The Last Voyage of the Princess Sophia
By Steve Hites
Copyright 1978, 2016 by Steve Hites. All rights reserved.
The steamboat boys are comin’
old Skagway’s on a spree tonight.
The Yukon’s froze up and there’s snow on the ground,
we’re all headin’ Outside on the next high tide.
Every berth is booked and there’s no room to be had,
there’s piles of trunks on the wharf.
The dock boss is screamin’ out orders to his hands
to a shrieking of protesting pulleys and booms.
“Look alive, haul away!
The “Princess Sophia” is getting up steam –
we’ve got to cast off before light to day.”
Dawson’s a fine place in August,
Fireweed bloomin’ crazy through the night and the day.
Beneath the scar on the Dome I’ve raised family and home.
But when the sternwheelers get winched up the frost-laced ways,
we draw of our checks,
and wait for the flowers again in the spring.
The jam of men in their thick overcoats;
the women in winter shawls.
Wide-eyed children like Eskimo dolls
watch the Christmas-sized flakes swirl down, down, down,
fallin’ heavy in the blizzard on Skagway town.
Up the gangway they jostle,
and there’s scores more waiting in vain.
Three hundred fifty-six have her full to the rails –
the “Sophia’s” the last steamer south for the month.
“In God’s name,” cried out a voice in my ear,
“I’ve got to get South on this boat!
My mother in Pittsburg is dying –
you can read the wire if you like.
It’s here in my pocket, and I’ll pay you well;
I’ve simply got to get Out.
Just sell me your ticket, and let me go home –
she needs me!”
And I took a long look at the hurrying throng
as they made their way up the plank.
Felt the snowflakes brushing ‘cross my nose,
swirling blizzard-ship in the night.
And a feeling went through me, a shudder quite queer,
and I’ve never been able to tell
if I gave my ticket to him in pity
or to postpone my own journey to Hell.
Steam whistle wail, lost in the snow,
muffled by mountain walls down Lynn Canal.
Cast loose the lines, engine thudding alive
The “Sophia” backs off from the wharves of Time.
And I watched as the snow dropped a curtain of white
between the lights long her hull
and the black of the night.
On down Lynn Canal in the dark of the storm
the Sophia strayed her course in the wee hours of dawn,
and the shock of the crash knocked the passengers from sleep
as the “Princess Sophia” struck Vanderbuilt Reef.
But she didn’t take water, she was held fast –
the people were calmed by the Captains request.
“Don’t lower the boats! The hull is still tight!
We’ll float with the high tide and get off all right.”
With daylight a wire brought assistance from shore,
a score of small craft that had heard her distress.
But the seas were still high and the storm still in force,
“Too rough to lower boats,” was the Captain’s firm choice.
“Besides, the ‘Alice’ is steaming this way –
we could save cost of salvage if we wait two more days.
There’s even the chance the tide will float us free.
It’s too early to tell –
let’s just wait and see.”
So they sat and they waited all through the day.
The passengers worried: some of them prayed.
It was an anxious mood, no laughter or song,
While the small boats bobbed close the whole day long.
‘Til late afternoon when the North wind rose,
and they beat for refuge on the darkening shore.
No one knows what happened that night
as the blizzard howled ‘round her lonely lights,
and the passengers lay huddled in their cabins and beds
watching the waves swing the lamps that hung overhead.
But the force of the storm brought an unseasonal tide
that lifted the Sophia’s stern right up to the sky,
and as the Captain watched helplessly she was ground cross the teeth
of the jagged rock shoals of Vanderbilt Reef.
The sound of her plates being torn from beneath,
water rushing in to a hissing of steam,
terrified screams from steerage below
as the sea pushed her free from her perch on the shoal.
Too rough to launch boats, no time from alarm,
no help nearby in the teeth of the storm.
The “Sophia” has turned from a ship to a stone,
“My God, we are sinking!” cries the wireless phone.
Icy cold water, black of the night,
fumbling for life vests in the failing light.
Where are the children, which way to the deck?
All lost in the vortex of the foaming wreck…
Lighthouse tender “Cedar” arrived at first light of day,
but not one passenger remained to be taken away.
The tip of her mast breaking sea at low tide
marked the grave of the “Princess Sophia”.
Walter Harper, his wife, C.P. Waiter J. Klein,
and Alexander, owner of the Engineer Mine,
and the boy bound for Pittsburg whose name I don’t know
and the steamboat families all bound for below;
and the gold in the safe, and the freight, and the mail,
not a single soul left to tell the tail;
Just a bedraggled setter, all covered with oil…
that swam 8 miles to shore across Lynn Canal…
Well they cut down the top of her mast one day
so as not to frighten travelers who passed where she lay.
And it’s years been now, and the memories are few
of the people who remember and the people who knew
And the summer tourists come by the thousands to see
if the Inside Passage is all that it claims to be.
And I wonder if any of them pause to hear
the crashing of the waves on the rocks so near.
And I wonder as I watch the lowering sky
if we’re going to have a storm
when you cast off
About the Song
I first heard the story of about the sinking of the “Princess Sophia” by the light of a kerosene lamp in Reg Brook’s log cabin one night during a visit to their family’s homestead at Brooklands, B.C. on Lake Tagish. Reg’s father had been a childhood friend of Capt. Alexander, who owned the Engineer Mine, and he had been the Chief Assayer for the mine as well. When the mine needed more capital to dig deeper into the mountain to follow a promising gold vein, Alexander and his wife set off to London to find new investors, promising to bring back the money to keep digging. They sailed on the WP&YR lake steamer to Carcross, Yukon, left their parrot Polly in the care of storekeeper Matthew Watson, took the train to Skagway, and boarded the “Sophia”. The hopes and future of the Engineer Mine – and all who worked there – went down with the ship. I will never forget Reg’s truly mesmerizing version of that story, and I knew that night I would have to tell it someday in a song. At the time there were no books available with details of the wreck. All I had to work with were Reg’s story, oral histories that I got from local old timers, and some short notations that were available in maritime histories of the Pacific Northwest.
The song was written at 2:00 AM in a Denny’s restaurant in Burien, WA in February 1977, eating a hot turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy while it poured down rain outside the window. It was performed for the first time in front of an audience at the Farrago Folk Festival at the Anvil Mine in Faro, Yukon in September 1977, recorded live on my LP album “Yukon Legacy” in July 1978 at the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau, and a 2nd version of the song – with changes made for historical accuracy – was performed at the Princess Sophia Memorial ceremony held on the banks of the Yukon River at Dawson City, Yukon in May 2001. The version above is the 3rd iteration of the song, again targeting historical accuracy without impacting the strength or intent of the original. It has always been my desire to be honest to the story, and to tell it in a way that the listener could understand. I hope that this is still accomplished in the final version. To this day I always say a prayer for the souls of the passengers and crew whenever I go past Vanderbilt Reef by air or sea: may they forever rest in peace.
July 7, 2016