It is the worst maritime disaster in the history of British Columbia and one of the worst in Canadian history overall. The story of this disaster is one of rescue attempts, a terrible storm and a horrible death count.
To talk about this disaster, we need to first look at the boat itself. In 1901, the Canadian Pacific Railway was running steamships on the west coast of Canada and into Alaska. These ships moved through the Inside Passage, which weaves through the islands off the coast of British Columbia, beginning between Victoria and Vancouver and running up to Juneau, Alaska. The route was vital for the communities along the coast to receive cargo, passengers and even mail. The passage was also dangerous, especially to ships with wooden hulls. The CPR then made the decision to switch to steel hulls to provide greater safety for their ships moving through the sometimes-narrow parts of water.
Enter the Princess Sophia, a pocket liner that was smaller than a large ocean liner but featured all the amenities you would find on the bigger ships. Built with a double hull made of steel by Bow, McLachlan and Company out of Scotland, the ship also featured the latest in technology including wireless communication and electric lights. First class was particularly nice, featuring a 112-seat dining room with large windows and a social hall with a piano. Launched on Nov. 8, 1911, the ship was completed in 1912 with its maiden voyage taking place on June 7, 1912. Leaving Scotland, the ship was under the command of Captain Albert Lindgren, who took the ship around Cape Horn on the same route that he had taken the other two ships in the Princess fleet, the Princess Adelaide and Princess May. At the time, the Sophia burned coal, but she would be converted to fuel upon her arrival in British Columbia.
As soon as she arrived at Victoria, her first route was traveling up to Prince Rupert for the first year. In the next summer, a run to Skagway, Alaska was done once every two weeks, with a stop at Prince Rupert. She would be taken out of service in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War and began to transport troops who were going to Europe to fight in the war.
By 1918, she was back at her usual run, which brings us to the fateful voyage. On Oct. 23, 1918 at 10:10 p.m., the Princess Sophia left Skagway, well behind schedule, with stops in Juneau and Prince Rupert scheduled for Oct. 24, followed by an eventual stop in Vancouver on Oct. 27. On the ship were 75 crewmembers and 268 passengers, including 50 women and children. Four hours after leaving Skagway, she would begin to be hit with heavy snow around Lynn Canal, an inlet in southeast Alaska.
At the time, the ship was under the guidance of Captain Leonard Locke, who took the ship at full speed through the tight inlet to make up for the fact that the ship was three hours behind schedule. Due to the blinding snow, the crew used dead reckoning, which involved blowing the ship’s whistle and making calculations on their location based on the echo of the whistle in the canal. It is believed that this caused the ship to be at least two kilometres off course.
The Princess Sophia continued to cruise through the canal, with the crew not realizing that they were heading towards Vanderbilt Reef.
The reef, during high tide, was usually invisible under swells, and at low tide would appear as much as 12 feet above the water. The reef was the top of an underwater mountain that rose 1,000 feet from the bottom of Lynn Canal. At this time, the reef was under high tide and not lit, which meant the crew would not have known they were approaching it. With the reef, Lynn Canal goes from 10.5 kilometres wide to only four kilometres wide on the east side. This makes it incredibly dangerous for ships in the best of circumstances. The Northwest Trading Company first marked the reef as a natural hazard in 1880. It was marked by J.M. Vanderbilt, the captain of the Favourite, who gave the reef his own name. In 1917, the Canadian Pacific Railway submitted a request to have a light put on the reef, but the US Government did not follow through. This could have been because of the First World War going on and funds being allocated elsewhere.
At 2 a.m. on Oct. 24, 1918, the Princess Sophia struck the reef extremely hard. After hitting the reef, a distress call was put out immediately but, in these years, wireless was weak and the signal could not go much farther than Juneau, which it did. The CPR shipping agent was awoken by it and immediately organized a rescue flotilla. The ship did not suffer any severe damage but the winds hitting the ship ground her hull against the rocks. At the time, panic was low, the electricity still worked and most of the passengers and crew were comfortable.
Auris McQueen, a US Soldier heading home, wrote to his mother and the letter was found on his body after the disaster. It stated:
“She is a double-bottom boat, and her inner hull is not penetrated, so here we stick. She pounds some on a rising tide and it is slow writing, but our only inconvenience is, so far, lack of water. The main steam pipe got twisted off and we were without lights last night and have run out of soft sugar. But the pipe is fixed so we are getting heat and lights now and we still have lump sugar and water for drinking.”
