Auris McQueen, a young soldier, wrote to his mother on October 25, 1918 about his "good luck" in securing a berth aboard a Canadian Pacific luxury liner, one of the Princess ships that were well-known throughout the Territory. At the time he wrote to her, the great ship with over 350 people on board, was perched atop a reef in the middle of one of Southeast Alaska's most scenic passageways, Lynne Canal.
"Now this ship," he wrote, "the Princess Sofia, is on a rock, and when we can get away is a question. It's storming now, about a 50-mile wind, and we can only see a couple hundred yards on account of snow and spray. We were going along at 3 a.m. yesterday when she hit a rock submerged at high tide, and for a while there was some excitement but no panic."
Although not well known outside of the Pacific Northwest, the sinking of the Princess Sophia was a tragedy of unimaginable proportions for the tiny population of the Territory of Alaska. And even though it remains the single greatest loss of life in the Northwest Pacific, at the time it garnered little attention because the entire world was wrapped up in the end of War War I which was announced only days after the sinking. No one had time to mourn a ship full of people when they were giddily celebrating the end of global carnage. And even after the war ended, the story didn't gain much traction because by then the Spanish Influenza was grabbing all the headlines.
However, the sinking is well documented inside Alaska and Canada, with museum exhibits, and articles appearing every October in regional publications. Alaskans might well think there was nothing left to say about the "Titanic of the Northwest," but Captain Warren Good, a shipwreck expert who maintains the website www.alaskashipwreck.com, thinks otherwise.
"You seldom hear about the short life of the Sophia prior to her demise," he writes, "I believe that those six years and the insults that the hull of the steamer suffered through between her launch and her landing on Vanderbilt Reef likely contributed to her final disposition."
The insults he's talking about are the times the Sophia had previous violent encounters with the as yet still uncharted rocks and reefs of the Inside Passage. In fact, she wrecked previously near her final crash, which prompted her owners to presciently--however unsuccessfully--petition the territorial government to put a light on Vanderbilt Reef.
Captain Good maintains: "If you wish to break a pane of glass along a particular line, you score it creating a line of weakness along the surface of the glass.When you hold one end of the glass and bend the other over a fulcrum that is in line with the scoring, it will break exactly where you scored it. Hull damage can be similar.... If a vessel that has such a line of weakness is subjected to stress of just the right direction and strength...the hull can compromise or crack along the weakness. I believe that this is what happened to the Princess Sophia."
As he points out, the Princess Sophia was jammed onto Vanderbilt Reef heading almost due south. As the tide slowly lifted her by the stern, northerly currents, waves, and wind slowly spun her around, while her bow section remained jammed in place. After the sinking, her submerged bow section was found to be totally independent of her hull. The forward section of the Princess Sophia was still attached to the reef and approximately two thirds of her hull had slid off into deeper water.
"I would not be in the least surprised," Captain Good speculates, "to find out that the location of the separation of one of the two parts of the Princess Sophia is the same location where damage had been repaired in previous insults to her hull, two of which were substantial."
He adds that an entirely new understanding of the Princess Sophia's sinking could be had if a study of the submerged wreck was made, with focus on the known previous damage and on the quality of the weld jobs done to repair her and put her back in service. "A modern forensic evaluation of the Princess Sophia could change how we look at what happened. It could rewrite or at least amend and enlighten our view of Alaska maritime history."
And don't the passengers of the Sophia deserve for us to know what really caused them to lose their lives?
Auris McQueen, the soldier writing to his mother, was under the impression that they were safe enough, despite the ship being wrecked and a storm blowing. After all, ships were wrecked all the time in the wild, uncharted Territory of Alaska, with little loss of life. The Sophia herself had a history of wrecking quite forcefully but being safely floated off to head for harbor under her own steam, so why would this time be any different?
True, at first some "Nervous Nellies" thought they all might die--a few men went around wearing life preservers for a few hours until they apparently felt silly and took them off. One man even wrote out his will. A woman donned a black dress, assuming an air of high drama, but nobodly paid her much attention.
Their main concern, according to Auris, was that they had run out of soft sugar (though, he was quick to reassure his mother, they still had lump sugar). They had lights, heat, and electricty, a veritable high class hotel out there in the middle of nowhere on a reef in a storm. However, the main steam pipe had broken so they had no water for washing. He ends his letter, aboard the wrecked Princess Sophia, by cheerfully saying:
"The decks are icy and this wreck has all the ear marks of a movie stage setting. All we lack is a hero and a vampire. I'm going to quit writing and see if I can rustle a bucket and line to get some sea water to wash in. We are mighty lucky we are not buried in sea water."
Hours later he and over 350 people lost their lives. Only a dog survived.
NOTE: You can read more about the Princess Sophia and other famous (as well as little known) wrecks in the book "Alaska Shipwrecks: 1750-2015" by Captain Warren Good and Michael Burwell. In addition, Bjorn Dihle's "Haunted Inside Passage" includes a chapter on the Princess Sophia that focuses on the passengers and the aftermath of the tragedy.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)