Alaskans, Yukoners filled doomed steamship

Iconic photo of the steamship Princess Sophia grounded on Vanderbilt Reef on October 24, 1918. Photo courtesy of Alaska State Library Historical Collections, Winter and Pond. Photographs, 1893-1943. ASL PCA-87 ASL-P87-1701

This week marks the 95th anniversary of the most tragic Alaska voyage that may have also changed the course of history of the Far North.

Or, did it?

It was very late on the night of Oct. 23, 1918 when the steamship Princess Sophia had just departed Skagway for its trip south to Vancouver, Victoria, and Seattle. Many on board were Yukoners and Interior Alaskans heading for a warmer climate during the winter. Others were leaving for good.

The crew of the 245-foot vessel Princess Sophia struggled against blowing snow and strong winds as they headed down Lynn Canal in the dark. The steamship grounded on Vanderbilt Reef northwest of Juneau and remained there for close to forty hours as a storm blew through the area.

Other local vessels waited out the weather before trying to approach the reef and help evacuate at least 343 and, perhaps, as many as 356 passengers and crew. But they never had the chance. Sometime during the following night of Oct. 24, the vessel pivoted in place on the reef, its stern pushed by northwesterly winds. With the hull severely damaged, the vessel flooded and slipped backward beneath waves. Everyone on board — men, women, and children — had perished.

Another classic shot of steamship Princess Sophia about ten hours after she grounded on Vanderbilt Reef. Photo courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections, Winter and Pond. Photographs, 1893-1943. ASL-PCA-87 ASL-P87-1702

They included Juneau’s customs collector, as much as ten percent of Dawson City’s population, all of the Princess Sophia’s crew that lived in Vancouver and Victoria, over 85 riverboat crewmembers and captains from the White Pass and Yukon Railway company and their family who traveled on the Princess Sophia. Also on board were laborers, businesspeople, and civil servants from all over the Yukon and Alaska.

“The thing is we did our research 25 years ago, which was the 70th anniversary of the sinking. It’s now the 95th anniversary and there’s a lot of time has passed,” said professor emeritus of history Bill Morrison.

Morrison was co-author of the definitive history of the disaster, The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down With Her.

Morrison was in Juneau last weekend for the Al-Can Summit organized by the Juneau World Affairs Council and University of Alaska Southeast. He was also the featured speaker on the Princess Sophia disaster during the University’s Evening at Egan presentation.

In an interview with KTOO before his presentation, Morrison talked about his initial research in Victoria for the book roughly 25 years ago.

Someone phoned me and said ‘Did you know that a crewmember from the Sophia is still alive?’ I said, ‘Can’t be. They’re all dead.'”

Morrison describes finding Phillip A. Hole, 95-year old man in a Victoria seniors home who served as a purser on the Princess Sophia in 1916.

“I said to him ‘How did they navigate in the dark?’ Because you’re coming down the Lynn Canal, in 1916, you don’t have radar, how did you navigate? ‘How did you keep from running into Vanderbilt Reef every time you went down?’,” remembers Morrison.

“And he said ‘What we did is blow the whistle or the ship’s horn, and then listen for the echoes off the steep sides of the canal.'”

“I still remember this frail old man, shifting on his left foot, then right foot, ‘A thousand-one, a thousand-two. Boom, boom.'”

Morrison remembers asking Hole “‘What did they do when it was screaming wind and snowing?’ He didn’t have an answer.”

Morrison said enlistment for World War One and the decline of hand mining and the rise of mechanized dredge mining had more of an impact on the Yukon Territory then the loss of a large number of residents on the Princess Sophia.

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