Thursday, October 11, 2018

Unknown Titanic of the West Coast

One hundred years ago, on October 25, 1918, the Canadian Pacific Steamship Princess Sophia wrecked on Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal near Juneau, Alaska, with no survivors. 

The sinking of the Princess Sophia is called the "Unknown Titanic of the West Coast." Why?

News of the worst maritime disaster ever in the Pacific Northwest was soon eclipsed by the worldwide Spanish influenza pandemic and the Armistice that concluded “the war to end all wars,” World War I on November 11, 1918. Few people even remember the disaster "that took down the North."

Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal north of Juneau
Lynn Canal is an 84-mile stretch of coastline that is never wider than 10 miles across. This narrow passage channels winds upwards of 70-80 knots and stirs the williwaw winds, violent gusts of cold wind blowing seaward off of the surrounding glacier-filled mountains. These winds, narrow passages, and intense weather conditions make this the most treacherous stretch of the 900-knot voyage from Vancouver to Skagway. 

Almost in the middle of the already narrow fjord, Vanderbilt Reef is a rocky outcrop of an underwater mountain. Hidden just below the surface at high tide, it is visible at low tide just above the surface. 

The balloon marks location of Vanderbilt Reef  Courtesy Google Maps

The Princess Sophia was built in 1911 and entered service in 1912 as one of several passenger, mail, and freight steamers built for the Canadian Pacific Steamship Line that operated along the coast of British Columbia from Vancouver and Victoria up the Inside Passage to Skagway, Alaska. These coastal-class ships were known as “pocket liners,” not the luxurious ocean liners of the time, but smaller. Yet they offered a fair degree of comfort for passengers, especially in first class.

On October 23, the 245-foot ship, loaded with 353 passengers and crew, left Skagway, Alaska, at close to midnight, about 3 hours behind schedule. Soon after leaving, the ship ran into a blinding snowstorm in the narrow Lynn Canal.  

Princess Sophia stuck on Vanderbilt Reef Oct. 24, 1918
Courtesy Alaska State Library Historical Collection
Somehow, Sophia drifted off course in the snowstorm and rammed straight onto Vanderbilt Reef at full speed in the early hours of October 24. She sent a message by "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. First fishing boats, and then a U.S. Lighthouse Service tender arrived to help. With strong winds blowing down Lynn Canal, the captain of Sophia chose not to launch lifeboats into the rough seas thinking it more dangerous than remaining on board..
Another such grounding on another Lynn Canal reef a few years earlier had ended uneventfully when the passengers were transferred to a different vessel and the ship was refloated. Also likely on his mind was a recent sinking in Canadian waters in which lifeboats were launched prematurely, drowning all their occupants, while those who remained aboard were rescued.

Princess Sophia just hours after striking Vanderbilt Reef
Courtesy Alaska State Library Writer and Pond Collection

At high tide on the 24th, the Sophia was too stuck to float free. At the time, the Sophia's faulty 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 reef pounded by waves. Soon, they were forced to seek shelter behind a nearby island. 

It was blowing like crazy. The tide was rising. The bow of the Sophia was stuck on the reef, but the force of the wind and waves 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 sometime between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m. on October 25, 1918, taking all passengers and crew down with her. The only survivor was an oil-soaked dog.

Based on the evidence, this process seems to have taken about an hour. On board, Sophia's passengers knew they were in great danger. They donned life vests and wrote final letters to family. 

Sophia's 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, the lighthouse tender that lay sheltered behind a nearby island.

At that point, Cedar risked wrecking herself as she 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. The 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 in Sophia caused a boiler 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 made that impossible. Everybody suffocated or drowned in the icy waters or died of exposure. 

With the Cedar unable to get near the Sophia due to the dangerous gale-force winds, there were no witnesses to the doomed vessel's final hours. In the morning, rescuers were able to finally make their way back to the Sophia. All that remained was 40 feet of her forward cargo mast. 

Princess Sophia's foremast was all that was visible on October 26, 1918.
This photo is taken from the reef. Cedar stands by near the reef.
Courtesy Winter & Pond Collection State of Alaska Digital Archives
A few letters survived in victims’ clothing. Here is one written by John R. “Jack” Maskell, found on his body and reprinted in papers of the day:

Shipwrecked off coast of Alaska

S.S. Princess Sophia

October 24, 1918

My own dear sweetheart,

I am writing this my dear girl while the boat is in grave danger. We struck a rock last night which threw many from their berths, women rushed out in their night attire, some were crying, some too weak to move, but the lifeboats were swung out in all readiness but owing to the storm would be madness to launch until there was no hope for the ship. Surrounding ships were notified by wireless and in three hours the first steamer came, but cannot get near owing to the storm raging and the reef which we are on. There are now seven ships near. When the tide went down, two-thirds of the boat was high and dry. We are expecting the lights to go out at any minute, also the fires. The boat might go to pieces, for the force of the waves are terrible, making awful noises on the side of the boat, which has quite a list to port. No one is allowed to sleep, but believe me dear Dorrie it might have been much worse. Just hear there is a big steamer coming. We struck the reef in a terrible snowstorm. There is a big buoy near marking the danger but the captain was to port instead [of] to starboard of [the] buoy. I made my will this morning, leaving everything to you, my own true love and I want you to give £100 to my dear Mother, £100 to my dear Dad, £100 to dear wee Jack, and the balance of my estate (about £300) to you, Dorrie dear. The Eagle Lodge will take care of my remains.

In danger at Sea.

Princess Sophia

24th October 1918

To whom it may concern:

Should anything happen [to] me notify, notify Eagle Lodge, Dawson. My insurance, finances, and property, I leave to my wife (who was to be) Miss Dorothy Burgess, 37 Smart St., Longsight, Manchester, England

The disaster has been referred to as the shipwreck that “took the North down with it.” Of the nearly 250 northerners on board, one-eighth of the non-Native population of the entire Yukon at that time, none survived. Entire families were obliterated. 

Government leaders and prominent businessmen from Alaska and the Yukon, colorful prospectors from the Klondike Gold Rush, and the crews of twelve Yukon River steamers, including three captains, went down with her. The city of Dawson, with a population of less than 8,000 in 1918, lost 175 citizens in a single stroke.

Beacon on Vanderbilt Reef Courtesy NOAA
Only after the sinking of the Princess Sophia did the US government finally put up a lighted beacon on Vanderbilt Reef. 

The historic sinking of the Princess Sophia plays a significant role in my recent book, Beside Still Waters, Book Three of my Alaskan Waters Trilogy.  My account of the infamous loss was drawn from newspaper headlines and is faithful to the historical data. It is available in paperback and eBook at my website: and on Amazon, Barnes & Noble,  iTunes, etc. 


  1. AnnaLee, I'd heard about Princess Sophia's sinking, but had never read the details of that fateful night. Thank you for sharing this important event in Alaska/Yukon history.

  2. You're welcome, Deb! My grandparents talked about this tragedy. They had been in Juneau only a year when it happened. They remembered all the bodies being brought to Juneau for months afterwards. These stories gave me the idea for my third Alaskan Waters book, Beside Still Waters.