The Princess Sophia
Could the Passengers and Crew of the Sophia Have Been Saved?
On October 25, 1918 the Princess Sophia sank in the waters of the Lynn Canal in southeast Alaska, killing all 343 on board. The six year old ship was owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway and provided passenger and freight service between British Columbia and the Yukon.
Seventy-five crew members and 50 women and children were on the passenger list. Many of the women and children were families of men who were serving in World War I.
Other passengers included gold miners and employees of the paddle wheelers that plied the Yukon River. Most were returning south before the numbing cold of winter in the Yukon and Alaska set in.
The tragedy occurred just four hours after the Sophia left Skagway, Alaska en route to Vancouver, British Columbia.
There were no witnesses to the sinking. Researchers and historians have spent decades trying to piece together the final hours of the doomed vessel.
Today, one haunting question remains. "Could the passengers and crew of the Sophia have been saved"?
The Sophia Runs Aground
Just hours after leaving Skagway, the Sophia ran into blizzard conditions. The ship veered off course and struck the Vanderbilt Reef in the Lynn Canal, about 50 miles from Skagway, at about the midway point between Skagway and Juneau.
There was no need for panic. The ship's double hull had not been breached. She was simply "stuck" on the reef.
The ship's wireless operator radioed for help. The message was picked up in Juneau, Alaska and a small flotilla of boats were dispatched to help the ailing vessel.
The captain of the Sophia was so confident the ship was safe that he turned away help from his sister ships, the Estebeth and Amy who were close by. He instructed them, by megaphone, to find shelter in a secure location until the storm passed.
A Rescue Attempt is Launched.
The biggest vessel in the area was the U.S. Lighthouse ship Cedar. It was large enough to safely take on all of Sophia's crew and passengers and the only ship with operating wireless transmission capability.
The Cedar did not get word of the situation untill 11 hours after the grounding. It was almost 70 miles away.
The two captains communicated by wireless radio and devised a rescue operation which would see the stranded passengers and crew wait until high tide and move by small lifeboats to the Cedar and other vessels.
The Cedar arrived at 6:00 pm on in the evening of the 24th. There were already 18 fishing boats on the scene.
The conditions were windy and large waves were crashing against the hull of the Sophia. The captains of the Sophia and Cedar determined that a rescue attempt was too dangerous that night and agreed to wait till morning.
At 7:00 pm the Cedar left the reef to seek shelter. At 8:30 pm the Sophia lost heat and power.
The Last Message of the Sophia
The following morning electrical and steam heat had been restored to the Sophia, but winds picked up to gale force and the rescue boats at the scene, including the Cedar were forced to take shelter once again.
Just before 5 pm on October 25, 1918 , the Sophia sent out a distress call saying the ship was floundering on the reef.
The Cedar set sail once again but the conditions were horrendous. Visibility was extremely limited in the blowing snow and there was a real danger the Cedar might also run aground on the reef.
She turned back to seek shelter.
The final message from the Sophia, just before 5:30 pm was "For God's sake, hurry. The water is in my room".
The would-be rescuers spent hours looking for survivors, but only found bodies. Those who managed to get into the water choked on fuel oil or died from hypothermia in the frigid waters of the Lynn Canal.
It appeared that the only thing to survive the tragedy was a dog, belonging to one of the passengers, that managed to swim to a nearby island.
For weeks after the sinking of the Sophia, bodies and personal items washed up on the shores of the Lynn Canal.
Volunteers in Juneau used gasoline to clean the bodies of a thick coating of oil and prepared the dead for burial.
There are some clues about the final hours of the Sophia. Researchers believe the tide was higher than expected and the ship was raised, but not enough to clear the reef. When the tide receded the Sophia once again landed on Vanderbilt reef, this time splitting the internal hull.
Today, the debate over the sinking of the Sophia continues. Some historians say Captain Locke should have attempted a rescue attempt the evening of October 24th, thereby saving at least some passengers.
Others contend Locke had no way of knowing the weather would worsen and took the safe and prudent course.