‘Haunting story’: Mary Lou Spartz talks about her fascination with Princess Sophia

2018 marks 100th anniversary of the tragedy.

Mary Lou Spartz talks about her interest in the SS Princess Sophia on Friday, June 22, 2018. The Sophia sank in 1918 with 343 or more people dying in the incident. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Living on 12th street in Juneau, Mary Lou Spartz’s childhood backyard was the Evergreen Cemetery.


Spartz never looked at the cemetery as ghoulish, but more of just a big lawn. That cemetery initially piqued her interest in the tragedy of Princess Sophia wreck. The S.S. Princess Sophia, a coastal passenger liner in the fleet of the Canadian Pacific Railway, was sailing from Skagway along Lynn Canal bound for Vancouver. However, before the ship reached its destination, the vessel struck the Vanderbilt Reef on Oct. 24, 1918, and on Oct. 25, 1918, the 353 passengers and crew died as waves engulfed the ship. This wreck has fascinated Spartz since she was 11.

“I guess it begins with curiosity,” Spartz, 86, said while sitting in the community room inside Fireweed Place, a senior independent living facility in Juneau, where she lives. “I liked to read the grave markers. One day while going on my walk, I read a grave marker about the ship that sank and the two people who were on it. The graves were of Walter Harper and his wife, Frances Welles Harper. It was very romantic that the two people died together and were buried together. I asked my dad about it and I was just fixated on it.”

Despite moving away from Juneau with her husband and children to Anchorage and Fairbanks, Spartz continued to be intrigued by the wreck. She eventually moved back to Juneau in the late 1970s. Spartz said she had difficulty finding work about the Sophia early on but always kept looking.

“If not an obsession, it was at least a haunting,” Spartz said. “It was just a haunting story and I am not the only one who feels that way.”

In the 1980s, Spartz said she really got more involved in her research. She said on studying the shipwreck she has heard several stories over the years. Real or not, the stories Spartz said, are still fascinating. She mentioned a story about two men being shot by the captain, even though no one was ever found with bullet wounds, and another famous story about a dog that is believed to have survived the sinking.

“That damn dog,” Spartz said while laughing. “It is just hard to believe that an English Setter could have survived if nobody else did. I am not going to say there wasn’t a dog. There may have well been a dog, but where the dog came from, I just don’t know.”

Spartz speculated on why the dog story is so important to people.

“We always just want something to survive,” Spartz said. “We don’t want it all to just disappear.”

Spartz said the book, “The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down with Her,” written by Ken Coates and Bill Morrison is really “The Bible” about the wreck and leaves no stone unturned on the actual wreck itself. Spartz said what keeps her fascinated are the stories of the people who died on the boat.

“Each person is a person,” Spartz said. “What were they doing on the boat? Who were these people?’”

100 year anniversary

Spartz, who is one of the founders of the committee committed to keeping the memory of the Sophia alive, is excited about what has been done and what is planned for this year’s 100th anniversary of the disaster.

Katy Giorgio, President of the Orpheus Project, a local arts nonprofit and producer of the upcoming opera, “The Princess Sophia,” said Spartz’s enthusiasm about the Sophia makes it impossible to not want to help.

“She is certainly passionate about it,” Giorgio said. “She has this great ability to bring people together and she always makes recommendations. She would call me once a month with another recommendation. It has been a great joy getting to know her.”

Giorgio also explained that the Spartz has been responsible for expanding the attendance at Princess Sophia committee meetings to only a couple members early on to at least a dozen people.

Another member of the committee, Fred Thorsteinson, said Spartz’s efforts really helps move projects along. Thorsteinson said Spartz sets up various appointments for him to discuss Princess Sophia events. Thorsteinson is also a member of the of Pioneers of Alaska, an organization that gathers and preserves the relics and early history of Alaska. Pioneers of Alaska commissioned a plaque honoring the victims of the Princess Sophia. A dedication will be held at Eagle Beach on July 14.

“Everyone who is in the committee is pretty excited about (Princess Sophia) and Mary Lou is certainly committed to doing a first-class professional job of organizing projects,” Thorsteinson said. “She really keeps the whole project going.”

One of the projects that Spartz has been on the forefront on is the memorial held annually at the Evergreen Cemetery on Oct. 25. Spartz said the anniversary is important because it allows the story to keep being told.

“I think we need to be reminded when we think of the 350-plus people who lost their lives and what would happen if one of these mega-ships went down,”Spartz said. “The sea is the sea and we don’t have define control on what she is going to do next. I think that is important to remember. It is another world there and the dangers are very clear.”

• Contact reporter Gregory Philson at gphilson@juneauempire.com or call at 523-2265. Follow him on Twitter at @GTPhilson.


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