The end of 1918 was approaching when a disaster struck the North a blow from which it took a generation to recover. The sinking of the Princess Sophia in the Lynn Canal south of Skagway, which resulted in the loss of 343 lives, is almost forgotten today.
On Oct. 15 the last two river steamers of the navigation season, the Casca and the Yukon, packed to capacity, were sent on their way to Whitehorse by hundreds of well-wishers.
The two sternwheelers arrived in Whitehorse four days later, and the passengers were quickly transferred to the train for the 175 kilometre, seven-hour journey to the coast. The train delivered a record number of people to Skagway, where the population doubled in size with the arrival of the transients.
Every hotel room in town was booked, and every restaurant filled to capacity as the throng awaited departure. In the meantime, the crowd was entertained by two dances and a fundraising film night at Skagway Popular Picture Palace.
The three previous steamships had left Skagway filled to capacity. Some last-minute arrivals felt fortunate that they could book passage on the Prince Rupert, leaving a day before the Sophia, which had been booked to capacity well in advance.
Amidst the noise and confusion of the crowded dock, the passengers boarded the Princess Sophia the afternoon of Oct. 23. At 10 p.m., she slipped away from the dock in the darkness and headed down the Lynn Canal. An hour later, she rounded a point, and the weather changed. It started to snow and the wind picked up to 80 kilometres per hour.
In the era before radar and global positioning system, pilots had to guide their vessels by knowledge and experience, with a little blind luck thrown in. Unfortunately the blind luck failed the ship’s captain, L.P. Locke, on this fateful evening. Just after 2 a.m., passengers were jolted from their slumber when the Sophia ran head-on into Vanderbilt reef, in the centre of the channel. In the pitch darkness with heavy snow and strong winds, the Sophia had drifted off course and directly onto this well-known hazard.
The ship sent wireless messages stating they were grounded on the reef. Over the course of the next two days, several ships were dispatched to the reef to assist in the transfer of passengers to safety. At low tide, the entire vessel could be seen resting on the exposed reef, balanced on an even keel. Unfortunately, although the rescue ships could get close enough to communicate by loud-hailer with the Sophia, the wind continued unabated, and the waters were too rough to allow the use of life boats.
At one point, the passengers of the Sophia appeared on deck, some carrying suitcases, and it looked as though they were preparing to abandon ship.
Aboard the Sophia, the passengers must have been in a state of confusion, balancing between hope and panic. The presence of rescue ships nearby would have reassured them, but the weather frustrated any hope of transferring to safety. One passenger, Joe Maskell, fearing the worst wrote to his fiancee Dorothy Burgess, who awaited him in Manchester, England. “I made my will this morning to you, my own true love…” he wrote, but the letter was not delivered until months later.
Another passenger, Auris McQueen, writing to his mother in a more optimistic tone, anticipated rescue and speculated: “As soon as this storm quits we will be taken off and make another lap to Juneau…”
The storm didn’t quit. On the morning of Oct. 25, the wind shifted and rose to gale force. It was estimated that it was gusting as high as 160 kilometres per hour. The attending ships made for cover in nearby bays. The high tide, the powerful winds and the churning waves finally had an effect on the stranded passenger ship. At 4:50 p.m., the Sophia sent out a distress signal: “Ship Foundering on Reef. Come at Once.”
This message was followed a half hour later by a much more ominous transmission: “For God’s sake hurry.” There was water coming into the radio room. But the rescue ships could not make headway against the powerful storm.
When the storm died down and the rescue ships were able to return to the reef, the Sophia was gone. All that remained above the water beside the reef was the top of her mast. The Sophia had gone to the bottom, and all the passengers had perished.
Gone were some of the Yukon’s most prominent – and promising – citizens. One was William Scouse, one of the most successful mine operators in the Klondike. A Scotsman, he came to the Klondike the summer of 1896. Joe Ladue tipped him off, and he and his partners were able to stake 15 Eldorado, which made him a rich man. In recent years, he had spent his winters with Mrs. Scouse in Seattle, but continued to work his mines in the summertime.
Walter Harper was the son of Arthur Harper, one of the original locators of Dawson City, and a native mother. He had received a good education Outside, and returned to Alaska. He was the guide who led Hudson Stuck on the ascent of Mount McKinley, and was the first man to set foot on the summit of North America’s tallest peak.
Walter and his new bride, Frances, were headed outside, he to join the American army and study medicine, and she, a nurse, to “enter Red Cross work.”
All seven members of the O’Brien family perished in wreck. William was a member of the Yukon Territorial Council at the time of his death. Arriving in Dawson in 1901 at age 22, he at first worked for his uncle, Thomas W. O’Brien. He was involved in the construction of the Klondike Mines Railway, and also the management of the fleet of O’Brien and Moran river steamers.
Very active socially, O’Brien’s last social act was singing at the fundraising event in Skagway the evening before the Sophia sailed. He married Sarah McKinnon of Detroit. Together, they had five children, aged 14 to two-and-a-half years of age, who were with them on the Sophia.
Others were not so prominent. Kakuzo Tsuji and George S. Shimada both worked together in a hand laundry in Dawson, after which Tsuji cooked for the Yukon Gold Company. Shimada had been the chief cook on the steamer Dawson before leaving for the winter. There were hundreds of similar stories.
The sinking of the Princess Sophia vanished rapidly from public memory, overwhelmed by the news of the pending armistice.
A world that had been battered by conflict and death for four years seemed determined to celebrate and look forward to the future, rather than remember the marine disaster. Today the tragedy is remembered in songs by Steve Hites of Skagway and Dan Halen of Whitehorse, various books, and a prominent memorial on the Dawson City waterfront.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org