Juneau residents and descendants of those aboard the ill-fated Princess Sophia remembered the sinking on Friday with a small memorial service and a new plate for the top of a gravestone at Evergreen Cemetary.
Walter Harper and his wife Frances Wells both died when the steamship Princess Sophia grounded on Vanderbilt Reef late on Oct. 23 and then sank on Oct. 25, 1918.
All aboard the ship — at least 343 and as many 356 passengers and crew — perished in the disaster that is still considered as the greatest maritime tragedy in Alaska waters.
Walter Harper and Frances Wells were headed south so that he could train to become a medical missionary or military doctor, according to Bill Morrison and Ken Coates in The Wreck of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down with Her.
Walter was the son of an Irish immigrant, the noted prospector Arthur Harper who partnered with Jack McQuesten and Alfred Mayo in the Yukon. Walter was educated by Episcopalian missionaries and Frances was a nurse from Philadelphia serving at the Fort Yukon mission. Harper served as the archdeacon’s private secretary and accompanied him on a pioneering expedition to the top of Denali (Mt. McKinley). Harper is believed to be the first person to set foot on the true summit in 1913.
The new plate for the top of the gravestone once again makes legible the stone’s engraving that has worn away over the last century. It reads:
Here lie the bodies of Walter Harper
Frances Wells, his wife
drowned on the Princess Sophia 25th Oct. 1918
May light perpetual shine upon them
They were lovely and pleasant in their lives
and in their death they were not divided.
II Samuel 1:23
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