By 6 a.m., the ship was still stuck on the reef and the wind and waves had pushed the ship farther onto the reef, but the double hull was not breached at this point. When low tide hit at noon, the entire hull of the ship was out of the water, but a weather change was coming as the barometer started to rise. By 4 p.m., high tide had returned, and the seas were so rough with waves that any evacuation was too hazardous to try.
The location of the Sophia, despite the fact it was not sinking at this moment, made it almost impossible to rescue anyone. With the rough seas, no one could approach the ship at high tide and at least three tugs would be needed to get her off the reef and that would likely come with severe damage to the ship. If lifeboats were put in the water, they would likely be smashed on the rocks due to the high waves. At low tide, the ship was surrounded on both sides by rock, making it impossible for ships to get close to the Sophia.
All that could be done was to wait to see if the weather would become calm enough to mitigate an evacuation of the ship. Captain Locke believed that the ship was safe enough that he told the other ships they should shelter in the water.
At 4 p.m., a telegram over the wireless from the Cedar stating “wire conditions regarding taking off passengers tonight, hope arrive reef 8:30, thick snow.”
Fifteen minutes later, the Cedar would radio to Captain Locke stating “impossible to get passengers off tonight as sea is running too strong. Will probably be able to get them off early morning. Strong tide.”
At 8:30 p.m. that night, the Cedar radioed to the Sophia again, stating “if Sophia in no danger slipping off and passengers safe until daylight would like to drop anchor under Sentinel Island be in touch by wireless. If you think necessary will remain underway all night.”
At 10:15 p.m., an operator in Juneau radioed to Capt. Locke, stating “Report what assistance you have secured also conditions at this low water. Do you think that she will back off at next high water? Advise disposition passengers.”
On the morning of Oct. 25, it was decided that rescue attempts would begin to get passengers off the ship. The plan was to wait until 5 a.m. when the reef was covered by a few feet of water. It was then hoped that lifeboats on the Sophia could be launched to take passengers to the rescue ships. The Cedar was anchored at the island nearby. The King and Whipe circled the Sophia all night and the Cedar also had its search lights on the Sophia. Unfortunately, the wind began to rise, and the waves were breaking hard against the hull of the Sophia. It was decided that the passengers were safer on the Sophia than in the water.
By 9 a.m., the wind was reaching gale strength and the ships in the Lynn Canal were having trouble staying in place, while the smaller rescue boats had to seek shelter. Captain Ledbetter of the Cedar decided that he would anchor half a kilometre from the Sophia, and would shoot a line at the ship, then evacuate the passengers by breeches buoy. This was a hazardous method to rescue passengers and it was unlikely everyone could be rescued in this manner but there was little choice. The Cedar twice tried to drop anchor but failed to catch the bottom. Captain Locke on the Sophia saw there was no use and radioed that they should wait for low tide when conditions would be better.
At 11 a.m., Leadbetter radioed Capt. Locke, stating “I can’t make anchors hold could not rowboat to you at present. Believe your passengers are perfectly safe until wind moderates. Will stand by until safe to make transfer with safety.”
Leadbetter then radioed Juneau half an hour later, stating “Sophia resting even keel on high part Vanderbilt reef blowing strong north west wind. Will transfer passengers as soon as possible to Cedar.”
The Cedar and King and Whipe would anchor near the reef and then when the wind died down, they would launch their lifeboats to ferry people away from the Sophia. Since the Sophia had remained on the rock so far, the captains felt it was best to wait until the next day.
As the ships were preparing to move away, the Sophia sent out a wireless message at 4:50 p.m. stating, “ship floundering on reef, come at once.” The Cedar immediately prepared to steam to the reef, and Captain Ledbetter signaled to the King and Whipe to follow.
The Princess Sophia was messaged by the Cedar, saying the following:
“Coming full speed but cannot see you on account of thick storm and heavy seas.”
At 5:20 p.m., David Robinson, the wireless operator on the Sophia radioed out the following:
“For God’s sake hurry, the water is coming into my room!”
The Cedar wired back to conserve battery power and only transmit when necessary due to the weak wireless batteries.
