and freight boat, a fishing vessel, and a lighthouse tender, were dispatched to the scene.

According to the Edmonton Morning Bulletin, Captain Locke radioed his office in Victoria, B.C. He reported that "although the ship was hard and fast on the reef with her bottom badly damaged, she was not taking water and the passengers were normal." Locke believed the Sophia was firmly planted on the reef and was not in danger of sinking from the high seas and storms, the newspaper reported. Furthermore, he did not want to risk the lives of those on board by using the lifeboats on the rough water. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company dispatched the Princess Ann to the wreck, charging them to take on the passengers and crew for safe transport to Vancouver.

On board the Princess Sophia, passengers and crewmembers waited patiently through the next day, October 24, and into the 25th, to be rescued. Anticipating the arrival of the Princess Ann, they readied their things and talked about the unfortunate delay. However, the weather and the seas only seemed to worsen. Early on the morning of the 25th, a lighthouse tender, Cedar, got within 400 yards of the Sophia, but the tender's anchor would not attach to the rocky bottom and waves pounded against the boat, forcing them to turn back. Aboard the Sophia, fear mounted as the passengers and crew began to realize the gravity of their situation.

Calamity and panic arrived later that afternoon, when a treacherous combination of strong winds and high tide lifted the stern off the reef, then smashed it downward, tearing away most of the hull. The ship then pivoted so that the bow was headed north and she began taking on water. The last SOS was sent at 5:20 p.m. on October 25: "Taking water and foundering, for GOD's sake come and save us!"

As onlookers watched in horror, the Princess Sophia slowly sank into the ocean. Everyone on board was killed instantly: not by drowning, but by suffocation from the bunker oil that had pooled on the water's surface. Watches worn by the victims had all stopped at 6:00 p.m. By the time rescue boats made it to the Princess Sophia the next day, only her mast was visible.

As great a tragedy as it was, the news of the Princess Sophia was overshadowed that year by the tens of thousands of lives lost across North America and into Alaska during the Spanish Influenza pandemic. Also, World War I was coming to an end, and Armistice celebrations were capturing the headlines. The Princess Ann, later called "the ship of sorrow," transported the bodies of Canadian citizens to Vancouver, B.C., where they were laid to rest in Mountain View Cemetery. The families and friends of the victims from Douglas and Juneau washed and prepared bodies, which were later buried in Juneau's Evergreen Cemetery.

Alaska Territorial Governor Thomas Riggs, Jr., issued a statement expressing the sentiment of all: "Wreck of the Princess Sophia has cast great shadow over all of Northland. Alaska grieves with the Yukon."

There was one survivor in the wreck of the Princess Sophia, however: an English Setter that was traveling with a wealthy couple. Covered in oil, the dog was found at Tee Harbor, about 20 miles south of where the Sophia went down.

Afterward, Captain Locke's leadership was subject to an investigation into the captain's decision to leave Skagway in a storm and, later, to delay rescue until the weather cleared.

A decade later, after a full investigation by Canadian authorities, Captain Locke and the Canadian Pacific Railway were formally acquitted of any fault. The railroad received insurance compensation for the loss of the vessel, and family members of the deceased crew members received a small pension. Beyond that, no other compensation went to the families of those who died.

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Gallery of Images
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The Princess Sophia
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Rescue efforts were stalled because of bad weather
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The Princess Sophia stranded on Vanderbilt Reef
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Men aboard a fishing vessel gear up for a rescue attempt
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Rescuers were able to finally reach the Princess Sophia
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