Exhibit commemorates Princess Sophia shipwreck, the ‘Titanic of the West’

Historic photos of the Princess Sophia are featured in panels of a museum exhibit in Skagway unveiled in May 2018.
Historic photos of the Princess Sophia are featured in panels of a museum exhibit in Skagway unveiled in May 2018. (Photo by Henry Leasia/KHNS)

A new exhibit in Skagway commemorates the 100-year anniversary of the sinking of the SS Princess Sophia. The grand opening took place at the Arctic Brotherhood Hall on Monday.

On Oct. 23, 1918, the Princess Sophia set off from Skagway on its voyage South. It was the end of the riverboat season in the Yukon, and just like the seasonal migration we see today, many workers were headed back home for the winter. Jeff Brady, one of the exhibition’s creators, explained that the ship was off to a slow start.

“Because all these people were coming from Canada, they had to be processed by customs, so the ship was a couple hours late leaving here,” Brady said. “By the time it left at about 10 o’clock, it was of course getting dark in late October.”

The weather quickly took a turn for the worse. High winds and limited visibility took the ship off course at a critical section of the Lynn Canal. At 2 a.m., the ship hit Vanderbilt reef and grounded itself.

“Nothing happened that would cause it to sink at that point, and then a number of decisions were made or not made over the next 30-some hours,” Brady said.

Smaller vessels from the area were called to assist the passengers and crew. However, the captain feared the conditions made it too dangerous to transfer to the other ships. As conditions grew worse, the other boats were forced to turn back to shore. On Oct. 25, the ship, the crew and all of the passengers were lost. Well, except for a dog.

“The dog was the only survivor,” explained Steve Hites, a member of Skagway’s SS Princess Sofia committee. “It swam from the shipwreck. Somehow made it to the mainland, to the shore.”

As Hites walked around the exhibit’s eight-panel centerpiece, he explained the timeline of the ship from its first commission in 1911, to its sinking, all the way up to recent investigations by scuba divers.

Visitors read up on the SS Princess Sophia at a new exhibit in Skagway, which had its grand opening on May 7, 2018.
Visitors read up on the SS Princess Sophia at a new exhibit in Skagway, which had its grand opening on May 7, 2018. (Photo by Henry Leasia/KHNS)

Touchscreen monitors are located off to the side, where visitors can learn more details about the passengers and crew. Hites showed off the virtual tour of the ship.

“Essentially we’ve got here the opportunity to actually look at the Princess Sophia, and we have touch points on the vessel that allow you to go into the cabins, to look at the pilot house, to ask questions interactively,” Hites said.

The idea for the exhibit started two years ago. David Leverton, the director of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, visited Skagway to speak with locals about commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the Sophia disaster. A committee was created to help give Leverton input on Skagway’s role in the story.

Leverton proposed an exhibit that would originate in the B.C. museum with a traveling version for smaller communities. The Skagway committee decided to purchase the mobile version of the exhibit. Brady said it is important to keep it as a permanent fixture.

“If not for the end of WWI dominating all the headlines worldwide, this would’ve been as big a headline probably as the Titanic,” Brady said. “But it wasn’t. Even today, here close to where it happened, we have to remind people this was a big event in our history.”

Skagway’s Princess Sophia committee is currently fundraising for a plaque to honor the souls lost at sea. In October it will be installed at a park facing the water.

The exhibit is on display at the Skagway Museum.

A traveling version of the exhibit will be on display in Juneau at the Alaska State Museum from July to September, and in Whitehorse from October to December.

KHNS - Haines

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