The Sinking of the Princess Sophia
A Treacherous Coastline
Vanderbilt Reef (58°35.45’N, 135°01.13’W) is a large submerged rock in the center of Lynn Canal, with a length of about seven miles. Tides can reach about 20’ during the spring; for the majority of the time, Vanderbilt Reef lurks just below the surface of Lynn Canal at no more than 12’ above the surface at any given time.
Markers were limited to the Sentinel Island Lighthouse four miles off, and an orange-black bell buoy installed by US coastal authorities that was only visible in daylight. The reef was first marked off as a natural hazard by the Northwest Trading Company in 1880, when J.M. Vanderbilt, Captain of the Favourite, charted out his namesake as a warning to other shipping companies. The Canadian Pacific had submitted a request in 1917 to have a light installed on the reef, but the US Government neglected their plea – in times of war, funds were being allocated elsewhere.
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 coming off of the surrounding glaciers; narrow passages and intense weather conditions make this the most treacherous stretch of the 900-knot voyage from Vancouver to Skagway.
Photo: Aerial view of Vanderbilt Reef in the Lynn Canal. The wreck of the Princess Sophia lies just below the surface near the Reef.
The Foundering of the Princess Sophia
The Sophia departure from Skagway was a festive event. The Sourdough Dance on the night of October 22 brought men and women from all across Alaska and Yukon together to toast bon voyage. The United States had joined the war effort, and troops making their way south had been greeted like celebrities in the streets of Dawson. There were rumours that WWI was drawing to an end. The Sophia left to a chorus of “See you in the Spring,” and the spirit of victory hung in the air.
The Princess Sophia departed Skagway at 10:10 pm on October 23, 1918, three hours behind schedule. Captain Leonard Locke was at the helm, with over twenty-five years of experience on the Pacific Northwest. Shortly after leaving port a North wind accelerated to upwards of 50 knots, and by the time the Sophia rounded Battery Point – only an hour after leaving Skagway – heavy snow and fog led to zero visibility. Navigational technology was limited. Her distance from the shore was miscalculated in the blinding storm, and the Sophia was blown dangerously off course.
On October 24 1918, at about 2:00 am, the Princess Sophia hit Vanderbilt Reef head-on at a speed of about 11 knots. The impact brought her hull right above the water to rest on the rocky outcrop, surrounded by raging seas. The Princess Sophia had not sustained any immediate damage, but angry winds blasting across her beam ground her hull against the rocks.
In these early hours panic was at a minimum. The electricity inside the Sophia still worked, so passengers and crew were comfortable, despite the harrowing circumstances. Fishing vessels Estebeth, Amy, E.A. Hegg and the Peterson were dispatched to help, and the Cedar and King & Winge soon followed. Captain Locke deemed it unsafe to transfer Sophia passengers in such heavy seas, and instead, thought it best to wait for the storm to die down to ensure everyone’s safety. Meanwhile, the storm eventually forced all surrounding vessels to retreat back to the shoreline.
Photo: Alaska State Library, Winter and Pond Collection, ASL-P87-1702
The Sophia waited in raging seas for over 40 hours. As time went on, panic grew. An SOS was sent down the coast to CPR Headquarters in Victoria, but it was 12 hours before Captain James Troup received the message. As matters grew worse, people wrote their wills and tucked letters to loved ones inside their pockets.
Sometime between 5:30 and 6:00 pm on October 25, 1918, the Princess Sophia sunk, taking all passengers and crew down with her. There were no survivors.
The following telegrams were sent during the time Sophia was stuck on the Reef till the next morning after the storm cleared when it became evident what had happened. Scroll through for these harrowing eye-witness accounts.
Telegrams: Alaska State Archives, SR130-VS160