"The boat might go to pieces, for the force of the waves are terrible, making awful noises on the side of the boatï¿½."
Jack Maskell wrote these words, along with a will, to his fiancée Dorothy Burgess, the day before the SS Princess Sophia sank. Although Maskell and many other people perished, this shipwreck tragedy is not widely remembered by Canadians. In part, this is because the images associated with this shipwreck are not numerous, the passengers were not prestigious and the tragedy occurred just days before the end of the First World War.
Like most of the Canadian Pacific's ships, the Princess Sophia was built abroad by Bow, McLaughlan and Company in 1911. She was 245 feet (74.6 metres) long and displaced 2,320 tons. The steamer departed Scotland in 1912, and arrived at Victoria three months later to begin her regular voyages up the Inside Passage and along the coast of Alaska.
On October 23, 1918, the ship departed from Skagway, Alaska, and headed southward for Vancouver. One day later, at a few minutes past 2:00 a.m., the Princess Sophia ran aground at the center of the Vanderbilt Reef in the Lynn Canal. Captain Leonard Locke alerted the Canadian Pacific office in Juneau, 20 miles to the south, requesting assistance.
Eight ships arrived in response, but Captain Locke would not let his passengers off the Princess Sophia until he felt the fierce gales had settled and it was safe to lower the dories. Instead, the storm raged stronger. The sea picked up Sophia's stern and turned her 180 degrees, slipping her off the reef and eventually overwhelming her with the cold Alaskan waters.
The sinking, which occurred on October 25th, left no survivors and is estimated to have taken approximately 355 lives. Witnesses reported that the Vanderbilt Reef area was not lit and that the only lighthouse was far off in the distance. In the court proceedings that followed the disaster, it was argued that the captain's view was obscured by a snowstorm or that the ship was set off course by the wind.
The investigations into the shipwreck began a little over three weeks after the tragedy occurred. Captain J.D. Macpherson, the Wreck Commissioner for British Columbia, received instructions from Ottawa to begin organizing the hearings. The proceedings began on January 10, 1919 in Victoria. The witnesses who were called to trial included ships' captains, officers, engineers, wireless operators and various other individuals who went to the aid of the Princess Sophia. Questioning focused on the weather at the time of the wreck, the possibility of rescuing passengers in the days prior to the sinking, any communications with Locke and his aptitude aboard the ship.
Included in the investigation records available at Library and Archives Canada are deck logs of the Cedar (one of the ships that responded to the distress call); documented communication between the Sophia and other ships present at the scene; a list of passengers, including details such as their origin, destination and birthplace; as well as a statement of the expenses incurred by Canadian Pacific after the wreck. Today, the Princess Sophia is recalled through this documentary heritage, through artifacts at institutions such as the Vancouver Maritime Museum, and through visits by wreck divers who frequent the physical remains of this tragic vessel.
Coates, Ken, and Bill Morrison. The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down With Her. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1991.
Library and Archives Canada. Department of Marine Fonds. RG 42. Series B-4. Volume 355.
Library and Archives Canada. Government of Canada. Sessional Papers. 21-24, Volume LVI, no. 7, 1920.
MacDonald, Ian, and Betty O'Keefe. The Final Voyage of the Princess Sophia: Did They All Have to Die? Surrey: Heritage House Publishing Co., 1998.