The Coastal Steamer S.S. Princes Sophia departed Skagway at 10:15pm on October 23rd, 1918 with well over 350 passengers and crew. At 2:00am of October 24th, she ran aground on Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal, about 30 miles North of Juneau, in a raging winter storm.
Rescue ships from Juneau began to arrive by 9:00 am and throughout the day. Finding his ship firmly lodged in the reef but intact, and judging evacuation to pose too great risk to the passengers, the Sophia's captain and the commanders of the responding vessels decided to wait, and see if a rising barometer delivered any relief.
The storm continued to increase, however, and by the time extreme evacuation measures were worth hazarding, it was too late to try them. Rescue vessels were released to seek shelter behind nearby islands. Weather conditions on October 25th continued to deteriorate and multiple efforts throughout the day to create options failed, until once again the rescue ships were forced to seek shelter.
At 5:20 pm, the U.S. Lighthouse Tender Cedar received a final message from the Princess Sophia radio operator: “Come quickly, the water is coming in my cabin.” The Cedar attempted to reach the Princess Sophia but was driven back by fierce winds and snow storm.
The next morning, as the weather cleared, rescuers found the Sophia had been thrown across the reef by the storm and sunk with the loss of all aboard, many suffocating in the bunker oil she spilled after her boilers exploded when they hit the cold water. Divers found that most of the passengers’ watches had stopped by 5:50.
Over the next few weeks, the community of Juneau responded to the recovery efforts for the casualties while at the same time dealing with a Spanish Flu epidemic. The little town of just 3,000 cleaned the oiled bodies of over 350 victims - an amount equal to more than 10% of its population, with rags and gasoline. Temporary morgues were created, and coffins had to be shipped in from other Southeast communities to meet the need. When news of the disaster reached Vancouver, it was overshadowed by understandable relief over the end of the Great War, which concluded the same day the Ship of Sorrows arrived, carrying the bodies.
The entire region was impacted by the tragedy, from Seattle to Whitehorse and into the reaches of Alaska, and the injury was felt acutely for generations, but also, paradoxically, is known to relatively few. The disaster coincided with the end of the first World War, and all anyone wanted was to celebrate its end; and it also came only a few years after the sinking of the RMS Titanic, which saw even greater loss of life. Further, most of those who were directly affected by the sinking only stayed in Alaska and the Yukon for another year or two before leaving themselves. Thus, most who remember the tragedy ''inherited'' it as newcomers. A century later, those recipients of this shard of history take the time to commemorate the suffering, the grief, and the brave response to the tragedy, in hopes that this and all other multi-generational traumas are remembered and respected.
Footage from dives on the wreck can be seen here courtesy of Annette Smith (who would probably want it mentiond that the ship's boilers did not explode, she has seen them intact on the the sea floor).
Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down with Her - Ken Coates and Bill Morrison.
Walter Harper, Alaska Native Son - Mary Ehrlander.
Disaster on our Doorstep, How Juneau Responded to the Worst Shipwreck in North Pacific History - Mary Lou Spartz with John Greely (available in Juneau book stores, or you can contact us to connect with the auhors).
SS Princess Sophia, Those Who Perished - Maritime Museum of British Columbia.