Princess Sophia

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S.S. Princess Sophia / S.S. May grounded in Alaska

Why I wrote this song

My first trip to Juneau Alaska was with my wife and another couple in our 30 ft Catalina sailboat. We had set sail from Skagway Alaska on a relatively clear day and tacked towards Haines for the evening. During the following three days, we heard several distress calls on the radio throughout the day and night, ranging from vessel adrift, to vessel taking on water with one person onboard. All of these events thankfully worked out for the better for all parties involved and it really got me thinking about the possibility of having a serious issue to contend with out here in the frigid Alaskan waters.

After spending the night in Haines and talking to some locals at the dock about stories of the sea, I was intrigued to learn more about the SS Princess Sophia which ran aground on the Vanderbilt reef in 1918. We were plotting our chart to sail past her the next day and I would get a first hand look at this reef from the port side of our boat as we worked our way towards Juneau. Once we approached her, the seas were calm and she was barely visible with the tide coming up.  Its easy to see why the Vanderbilt reef clamed the Princess that fateful evening in 1918.  I immediately scratched down some words on the inside of a cereal box and started with a melody as we sailed away from the site. By the time we arrived in Juneau that evening I was reorganizing the words to tell the story chronologically as the event happened in 1918. This was the worst naval disaster of its time in Alaska and went pretty much untold by the media since it corresponded with the ending of WWI. I encourage you to read more of the Wikipedia information regarding the Princess Sophia so that more people may be aware of the magnitude of this event and how it affected the lives of many families and friends throughout the world.

I hope that you've learned a little about the history of Alaska and Yukon and can appreciate the circumstances that inspired me to write about the SS Princess Sophia and her passengers.


The SS Princess Sophia

The SS Princess Sophia was a steel-built coastal passenger liner that operated on the coastal waters of British Columbia, Canada and southeast Alaska, United States, through the Inside Passage. On 25 October 1918, the Sophia sank with the loss of all aboard after grounding on Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal near Juneau, Alaska. With 343 or more people lost, the wreck of the Princess Sophia was the worst maritime accident in the history of British Columbia and Alaska. The circumstances of the wreck were controversial, as some felt that all aboard could have been saved. The above picture is of the SS May which ran aground August 5th 1910 on Sentinal Island in Alaskan waters near where the SS  Princess Sophia sank eight years later. The SS May was floated off of the rock at high tide and no lives were lost during this particular beaching. This noteworthy event may have been a deciding factor in Captain Locke's decision not to abandon ship during the first hours of the fateful beaching of the SS Princess Sophia.


Last voyage 


On 23 October 1918, Princess Sophia departed Skagway, Alaska, at 22:10, more than three hours behind schedule. She was due to stop at Juneau and Wrangell, Alaska, on the 24th; Ketchikan, Alaska, and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, on the 25th; Alert Bay, British Columbia, on the 26th; and Vancouver, British Columbia, on the 27th. On board were 75 crew and about 268 passengers, including families of men serving overseas in the war, miners, and crews of sternwheelers that had finished operations for the winter. Fifty women and children were on the passenger list. Four hours after leaving Skagway, while proceeding south down Lynn Canal, the steamship encountered heavy blinding snow driven by a strong and rising northwest wind.


Heading south through Lynn Canal, Sophia drifted about 1.25 miles off course, and at 02:00 on 24 October 1918, Sophia struck ground hard on Vanderbilt Reef, 54 miles south of Skagway.[7] A letter later recovered from the body of a passenger, Signal Corps Private Auris W. McQueen (1883–1918), described the scene on board just after the grounding: "Two women fainted and one of them got herself into a black evening dress and didn’t worry about who saw her putting it on". Some of the men, too, put on life preservers and kept them on for an hour or so and seemed to think there was no chance for us.

Vanderbilt Reef. Summer 2010. Photo by Sean McAskie   Vanderbilt Reef. Summer 2010
Photo by Sean McAskie

Stranded on the reef

High tide came at 06:00 on 24 October. The wind had lessened, but Sophia was still stuck fast on the reef. Low tide came at about noon. The wind and waves forced the Sophia even farther up onto the reef, but fortunately the vessel’s double hull was not breached. At low tide on the reef the entire hull of the Sophia was completely out of the water. The barometer was rising, which indicated a possible improvement in the weather. With the next high tide at 16:00, and the seas so rough that any evacuation would be hazardous, Locke chose to wait to see if he could get the vessel off. This proved impossible. Without a tug, or more likely two or three tugs, the Sophia could never be taken off the reef. Worse yet, the passengers could not be evacuated from the vessel without life-threatening danger. At low tide the Sophia was surrounded on both sides by exposed rock. At high tide, the rock was awash, but the swells were such that a lifeboat would strike the rocks as the waves pounded up and down.

Decision not to evacuate

Locke warned off James Davis, captain of the fishing vessel Estebeth, who attempted and then abandoned an effort to reach Sophia in a skiff. Davis moored his vessel by tying up to the Vanderbilt Reef marker buoy, which was then in the lee of the Sophia and protected from the worse force of the weather. The desperation of the situation was obvious to Davis and the other captains of the small boats at the scene. Sophia had been seriously damaged striking the reef, with a hole in her bow that water ran in and out of at a rate that Davis estimated at 200 or 300 gallons per minute. With no apparent way to evacuate passengers, and Sophia stuck fast on the reef, the only thing that Davis and the other rescue boats could do was to wait to see if the weather would moderate enough to attempt an evacuation. Captain Locke, of Sophia was confident enough of his own vessel’s safety to tell via megaphone, Estebeth and Amy, which were taking a pounding in the weather, that Sophia was safe and they should take shelter in a harbor.

