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Why do so few remember biggest disaster in Alaska history, with a staggering 343 casualties?

Pat Forgey
Ninety-five years ago Friday, horrible weather in the Inside Passage near Juneau led to the sinking of the SS Princess Sophia, with all 343 aboard perishing. Why do so few know about it today? Courtesy of ADA

It was the biggest disaster in Alaska, Yukon and British Columbia history, but remoteness and bad timing have meant that while everyone everywhere knows about the RMS Titanic, few even in Alaska have heard of the SS Princess Sophia.

Ninety-five years ago Friday Oct. 25, the Princess Sophia, operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway's steamship line, sank in a storm in Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage, in an area that is now part of the capital city of Juneau.

So how did such a devastating -- and stunning -- event become so lost to history?

"Its timing was incredibly bad, public relations-wise," said Bill Morrison, a Canadian university professor who spoke in Juneau recently as part of a Juneau World Affairs Council exploration of Alaska-Canada issues.

Morrison's Book, "The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down With Her," was originally published by Oxford University Press in 1991. It's now in print with the University of Alaska Press. His co-author is Ken Coates.

343 perished

At another time, Morrison told a packed hall at the University of Alaska Southeast, the dramatic deaths of all 343 passengers and crew aboard the Princess Sophia would have entered popular culture, as did other sinkings. While more than 1,500 died on the Titanic in 1912, some 700 more lived to tell the tales of the trans-Atlantic liner's last hours.

The Princess Sophia left Skagway late on Oct. 23, running up onto Vanderbilt Reef during the dark of a snowy night. Not all vessels carried radios in those days, but the steamer did, and she sent a message by what was then called "wireless" to Juneau for help.

The enormity of the situation was not immediately obvious, and the passengers settled in to wait for refloating or rescue.

Vanderbilt Reef was then miles north of Juneau, though the boundaries of the City and Borough of Juneau now extend up Lynn Canal beyond the reef.

First fishing boats, and then a U.S. Lighthouse Service tender arrived to help. Juneau sent word of the grounding to Vancouver, B.C. and another CPR steamer, the Princess May, was dispatched to take off the passengers.

Another such grounding on another Lynn Canal reef had ended uneventfully when the passengers were transferred to a different vessel and the ship was refloated.

Also likely on the mind of Princess Sophia Captain Leonard Locke, Morrison said, was a recent sinking in Canadian waters in which lifeboats were launched prematurely, drowning all their occupants, while those who remained aboard were rescued.

With strong winds blowing down Lynn Canal, Locke chose not to launch lifeboats into the rough seas.

'Blowing like crazy'

At the time, the barometer was rising and it appeared that better weather may have been on the way.

Instead, the weather deteriorated and the rescue boats were unable to approach the jagged, wave-pounded reef. Morrison describes the horrific final hours of the Princess Sophia.

"It's blowing like crazy, the tide is rising - suddenly the stern end of the ship lifts off (the reef) as it turns around facing north. It blows off the reef, it rips a huge gash in the hull and it slips stern first into 90 feet of water."

Aboard the Princess Sophia, passengers donned life vests and wrote final letters to family. Two letters, wrapped in oilskin, were found later.

As the vessel begins to move, those aboard the Princess Sophia knew they were in great danger, and its wireless operator pleaded for help. "For God's Sake, hurry, the water is in my room," was one of the last messages received by the Cedar, a lighthouse tender that was sheltering behind a nearby island.

The Cedar risked wrecking itself as it ventured out into the snowy night, but in the days before radar, it had no hope of getting near the Sophia. In those conditions, foghorns provided the only navigation method. They vessel crews listened for the echos of their own foghorns from the steep sides of Lynn Canal, while on board the Cedar they listened for the foghorn of a nearby lighthouse they could not see, despite its nearness.

The rising water caused a boiler in the Sophia to explode, spilling thick bunker fuel into the water while those aboard attempted to launch lifeboats and reach shore. The pounding seas combined with congealing oil in the icy waters to make that impossible.

"Everybody suffocates or drowns or dies of exposure," Morrison said. "One man crawls onto a neighboring island and freezes to death, but everybody's dead."

With the Cedar unable to get near the Sophia, there were no witnesses to the doomed vessel's final hours.

'Juneau turned into enormous morgue'

By the next morning, the weather had cleared, but nothing remained of the Sophia but a mast projecting out of the water, and bodies, wreckage and thick oil floating on the water. The rescue turned into a giant recovery operation.

"Juneau is turned into an enormous morgue," Morrison said.

A call went out for coffins to neighboring communities. Teams of volunteers used gasoline to clean the congealed oil from the bodies in preparation for shipping to their next-of-kin. Men cleaned the male bodies, while women prepared the female bodies.

Many bodies were eventually shipped by another Canadian Pacific Railway steamer to Vancouver, where the timing of the vessel's arrival showed one of the reasons why the sinking of the Sophia is so little known today.

It arrived on the morning of Nov. 11, 1918, where word of the end of World War I had just been announced. Proportionately, Canadian casualties were many times higher than those of the U.S. in the war.

"It was Armistice Day, everybody was jumping up and down with joy, and here comes the 'ship of doom,'" Morrison said. It waited offshore for a day, so as to not interfere with the celebrations, he said.

But the timing explains some of the reasons that the sinking has been so overlooked by history.

"The Sophia sank right after the biggest mass slaughter in military history," he said.

The sinking of the Sophia was devastating to the small Yukon Territory population, where many had been traveling south for the winter after seasonal work on gold dredges or riverboats. The sinking killed 8 percent of the Caucasian population of Yukon, Morrison said.

But those were working men and families, not the business and society leaders who were aboard the Titanic.

"There were no Guggenheims on it, and there were no Astors," Morrison said, referring to some of the notables who had been aboard the Titanic six years earlier.

McKinley pioneer among the dead

There was at least one notable Alaskan on board, but he was not rich. Walter Harper, the young Alaska Native who had been part of the first successful ascent of Mount McKinley -- and by some reports the first to set foot on the summit - was on board with his wife, Frances.

The young couple were on their way to Philadelphia, where Walter Harper had been accepted into medical school. The Harpers are buried in Juneau, where there is a monument to the Sophia.

It was even more than the numbers, the notable passengers and the effects of the World War that led to the difference, he said.

"The Titanic sank in an era when people still had this Edwardian enthusiasm about the world," he said.

The Sophia victims who were not buried in Juneau were shipped at Canadian Pacific Railway expense to wherever they were from, which was sometimes Vancouver, Seattle or Portland, or even the East Coast. The northern population was very transient in those days, and part of the reason why memories quickly faded. 

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com