Robinson wired back the following:
“Alight I will. You talk to me, so I know you are coming.”
That would prove to be the last message to come from the Sophia.
For half an hour, the Cedar slowly towards the reef but conditions were so bad that the light from the lighthouse could not be seen half a kilometre away. It was decided that due to the conditions and the danger of running into the ship themselves, they had to turn back to get to shelter. The barometer was showing that conditions would improve, and seven rescue ships were ready to assist if the Sophia foundered on the reef.
At 7:15 p.m., Leadbetter radioed the SS Atlas stating “Attempted to reach Sophia 5 p.m. blinding snowstorm could not make her. Will advise as soon as weather permits.”
Unfortunately, the Sophia had gone beneath the waves by this point, but no one knew it. It is believed that with the wind blowing in from the north, the ship was raised much higher off the reef by increased water levels. Becoming buoyant briefly, the bow of the vessel remained on the reef, but the waves spun the ship around completely and washed it off the reef. The force of this dragged the ship on the rock, ripping out the bottom of the Sophia. When the ship moved to deeper water, it immediately began to sink, taking about half an hour.
The ship went down with no survivors and no witnesses but based on the evidence the previous scenario I described is believed to be the most likely.
Due to the sudden sinking after so much time without movement, there was no time for an organized evacuation. Many people had life jackets on, and two wooden lifeboats floated away while the steel ones sank. At least 100 people were in their cabins when the ship sank, which has confused historians given that there was a half an hour before the ship went down completely. Some of the reasons given for so many people in their cabins could be because of the seawater causing the boiler to explode, resulting in the deck buckling and killing several people. Several passengers seemed to have jumped into lifeboats but with the waves becoming too rough, they jumped into the water. In the water, the oil from the ship clung to them, weighed down their clothes and got into their noses, mouths and lungs, coating them in tar.
One passenger is believed to have survived the sinking. The second officer of the ship, Frank Gosse, seems to have made it into a lifeboat that was not swamped in the waves. He was later found on the shore, with his coat covering a head wound that he likely received while climbing the rocks around the shoreline to safety. He would lay down and wait for rescue, eventually dying from exposure.
The morning of Oct. 26, the weather had improved with less wind. The rescue vessels returned to the reef only to find the foremast of the ship above the water. For the next three hours, the ships searched for survivors but only found bodies. The only survivor of the ship was an English setter dog, believed to be the pet of a wealthy couple, that was able to swim to an island. The dog had swum 10 kilometres from the reef to Tee Harbour, then walked another five to six kilometres to Auk Bay where it was found by residents of the town, two days after the sinking.
Juneau was radioed at 9:15 a.m. that morning.
“Cedar at Vanderbilt Reef 8:30 a.m. Sophia driven over reef during night. Only masts showing. No survivors. Will cruise Lynn Canal to Leeward blowing strong north wind with snow.”
The watches on the bodies were found to have stopped at 5:50 p.m. and the rescue ships switched from search and rescue to body recovery. Governor Riggs of Alaska would order all flags in Alaska to be put at half-mast, and he would go to Lynn Canal and lead the rescue with over 25 vessels searching for bodies. After returning to Juneau, he would make the following statement:
“I have examined the log of the steamers Cedar and King and Whipe, have inspected the logs of the lightkeeper on Sentinel Island and Eldred Rock and after a thorough investigation I am confidence that no blame for the catastrophe to the Princess Sophia can be attached to Captain Locke of that vessel or any of the commanders of the Cedar and other vessels in the vicinity at the time of the disaster.”
He would close out his statement saying:
“It seemed impossible that the Sophia could have moved from the cradle on the reef in which she rested and until late in the afternoon of October 25 it did not seem to anyone that the vessel was in extreme danger.”
Several passengers, knowing the danger they were in, wrote letters to loved ones. At least two were recovered by rescuers.
Private Auris W. McQueen wrote a letter that was found on his body later. It states:
“Two women fainted and one of them got herself into a black evening dress and didn’t worry about who saw her putting it on. Some of the men, too, kept life preservers on for an hour or so and seemed to think there was no chance for us.”