Capt. J.W Ledbetter, commander of the USLHS lighthouse tender Cedar did not receive word of the grounding until 14:00 on 24 October. Then 66 miles away, Ledbetter got in wireless contact with Captain Locke and set out with his ship to the rescue. Ledbetter asked Captain Locke if he wanted to try to evacuate some of the passengers that night. Locke told Ledbetter that the wind and the tide were too strong and it would be better for the rescue ships to anchor and wait until daylight. When Ledbetter arrived at 20:00 on 24 October he found three large vessels, including the fishing schooner King and Winge which had arrived at 18:20 and about fifteen smaller fishing vessels at the scene, arriving towards the evening on the 24th.

Meanwhile wireless reports of the grounding had reached James W. Troup, superintendent of CPR steamship operations in Victoria. He and other CPR officials were initially not too alarmed. It appeared that the passengers would be taken off soon, and the question would be one of finding accommodation for them ashore.


Memorial card for Herbert and Ellen Davies, husband and wife, who died October 25, 1918 in the wreck of the Princess Sophia on Vanderbilt Reef, in Lynn Canal, Alaska.Wikipedia

Last call for assistance

Just as Miller was disembarking from Cedar to return to King and Winge, at 16:50 on 25 October, Sophia sent out a wireless message: "Ship Foundering on Reef. Come at Once." Ledbetter immediately prepared to steam out to the reef. He signaled Miller on King and Winge to follow him with two blasts of the whistle, but Miller did not at first understand the signal. Ledbetter then drove Cedar alongside King and Winge and shouted out to Miller: "I am going out there to try and locate him. If the snow should clear up, you come out and relieve me." Miller replied: "I will give you an hour to find them."

The next radio message from Sophia came at 17:20: "For God’s sake, hurry, the water is in my room." There was more but the radio operator could not pick it up. Knowing Sophia had weak wireless batteries, Cedar wired Sophia to conserve battery power and only transmit if absolutely necessary. Sophia’s operator radioed back: "Alright I will. You talk to me so I know you are coming." This was the last wireless message from Sophia.

Loss of the ship

With no survivors and no witnesses to the actual sinking, what happened on Sophia to drive her off the reef is a matter of reconstruction from the available evidence and conjecture. Based on the evidence it appears that the storm blowing in from the north, raised water levels on the reef much higher than previously, causing the vessel to become buoyant again, but only partially so. The bow of the vessel remained on the reef, and the force of the wind and waves then spun the vessel almost completely around and washed her off the reef. Dragging across the rock ripped out the ship’s bottom, so when she reached deeper water near the navigation buoy, she sank. This process, based on the evidence, seems to have taken about an hour.

There appears to have been no time for an organized evacuation. Many people wore lifejackets, and two wooden lifeboats floated away (the 8 steel lifeboats sank). There were about 100 people still in their cabins when the ship sank. It’s hard to know why if there was half an hour before the ship sank why so many people were below deck, but there could be many reasons. As the sea water invaded the ship, the boiler exploded, buckling the deck and killing many people. Oil fuel spilled into the water, choking people who were trying to swim away. Sophia had been equipped with extra flotation devices, on the theory that people could cling on to these in the water awaiting rescue. These were worthless, as the coldness of the water would soon kill anyone in it long before rescue could arrive.

Similar wrecks

While there had been many shipwrecks and groundings over the years, and it was the rare vessel that did not run aground or have some problem of this nature, two shipwrecks would have been foremost in the minds of Captain Locke and his officers, as well as other senior captains and officers among the rescue vessels, like Captains Ledbetter of Cedar and Miller of the King and Winge. These two wrecks, of the Clallam in 1904 and the Princess May in 1910, showed well the dilemma faced by Captain Locke in making a decision whether to evacuate the Sophia.

In fine weather and smooth seas on August 5, 1910, Princess May, another CPR steamship, grounded on Sentinel Island, coincidentally within sight of Vanderbilt Reef. All aboard were evacuated to the nearby light station, and the vessel itself was later removed from the rock with relatively minor damage. Ironically it was the May that CPR dispatched on hearing of the grounding of the Sophia to pick up her passengers who they presumed would be soon evacuated. The stranded ship seemed to be secure...

Text courtesy of Wikipedia. Please visit this Wikipedia link for more information.

Princess Sophia Lyrics            

Music and lyrics by: Daniel Halen

Verse 1
As the legend is told, she was laden with gold
and near 400 hundred souls from the Klondike.
As the sun left the valley the captain gave tally
"She's a Princess we'll steam through the midnight".
Was a breeze from the north as she plotted her course
soon past Haines then south east through the islands.
With a coal oil lamp, chart a course in the damp
with nary a light from the mainland.

As the Princess drew near her bow would soon rear
for the rock lay ahead was to take her.
On that early cold morn' struck a reef without warn
Vanderbilt was the name of her maker.

Verse 2
She was up on the hard to the skippers chagrin
on that ill-fated night in October.
And the call soon went out "send the lifeboats about
make it quick for I think I can hold her".
and the seas they were calm, as the boats through the dawn
came 'long side the confusion and sorrow.
but your boats are too few for to rescue my crew
we'll stand by for a large one tomorrow.


And the winds began to blow,
and the seas began to grow,
then she opened up her arms,
and took her down below
no, no, no, no, no, no,
took her down below
no, no, no, no, no, no,
she wasn"t meant to go
no, no, no, no, no, no,
into the sea below
no, no, no, no, no, no,

Verse 3
When the wind she laid down a score of lifeboats abound
full intent on a heroic rescue.
Rushing north through the sea to where the Princess slipped free
from the rock that had held her last evenin'.
Was a scene of dismay for at the dawn of the day
all were lost of her crew without reason.
Forgive the captains last call, lend a prayer bless them all
for the winds bound to change in that season                            Chorus

Trapper Dan