Remembering SS Princess Sophia

Diver Jacques Marc of the Underwater Archeological Society of British Columbia swims over the stern wenches on the wreck of the Sophia. Photo by Annette G.E. Smith. Inset: SS Princess Sophia commemorative coin by artist Yves Bérubé. Photo credit Royal Canadian Mint.

Diver Jacques Marc of the Underwater Archeological Society of British Columbia swims over the stern wenches on the wreck of the Sophia. Photo by Annette G.E. Smith. Inset: SS Princess Sophia commemorative coin by artist Yves Bérubé. Photo credit Royal Canadian Mint.

Peter Mallett, Staff Writer ~

This week four communities in the Pacific Northwest are preparing to mark the 100th anniversary of the worst maritime accident our region has ever seen.

Commemorative events in Victoria, B.C, Whitehorse, Yukon and Skagway and Juneau, Alaska, will remember the SS Princess Sophia and its estimated 367 passengers and crew who were all killed when disaster struck on Oct. 25, 1918.

The Canadian Pacific coastal passenger steamship ran aground on Vanderbilt Reef in Alaska’s Lynn Canal during a fierce snowstorm. It eventually sank into the icy waters, killing every soul onboard.

Victoria’s Maritime Museum of British Columbia will be remembering the tragedy with the installation of a commemorative plaque that will be unveiled during a ceremony at the Maritime Museum of B.C. beginning at 10:30 a.m. It will be permanently installed in the Parade of Ships Memorial Wall in Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

It will also include the unveiling of an enlarged replica commemorative coin, released earlier this month by the Royal Canadian Mint. The coloured coin is 99.9 per cent fine silver and features a depiction of The Unknown Titanic of the West Coast by maritime artist Yves Bérubé.

Museum Executive Director, David Leverton has been interested in the story for years. 

“I first learned about the tragic event back in 1978 while traveling through Skagway, Alaska. There was a song being played on the local radio station by a musician named Steve Hites who had written this amazing song that described the largest marine disaster that had ever occurred along the Pacific Northwest coast. I bought a copy of the album, strapped it to my backpack and continued on my way. In later years, I was surprised to learn that few people knew anything about this unbelievable event. “It’s an amazing story but so many people out there have no idea that it happened,” said Leverton. “It’s not part of our folklore but it truly is an important part of our maritime history in this region.”

A Perfect Storm

In the days leading up to the tragedy, there were rumours that the First World War was coming to an end. Leverton describes a celebratory mood in the Alaskan port of Skagway when Sophia departed on its final southward journey of the year to Vancouver.

But there was also illness.

Before the ship departed Skagway, several of its crew had contracted what was thought to be the Spanish Flu which, by early October 1918, had made its way to North America from the trenches of Europe and eventually added to the peril. 

The ports on the West Coast had yet to be fully quarantined. Since many of the crew had become sickened by the flu and were unable to work, Sophia departed Skagway at 10:10 p.m. on Oct. 23, three hours late. Shortly after entering the Lynn Canal, a narrow 135-km poorly-marked channel, a fierce storm set in resulting in near-zero visibility. Less than four hours after its departure from Skagway, it struck Vanderbilt Reef head-on at a high rate of speed.

It was stuck on the reef but not severely damaged and not taking on water. Captain Locke made his fateful decision when deciding it was unsafe to transfer passengers to nearby fishing boats that had been called to rescue those aboard. Instead he ruled the transfer of passengers would be unsafe and that the rescue vessels should wait until the storm abated.

But instead of moving off, the storm intensified, and Sophia was stuck on the reef for 40 hours. In the early hours of its grounding, Sophia still had power, passengers were comfortable, and panic had yet to set in. But in its final hours desperate distress calls and SOS radiograms were dispatched from the bridge as the ship began to gradually slip off the reef. With the upper section of the hull sliced open from the collision with the reef, water rushed into its engine room and the ship quickly sank. High winds and a blinding snowstorm prevented the rescue ships from arriving until the next morning and everyone onboard perished.

“It was a perfect storm of events that came together to make this tragedy, with many communities in Yukon becoming isolated for many years afterwards and not fully recovering until 1942 when the Alaska Highway was built,” said Leverton, noting that Dawson City, Yukon lost 10 per cent of its population in the disaster.

The story of Sophia inspired Alaskan folk singer/songwriter Steve Hites to write a song after his close friend Reg Brook told him of the harrowing story in the mid 1970s.  A friend of Brook’s father, Captain James Alexander, owner of the Engineer Mine, was one of the passengers that was killed in the disaster. Hites first performed the song in 1977 at the Farrago Folk Festival, in Faro, Yukon before recording it in 1978.

“The hopes and future of the Engineer Mine and all who worked there went down with the ship,” said Hites. “I will never forget Reg’s truly mesmerizing story and I knew that night I would have to tell it someday in a song.”

Annette G.E. Smith of Juneau, a retired IT worker and self-described “late-blooming diver”, is equally fascinated by the story of the Sophia. The 66-year-old often dives the wreck to take video and photographs of it, and says she was hooked on the Sophia story since her first dive at the site.

“I wanted to know the story of the wreck and those aboard, each one had a story and those who loved and lost them.” said Smith. “Her story is one of great joy and sorrow, one of controversy and misconceptions. It is an amazing story when you look at how ships navigated treacherous waters in those days.”

Travelling Road Show

Leverton and his staff put together a proposal to the Government of Canada’s Museums Assistance Program (MAP) to provide funding for the construction of a travelling exhibition on Sophia. In January 2018 the museum unveiled its exhibit entitled SS Princess Sophia: The Unknown Story of the Largest Marine Disaster along the Pacific Northwest Coast.

“It all came together very quickly, they were very supportive, and we have partnered with other museums,” said Leverton.

After its debut at the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, the exhibit has since visited museums in Vancouver and Juneau and is set to be unveiled at a memorial service in Whitehorse at the Yukon Arts Centre on Oct. 25 at 5:30 p.m., the moment of Sophia’s last wireless radio dispatch.

On Oct. 25, 26 and 27 the Juneau Dance Theatre will pay tribute to the Sophia with a two-act Opera performance entitled The Princess Sophia. A commemorative plaque was also unveiled at the White Pass and Yukon Route Depot in Skagway on Oct. 20.

On Nov. 10 and 11, Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery will hold a ceremony of music and remembrance with a concert, luncheon and display of the museum’s exhibit. The ceremony will also unveil a headstone for members of the O’Brien family who were leaving Yukon and all went down with Sophia.

The cemetery is the site where many of the victims of the SS Princess Sophia’s deceased are buried. Many of the bodies arrived in Vancouver on the SS Princess Alice from Alaska on the day that the First World War Armistice was being announced, Nov. 11, 1918. Sadly, Leverton notes, few paid much attention to the ‘Ship of Sorrows’ arrival in Vancouver with all of the peacetime celebrations in full swing; the tragedy was largely overlooked and eventually forgotten by many.

For more information about the Maritime Museum of British Columbia and its Sophia exhibit, visit their website:

Filed Under: Top Stories

About the Author:

RSSComments (1)

Leave a Reply | Trackback URL

  1. Lenore says:

    Captain Locke was my Grandfather and I especially appreciate all of the commemorations during this October and the Maritime Museum in Vancouver for their very educational exhibit this year on the 100th Anniversary of the sinking of the S.S. Sophia. I have personally learned so much of this tragic event…those who were on onboard and of the many families whose lives were changed suddenly forever. My Father Leonard (Locke) Rutter passed away in 2009 and would have been pleased knowing of the many venues of commemoration . The coin is beautiful !

Leave a Reply

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a Gravatar.