Northern Ships and Shipping
A Guide to Dawson City, Yukon
On the bank of the Yukon River at Dawson sits a memorial to the greatest tragedy to ever befall the community. On October 25, 1918, the coastal steamer SS Princess Sophia sank after hitting Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal north of Juneau, Alaska, with the loss of at all 343 people on board. Over 100 of those people were from Dawson.
Each Fall as the Yukon River was freezing up, there was a rush of people leaving to spend the winter in places with gentler climates - "heading outside". Deciding when to leave was always a gamble. While most people wanted to stay as long as possible for economic and/or social reasons, if the river froze solid before your sternwheeler could get up the river to Whitehorse, it was a long and difficult trip by horse-drawn sleigh along the Overland Trail. It was not unusual for ships to get stranded half way to Whitehorse, forcing people to walk many miles to the trail where they cold be picked up.
From Whitehorse, those leaving would board a White Pass & Yukon Route train for the 112-mile trip to Skagway, where various steamers were available to take them south - generally to Vancouver, Victoria, or Seattle.
While the horrors of World War I were far off geographically, many men from Dawson had signed up and were serving overseas. Dawson was a tight community socially, and reports from the war fronts were regularly seen in the Dawson Daily News. In October of 1918, though, it was clear that the conflict would soon be over.
The SS Princess Sophia
Commissioned by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), the double-hulled, coal-fired steamship Princess Sophia was built at Paisley, Scotland. She was 75 meters long (245 feet), with a beam of 13 meters (44 feet).
After completion in 1912, she was sailed around Cape Horn and went to work that season running the coast of British Columbia. She could carry 2,320 tons of freight and was licenced for 250 passengers though had facilities for twice that number. With 250 passengers, services consistent with the up-scale image of the CPR "Princess fleet" could be maintained.
In her first year on the BC coast, the SS Princess Sophia ran between Victoria to Prince Rupert, BC. The next year, she was converted to burn oil, and her usual run up the coast was extended to Skagway, Alaska. For a period after the start of the Great War, Princess Sophia was used for troop transport between Canada and Europe, but once that need was over, she returned to the Skagway run and was one of the more popular ships for people heading south for the winter.
The panel seen to the right is one of 4 at the memorial in Dawson. When this photo was shot in 2011, the Yukon Queen II, seen on the Yukon River to the left, was running excursions between Dawson and Eagle, and Klondike Spirit, seen on the right, was running local sightseeing trips. The Yukon Queen II is now gone but the Klondike Spirit is still running.
The Final Voyage
On October 18, 1918, the Vancouver Daily World reported that there were hundreds of people waiting at Skagway for passage south, and every available ship was being sent. Some of the ships were getting temporary approval to increase their licenced passenger loads. Among those getting that approval was the Princess Sophia.
The Princess Sophia was scheduled to leave Skagway in the early evening of October 23, but stormy weather and a heavy passenger load delayed departure until a few minutes after 10:00 pm. When she sailed, she was under the command of Captain Leonard Locke, and 278 passengers and 65 crew members were on the ship manifest.
Shortly after the ship left Skagway, heavy snow driven by high winds hit. Four hours later, just after 02:00, the Princess Sophia hit Vanderbilt Reef. The reef, 54 miles south of Skagway, is 1¼ miles west of the course the ship should have been on.
A distress call was immediately sent out, and the local CPR shipping agent in Juneau received the message. Several small boats were soon headed out into the storm to render what aid they could. The combination of bad weather and the dangerous reef made evacuating the passengers extremely dangerous, so Captain Locke asked the small boats to stand by until the weather improved or some tugs showed up to tow the Princess Sophia off the reef at high tide.
The famous photo to the right, by E. P. Pond (Winter and Pond), shows Princess Sophia grounded on Vanderbilt Reef at about noon on October 24, 1918, 10 hours after striking the rock. The photo shows the rock at approximate low tide.
The headline of an article on Page 1 of the Vancouver Daily World that afternoon reported that "Princess Sophia Grounds in Fog", but went on to say that "As the waters of Lynn Canal are well protected, no loss of life or boats is feared, steamship men say." Dozens of other newspapers across North America also carried the news that day and the next, though most of the reports were very brief.
On October 25th, the weather got much worse, and the small boats were forced to take shelter. At 4:50 pm, a message was sent from the Princess Sophia saying that she was foundering. One of the larger boats tried to get to her, but was driven back by high seas. At 5:20 pm, the Sophia's final radio call was heard - water was coming into the radio room.
The next morning, the wind had abated enough for the rescue boats to go back to Vanderbilt Reef. The Princess Sophia was gone. Only her foremast showed above water.
On October 26, newspapers began to report on the sinking, but very few gave the news as much space as the San Francisco Chronicle or Reno Evening Gazette, whose front pages are seen below. More often, the news was brief, the loss of life greatly under-stated, and often it was not on Page 1, with positive news of the war taking precedence.
The recovery of bodies from the wreck went on for months, and many were never found. Some were found up to 30 miles from the wreck, about 100 were found in the wreck, by divers. Burials were made all over North America, but most were in Juneau and Vancouver. For weeks, newspapers around the world carried reports of locals who were either on the ship and were dead, or were not on the ship and were safe. The Seattle Star reported on October 28th that "in this greatest sea tragedy in Pacific coast shipping history, men and women prominent in the nation's life were snuffed out by the score. Whole families went down in the icy water together."
Vancouver was one of the communities hardest hit by the tragedy. Many Yukoners had winter homes there, and 66 of the victims are buried in the Mountain View Cemetery there. On October 28th, The Vancouver Daily World carried news about the wreck and the victims on 4 pages - a screenshot of one of those pages is seen below.
A maritime commission of inquiry into the disaster eventually ruled that the wreck was caused by "peril of the seas." The actions following the grounding, though, were and remain very controversial. Could the passengers - at least some of the them - have been saved? Ultimately we will never know, since nobody on the ship survived and the only documents recovered were a couple of letters found on bodies. Lessons were learned, however, and both navigation and rescue procedures were improved to try to prevent another disaster.
In 2007, a memorial was built along the Yukon River in downtown Dawson. A brass plaque at the memorial lists the names of all 278 passengers and 65 crew members that were on the ship manifest, but also lists the names of 22 people who were said by the Dawson Daily News to have been on the ship but were not on the manifest. Click on the image below to open a much larger version in a new window.