The Aftermath of the Princess Sophia Tragedy

A Rescue Turns to Recovery

On the dawn of October 26, the storm had calmed. The Cedar and King & Winge reached Vanderbilt Reef at 8:30 am. All that was left of the Princess Sophia was 40 feet of foremast, rising above the surface of the water. In the first 48 hours of the search alone, over 100 bodies were found. Many had drowned, some had died of exposure, while many more died of asphyxiation. They had choked on oil fumes when the double-bottom tanks finally gave way. A total of 180 bodies were found along the shores, some as far south as Douglas Island. Their bodies were taken to Juneau and laid out in an empty warehouse, where volunteers carefully washed the oil-soaked corpses and tried to identify them. Some of them were people they knew.

The Princess Alice brought some bodies to Victoria and Vancouver for identification and a proper burial, while others were buried in the north.

The SS Tees Stockton, another CP vessel, sent two divers to recover the 230 lbs of gold stored in a safe below deck. Divers Thomas Veitch and George Donaldson were tied to a line from the foremast- this was their sole source of oxygen in a maximum 70 minute dive. It took them almost 90 minutes before they resurfaced from the remains of the Sophia, with a single body in tow. They found the safe beneath the body of a drowned horse, and $70,000 in capital was recovered.

Photo: Alaska State Library, Winter and Pond Collection,  ASL-P117-089

Sophia’s mast was all that remained above water on the morning of October 26, 1918.

Photo: Alaska State Library,  Captain Lloyd H. (Kinky) Bayers Collection,  ASL-MS10-4-05-391a

Note Sophia’s mast sticking out of the water to the right of the salvage vessel. Also note the wires attached to the diver; the diver would have remained attached to these wires the whole time they were underwater.

The following telegrams are a continuation from those on The Sinking page. These were sent in the immediate days following the tragic sinking, when salvage efforts first started. Scroll through for these harrowing first-hand accounts.

Telegrams: Alaska State Archives, SR130-VS160

A Public Inquiry

The tragic case of the Princess Sophia spent thirty years in court, though the official inquiry was conducted almost immediately after the disaster. The first court appeal came from the mother of a Sophia crew member in Victoria a day before the Princess May arrived in port with the bodies. Only three weeks after the disaster the Canadian federal government contacted Captain J.D. McPherson, wreck commissioner of British Columbia, to insist that he schedule hearings for the Sophia case without delay.

The first inquiry was held in the Bastion Square Court House in Victoria on January 6, 1919. Mr. Justice Aulay Morrison was selected to hear the case. The Sophia tragedy occurred in American waters, but most of the inquiry targeted CPR and Captain Leonard Locke (photographed right). The testimonies relied heavily on those who knew Captain Locke and those who witnessed the Sophia in her time of need. Captains of the rescue boats all delivered their testimonies. Each one of them emphasized the natural dangers of Lynn Canal and the Alaskan coastline, but they also questioned Captain Locke’s decisions on board the Sophia.

Photo: Alaska State Library, Ships in Alaskan Waters Photograph Collection, ASL-P134a-Princess-Sophia-11

There were two main allegations against Captain Locke: the first was the speed at which the Sophia had been travelling. Policy
demanded a reduction in speed to about 7 knots in heavy weather, but the Sophia maintained her average speed of 11-12 knots – likely to compensate for her later departure. The second allegation was made by the American vessels who had come to her rescue. Captain Cornelius Stidham aboard the Peterson and Captain Miller of the King & Winge both attested that the weather had calmed sufficiently for Captain Locke to safely unload his passengers. The crews aboard the smaller fishing vessels, including Captains James Davis of the Estebeth and Edward McDougall on the Amy, supported their testimony. At least two offers were made to Locke during the daylight hours of October 24, but Locke deemed it unsafe to make a rescue attempt.

On March 20, 1919 the inquiry was closed in the provincial court, only to be brought to Parliament on April 23. No blame was placed on the CPR and Captain Locke was not considered responsible for the tragedy; at the end of the inquiries it was decided that all had been done by both CPR and Captain Locke to save the lives of all aboard the Sophia. The American vessels which had come to her aid were duly compensated; the CPR paid for the transport and burial of Sophia victims, and a small gratuity was given to their families. This inquiry received minimal coverage by the media and left many questions unanswered.

A Forgotten Story

Less than a month after the Sophia sunk, the armistice was signed, ending WWI. After four solid years of bloody battlefields involving countries around the world, this story quickly took over the news, finally giving the tragedy-worn public some positive news they were so desperate to hear. Yet at the same time, the Spanish Flu was still threatening the world, having at that point killed twice as many people as those who lost their lives in the Great War. The world already had a lot to discuss before and after the Sophia met her fate.

Another point that led this tragedy to become known as the “unknown Titanic of the West Coast” is the simple fact that there were no survivors. What happened on board the Sophia during those 40 hours after impact will never be confirmed in any detail. The log book was never recovered. There were no survivors to testify. Apart from an archival record, the personal affects of the victims, and the memories of the affected communities and loved ones left behind, the Princess Sophia tragedy has been claimed by the dark, silent recesses of the deep.