Tragedy at Sea

Shipwreck was one of worst West Coast disasters

Posted: Sunday, June 08, 2003

There was a blinding northwest snowstorm blowing, but as the Canadian steamship Princess Sophia headed south from Skagway to Vancouver, B.C., on one of the last runs before the winter of 1918, Capt. J. Locke was interested in setting another speed record.

Heedless of the reefs and of the ice floes which still wallowed in Lynn Canal in those years, Capt. Locke ordered full speed.

Near Eldred Rock, the steamer unknowingly veered from her course and struck Vanderbilt Reef at 3:10 a.m. on Oct. 24, its lights blazing. The bow came to rest near the highest point of the reef. The ship's cabins were crowded with hundreds of passengers anxious to spend the cold months Outside. They were 45 miles from downtown Juneau.

Locke thought that because the wind was pushing the seas under the ship's stern, it would have been impossible to launch a lifeboat safely until the weather improved. The barometer showed signs of moderating weather, and Locke kept careful control of what his wireless operator said.

The end came at about 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 25, as the wind increased. The first S.O.S. of the wireless operator was sent at 4:50 p.m.: "We are foundering." Water was then coming into his room. He continued to key messages until 5:20 p.m., when he sent: "For God's sake, come; we are sinking."

The Cedar, lying under the shelter of Benjamin Island, quickly got under way and arrived at 9:10 to find one mast protruding from the ocean. The Princess Sophia had plunged quickly beneath the waves and pressure may have caused a subsequent boiler explosion.

A fatal half-hour spelled the end of almost 10 percent of the Alaska Territory's white population. Most of them were citizens of Alaska or the Yukon. Passengers included Lulu Mae Eads (a former dance-hall queen and the probable model for the Lady Known as Lou in the Robert Service ballad, "The Shooting of Dan McGrew"), the O'Brien family of Dawson, Charles Chinnery of Whitehorse, Juneau resident John Pugh (head of the U.S. Customs Service for the Territory), U. G. Meyers of Eagle, A.D. Pratt of Fairbanks and various Chinese crew members. R.M. Hall, 36, government wireless operator at Iditarod, had been contemplating his first vacation in four years.

During the day and a half that the Sophia was impaled on the reef, other ships including the King & Winge, the Peterson, Estebeth, Amy and Loner Fisherman circled the stranded ship, hoping to take off the 353 passengers and crew. Locke refused offers of aid. He was reportedly dancing on board when it went down - although, of course, there were no surviving witnesses to confirm this.

In an interview with The Alaska Daily Empire on Oct. 28, Capt. James Davis of the Estebeth was certain that passengers could have been saved. Lloyd Hamilton, an Estebeth deckhand who saw the vessel from 60 feet away, later testified that lifeboats could have been launched from her starboard davits.

An examination on Oct. 28 by the deputy marshal of the reef at low tide showed the "place where the vessel had rested was worn as smooth as a silver dollar and the rocks were white from being ground beneath the keel," he said.

Alaska Gov. Thomas Riggs sought to quiet the furor. On Oct. 30, he released a statement to the Empire saying he had interviewed the captain of the Cedar, the inspector of the Lighthouse Service, the first and second officers and wireless operator of the Cedar and the captain of the King and Winge, and examined logs of the lightkeepers on Sentinel Island and Eldred Rock.

"And after a thorough investigation, I am confident that no blame for the catastrophe to the Princess Sophia can be attached to Captain Locke of that vessel" or to any other boat commanders, Riggs said.

By the afternoon of Oct. 29, 167 bodies had been recovered, including those of four unidentified children. Volunteers helped to prepare the bodies for burial, while embalmers were summoned from Seattle, Skagway and Ketchikan. More than a dozen were buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Juneau. The Sophia's sister ship, the Princess Alice, brought many of the victims' bodies to Vancouver, B.C., where they were claimed by relatives. (Both ships were named after daughters of Queen Victoria.)

Falcon Joslin, former president of the Tanana Mines Railroad, rapped Congress for the lack of navigation aids in Alaska.

"It does seem astounding that Vanderbilt Reef, almost right in the center of the channel and in the path of every ship that plies Lynn Canal should have been left without some warning device on it," Joslin told the Empire on Nov. 4. "It is the same old story of locking the stable door after the horse is stolen."

The shipwreck competed for headlines with world events, including World War I battles such as Verdun and the Spanish influenza epidemic. Many bodies were never recovered. In August 1920, the Sophia returned to the pages of the Empire as the Deep Sea Salvage Co. recovered its safe in 120 feet of water. It was hoped that the entire vessel could be raised, towed to "some quiet place in shallow water" such as Bridget Cove, and repaired. Raising it proved impractical.

Initial hearings on the shipwreck were held in Juneau during July and August of 1920. It was suggested that the Sophia was given orders by Canadian Pacific Railway Co., its owners, to keep passengers aboard as they summoned the Princess Alice to take on the passengers.

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An attorney suggested that such orders may have been transmitted but not logged. A telephone operator testified she heard many such messages from a Canadian Pacific agent on Oct. 24. When Capt. James Lloyd, a veteran seaman, was called to the stand as an expert witness, he called the deaths "plain murder." He had witnessed Locke operate the vessel many times at high speed in fog and snowstorms.

As claims came in from dependents of the passengers, Canadian Pacific sought limited liability. Claims were filed totaling $2.5 million, and another $1 million in claims was expected. More hearings began in Juneau on Dec. 18, 1920. Judge Jeremiah Neterer of Seattle handed down a 25-page decision on Sept. 30, 1921.

Neterer did not limit claims except for cargo. He ruled that "a proper lookout was not maintained and that the vessel was going at excessive speed," and that one or the other was "the proximate cause of the foundering of the vessel and the death of the passengers."

Only a dog survived the wreck, and thereafter he had such a fear of water that he dreaded crossing bridges.

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