Another letter by John R. Maskell was found on his body and was widely printed in newspapers. It states:
“My own dear sweetheart,
I am writing this my dear girl while the boat is in grave danger. We struck a rock last night which threw many from their berths, women rushed out in their night attire, some were crying, some too weak to move, but the lifeboats were swung out in all readiness but owing to the storm would be madness to launch until there was no hope for the ship. Surrounding ships were notified by wireless and in three hours the first steamer came but cannot get near owing to the storm raging and the reef which we are on. There are now seven ships near. When the tide went down, two-thirds of the boat was high and dry. We are expecting the lights to go out at any minute, also the fires. The boat might go to pieces, for the force of the waves are terrible, making awful noises on the side of the boat, which has quite a list to port. No one can sleep but believe me dear Dorrie it might have been much worse. Just hear there is a big steamer coming. We struck the reef in a terrible snowstorm. There is a big buoy near marking the danger, but the captain was to port instead [of] to starboard of [the] buoy. I made my will this morning, leaving everything to you, my own true love and I want you to give £100 to my dear Mother, £100 to my dear Dad, £100 to dear wee Jack, and the balance of my estate (about £300) to you, Dorrie dear. The Eagle Lodge will take care of my remains.
In danger at Sea.
24th October 1918
To whom it may concern:
Should anything happen [to] me notify, notify Eagle Lodge, Dawson. My insurance, finances, and property, I leave to my wife (who was to be) Miss Dorothy Burgess, 37 Smart St., Longsight, Manchester, England.”
For the next several months, bodies began to wash up on shores along the coast. Pieces of wreckage and belongings, including toys belonging to children, also floated onto the shores. Most of the bodies were barely recognizable by the time they reached shore, and all were taken to Juneau, Alaska in an attempt to identify them. Divers at the site would also recover about 100 bodies, most of which had been floating in cabins for months.
The city of Dawson City was especially hit hard with roughly two-thirds of the passengers coming from the community. Some of the prominent individuals included William O’Brien, a member of the Yukon Legislature and of the Dawson City Council, along with his wife and five children. William Scouse was also killed in the sinking. He had been the first person to get gold out of the Eldorado River during the Klondike Gold Rush, making him incredibly rich. Several business owners from Dawson City would also lose their lives in the sinking.
John Zaccarelli had gone to the Yukon during the gold rush in 1898 and opened several stores. After two decades there he decided it was time to go back home to Oakland. He had a ticket for an earlier steam ship but he gave that up so a family could travel together, and he got on the fateful voyage of the Princess Sophia. Interestingly, his widow moved back to Dawson City with her sons and married a man named Charlie Vifquain, who lost his wife and daughter on the Sophia.
The body of a woman was found with four overturned on nearby Lincoln Island. Another nine bodies, eight of them women, were found in the water with four bodies in a collapsible raft.
One man killed in the sinking was H. Russell, who had owned the Russell restaurant in Calgary and served as a cook for the Royal North West Mounted Police. He was cooking on a ship along the Yukon River when he made the decision to come back to Calgary for the winter, choosing to go on the Princess Sophia. It was estimated that 10 per cent of the non-Indigenous population of the north died in the sinking.
Beyond the loss of life, there was the huge hit to the industry of the north. Before the sinking of the Sophia, there were plans for the sale of a $1 million mine in the southern Yukon that would have revitalized the industry there. The owner of the mine and several of its new engineers were on the Sophia and with their death, the sale was never conducted. Several of the people who died on the Sophia also ran river boats on the Yukon River, and with their death, the travel and connections along communities on the river was heavily disrupted. It is estimated it took until the Second World War for the Yukon to recover from this loss.
Over a year after the sinking, there was talk about raising the ship off the sea floor, but the decision was made to abandon the idea due to the poor weather of the area.
In 2018, the Royal Canadian Mint would release a pure silver coin with the Princess Sophia on it, honouring those lost a century previous.
I’ll finish off this episode with a look at an unfortunate man named Austin Fraser. He had cancelled his reservation on the Princess Sophia one hour before it left. A well-known lawyer in Dawson City and a former member of the Yukon Legislature, he would instead die only two months later from the deadly Spanish Flu.
Information comes from The Review-Advertiser, The Sedgewick Sentinel, The Morning Albertan, Wikipedia, the Calgary Daily Herald, Princess Sophia.Org, Remembering the Princess Sophia, Juneau Empire, Royal Canadian Mint, CBC,