The Anniversary of the Sinking of the Princess Sophia

On October 26, 1918 the Princess Sophia sank on Vanderbilt Reef, between Haines and Juneau, killing 353 people, many leading citizens of the Yukon and Alaska.  It is a tragedy that is hard to wrap your head around. Ken Coates and Bill Morrison have written about it in  The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down With Her. What puzzles the authors most, is how little the wreck is known outside of a small circle of northern historians. Even here in Haines it is not well known, and the names of the dead are not even on our maritime memorial. There's no memorial for the Princess Sophia in Whitehorse, Dawson, Skagway, or Juneau either- Part of the reason is the date it happened, just before Armistice Day in WW I. Part of the reason is the location, a remote part of Alaska. Part of the reason is that we don't pay all that much attention to the past here, preferring, it seems, to look ahead, that old North to the Future slogan comes to mind. Coates and Morrison argue that another reason we forget about this story, is the often temporary and mostly seasonal pattern of life in Alaska and the Yukon that is still true today. The ship was full of community leaders from Dawson and the Klondike, heading south for the winter. That meant there were no local funerals, rather scattered services in the passengers' home towns, and that the civic leaders of the region who could have made sure we remembered, mostly died on the ship.  Anyway, here's what happened, so that you will know.  On October 23, 1918 the streamer Princess Sophia left Skagway for Vancouver and Victoria. A storm hit at 2:00am and she ran aground on Vanderbilt Reef. A fleet of rescue boats from Haines and Juneau arrived and circled the wreck for hours, hoping to take off the passengers and crew. The captain may have felt they were safer on the ship and that it was too rough to lower life rafts without putting lives at risk, he may have tried to save everyone, but no one is sure because the storm worsened, the rescue boats sought shelter,  and when the water finally calmed and they went back to the reef on the morning of the 26th, all they saw was the top of the mast. The ship was gone, and with it everyone on board. There was nothing left to retrieve but bodies.  Juneau and Haines area searchers had found 180 by Nov. 1, thanks in part to the snow on the shore, which made them easier to see.  A few more trickled in, but by Nov. 20 the effort was called off. On the last page of their book, the authors of The Sinking of the Princess Sophia quote Skagway musician and entrepreneur Steve Hites, as he sings this tune: " And summer tourists come by the thousands to see if the Inside Passage is all it claims to be. And I wonder if any of them pause to hear the crashing of the waves on the rocks so near. And I wonder, as I watch the lowering sky, if we're going to have a storm when you cast off tonight?"


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