This ponder is dedicated to my dear friend and co-worker Tony. A true gentleman, salt of the earth and kind soul whose thoughtful tribute to the 100th anniversary of SS Princess Sophia’s tragic demise touched my heart.
The SS Princess Sophia, before her tragic end. (Alaska State Library, Sadlier-Olsen Family Collection)
On the 100th anniversary of armistice take a moment to ponder the 100th anniversary of Princess Sophia, a maritime disaster worth remembering. Below, Tony’s letter to his Princess line shipmates….
One hundred years ago today, in the early morning hours of October 24th 1918 the CPR’s Princess Sophia ran aground on Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal, about 60 miles south of Skagway, Alaska, bound for Juneau and points south The ship had left Skagway with a full load of ‘end of season’ passengers at 10 pm, three hours late. It was one of the last two sailings southbound before winter set in; Princess Alice was on her way north and would be just about the last chance to travel south. About 400 people were waiting in Skagway, many of them seasonal workers and crews from the paddle wheelers on the interior lakes. There was excitement building over rumours of an end to the Great War but a number of the passengers and crew members were already sick with the ‘flu, the influenza epidemic which would kill at least 20 million people worldwide, 30 to 50,000 Canadians.
The weather deteriorated soon after departure and at the time of the grounding the Sophia was travelling at 12 – 14 knots through a snowstorm with a 50 mph tailwind. Navigation was conducted by sounding the ship’s whistle and calculating the distance from the steep cliff sides of the channel which was about 8 miles wide at that point. The vessel veered off course, too far to the west and struck the reef with so much force that it was driven almost its entire length high onto the reef but settled level. There was a radio on board and Captain Locke managed to alert both Skagway and Juneau.
The ship seemed securely wedged and not too much damage was visible to the hull. There seemed to be no immediate danger. A decision was made wait for moderation in the weather before allowing rescue attempts from the several small vessels which had arrived to help. At low tide it was not possible to launch the lifeboats because of the surrounding rocks and even at high tide it was thought that they would be dashed against the rocks before they could clear away. For forty hours the ship remained on the reef awaiting the forecast improvement in the weather. An all out rescue effort was planned for high tide on the 26th but towards the evening of the 25th fresh high winds and pounding seas moved the stern of the vessel completely around and it began to slide into deeper water. Princess Sophia sank late on October 25th, with the loss of all the passengers and crew, about 340 souls in all. Many bodies were found trapped inside the vessel and others were still being found in the water up to eight miles away for weeks after. Princess Alice carried many of the bodies back to Vancouver and arrived on November 11th, Armistice Day. The ship anchored off shore and did not enter the port until the next day. The arrival almost went unnoticed amid the great celebrations surrounding Armistice Day and its announcement only appeared on an inside page of the newspaper. Despite being the biggest maritime disaster in Alaska’s history the event was quickly almost forgotten. Unlike the great Titanic disaster, there were no survivors of the Princess Sophia sinking to tell their stories.
The attached photo is of Princess Sophia arriving in Vancouver sometime between 1914 / 1918. The resolution is high enough that if you zoom in you can clearly see some stewards on the foredeck ….. white shirts and bow ties! Perhaps they were looking out for wives and girlfriends on the dock. Many soldiers are visible and there seem to be officers waiting dockside as well as a band playing just above the foredeck. Also attached a picture of some crew members, stewards again I think, on board before the disaster. I wonder what the tips were like in those days. The route the ships took back then was the same as the Princess Patricia in the 1970s, the same ports in a different order. It is a sobering thought to think that all of us passed that same reef many, many times, northbound and southbound and always in darkness. Luckily we had the benefit of radar, depth sounders ….. and Angus Twatt often at the helm, a fine seaman from the Orkney Islands!
This afternoon at Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver the B.C. Maritime Museum installed a plaque commemorating seven O’Brien family members lost on Princess Sophia.