Not a soul survived to tell the tale

It has been called the “worst marine tragedy in the history of the Alaskan coast” by the Dominion Government Service.

It has been called the “worst marine tragedy in the history of the Alaskan coast” by the Dominion Government Service.

In 1918 the SS Princess Sophia hit a reef in the Lynn Canal. The ship was destroyed and all her passengers were lost.

The Sophia was built in Scotland and launched in November 1911, when she began working the route from Victoria to Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

Considered a sturdy ship with a double hull, the Sophia had been making trips through the inside passage from Alaska to Victoria for years.

On the evening of the tragedy the Sophia was nearly three hours late leaving for Vancouver.

At nearly 10pm on Wednesday, October 23, 1918 the Sophia sailed from Skagway to Vancouver, a trip it made once every two weeks.

At 2 a.m., while travelling through the Lynn Canal between Skagway and Juneau, the steamer struck Vanderbilt reef, a mountainous obstruction that would have been practically invisible to the ship’s operators at that time of night.

The ship’s wireless operator sent out a distress call that was received in Juneau and rescue efforts were mounted.

Over the next 24 hours rescuers strong winds and blustery conditions on the canal hampered efforts to evacuate the steamer.

Between October 25 and 26 the Dawson Daily News received varying reports on the state of the steamer and those on board:

“The steamer struck Vanderbilt reef on Thursday morning at 2 o’clock in a blinding snowstorm…”

“A late cable received last night stated that all on board were happy and that the Princess Alice would come north to take off the passengers, who would remain on the Sophia, which was resting easy on an even keel.”

“Two o’clock Friday afternoon all was well and the Sophia refused to permit an attempt to remove the passengers. At 10 minutes to 5 o’clock the Sophia’s wireless operator sent out a distress signal and added: ‘Just in time to say goodbye. We are foundering.’

“The Sophia was blown clear over the reef and sunk…no survivors were found.”

Nearly 350 crewmembers and passengers, including men serving in the First World War, miners and crewmen from sternwheelers that had finished work for the season, perished in the disaster. Fifty women and children were named on the passenger list.

Nearly all of the passengers were from the Yukon, 125 were from Dawson.

Though there were no witnesses left it is thought that the water level rose substantially causing the ship to become partially buoyant, and then a strong wind threw it sideways into the water.

To make matters worse the ship’s boiler exploded killing many passengers who were still below deck as the vessel began taking on water. And although the ship was fitted with enough lifejackets and floatation devices for all on board, they were useless in the icy water.

Twenty-five vessels worked on recovering the bodies of the victims. It was a slow, rough job.

The Juneau Empire reported “the shores near the scene of the wreak of the Princess Sophia are strewn with dead bodies…A heavy storm throughout Sunday prevented relief ships from getting to land.”

On October 28 the governor of Alaska ordered all flags be flown at half-mast to commemorate the dead.

By October 30 the city of Seattle was on its way with 200 coffins.

A letter written by Jack Maskell, was recovered from his body: “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.”

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.

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