Feature Stories

The Sinking of Princess Sophia

Header image from article in Last Frontier Magazine
In its day it was the greatest maritime, non-military loss of life in American history. That tragedy came in an unusual form, that of an ocean liner, the Princess Sophia, of the Canadian Pacific Railway fleet. It left Skagway on October 22, l9l8 with a crew of 75 and 268 passengers. Within days it was headlines across the nation, a 245 foot luxury cruiser barely six years old that had been dragged unceremoniously to Davy Jones’ Locker.

Night navigation, never a pleasant task, was made even more difficult on the night of October 22, l9l8, by a blinding snowstorm blown in by a northwest wind. Gradually picking up strength, the force of the wind slowed the Sophia on her southward journey and Captain Locke ordered the watch increased. These were treacherous waters, particularly around Vanderbilt Reef. But the weather was to prove to be too much of an adversary. A little after three in the morning, half a mile into restricted waters, the Sophia suddenly went up on the very reef it was trying to avoid. The keel of the ship hit the reef and the cruise liner slid to a stop, wedged in the jaws of the reef.

Vanderbilt Reef was not unknown to the mariners of the Lynn Canal, the stretch of water that lay between Skagway and Juneau. The specific spot where the Sophia went aground was already somewhat infamous. It was, in fact, the same site where another liner, the Princess May, had gone high and dry eight years earlier, in May of l9l0. The Princess May, however, proved to be far luckier than the Sophia. With the next tide, the Princess May floated free of the reef. (An excellent photograph of the Princess May on the reef currently hangs in the Alaska Capitol in Juneau.)

Fate would not be so kind to the Sophia. Once she came to rest, Captain Lewis P. Locke of Victoria was faced with an agonizing dilemma. Though the ship was aground, there had been no damage to the hull and thus there was no immediate danger of the ship being swept off the reef and sunk. Lifeboats could have been swung out but this would have been extremely dangerous as the night was pitch black, bitterly cold and the ship was breaking a 50 knot, blowing snowstorm. There was land nearby, Sentinel Island, which had a small lighthouse, but Captain Locke could not see the sense of transferring 343 people from the relative safety of the Sophia into the small lighthouse crew house on shore.

There were two other reasons for Captain Locke not to be hasty in removing his passengers. First, the damage to the Sophia was light enough that, with the next tide, he logically would have expected to float free. Second, another cruise liner, the Princess Alice, and a salvage steamer, Tess, were coming north and could evacuate the Sophia if that need became apparent. Thus, it was just a matter of time before his ship would either float free of the reef or a rescue attempt by another cruise liner could be effected safely. So the captain elected to wait rather than risk the lives of his passenger and crew in the treacherous, night waters of the Lynn Canal.

Illustration by Anne Sanders / LFM

The Princess Sophia

The first the rest of the world knew of the dilemma came about noon the next day, October 23, when the Sophia sent out an SOS. Received by a number of vessels, the historical record which exists belongs to Captain J. W. Leadbetter of the U.S. lighthouse tender Cedar. The message received read “ADVISE CAPTAIN PRINCESS SOPHIA AGROUND NEAR SENTINEL ISLAND. PETERS AND SEVERAL OTHER BOATS ARRIVED AT WRECK BUT CAN DO NOTHING ACCOUNT NORTHERLY WINDS.” Leadbetter immediately headed north at full speed.

While the Sophia had not been in any immediate danger when she went aground, this could not be said of her over the next six hours. With each passing minute the weather worsened. The wind increased in speed and a nasty chop was churning the waters of the channel. The storm had now gotten so bad that fishing boats were scattering for cover. By the time Leadbetter received the SOS, visibility had been cut to a few hundred feet and was getting worse.

By 4:30 in the afternoon, the storm got worse. High winds rose off the water and Leadbetter began to wonder if any of the passengers or crew could be taken off the Sophia at all. Still four hours away from the stricken vessel, Leadbetter sent a message for a clarification of conditions. His inquiry read “WIRE CONDITIONS REGARDING TAKING OFF PASSENGERS TONIGHT. HOPE TO ARRIVE REEF EIGHT-THIRTY. THICK SNOW.”

Leadbetter, however, was stating the weather conditions optimistically. The temperature had been dropping so fast that his barometer had not had a chance to respond. The storm had so increased in intensity that enroute to the Sophia, Leadbetter had been forced to station a crew member outside his front wind to keep the glass clear of snow and another inside the cabin to keep the wind clear of steam. But even with this help, visibility was near zero. By the time Leadbetter had sent his 4:30 message, the snow was so blinding that it was all but impossible to see the tender’s bow. When he snapped the searchlight on, the beam hit millions of particles of swirling snow and reflected directly back into his eyes.

Fifteen minutes later, Leadbetter received an answer from the Sophia. “IMPOSSIBLE TO GET PASSENGERS OFF TONIGHT AS SEA IS RUNNING TOO STRONG. WILL PROBABLY BE ABLE TO GET THEM OFF EARLY MORNING. STRONG TIDE.” This news was a mixed blessing to Leadbetter. All the way north he and his crew had been worrying about how they could off load more than 340 passengers and crew in stormy weather. The message from the Sophia seemed to indicate that there was no need to move anyone off the ship, at least until morning. Better yet, it also indicated that the Sophia was in stable enough shape to last the night and probably float free with the next high tide. While this wasn’t cheering news, it did mean that a rescue attempt would not be launched until daylight. There was also a good chance that the weather would improve by then.

At 8:00 pm, Leadbetter got his first sight of the Sophia. Although it was pitch black, the liner was easy to spot. All of her lights were blazing onboard and most of the portholes were lit. Leadbetter also noticed that there were a host of other ships in the vicinity waiting for the weather to break so they could take passengers and crew off the liner. Though he probably could not identify them until the following morning, he later recorded them as the King and Winge, Alaska, Sitka and the Peterson from the Fort Seward Army Post as well as about 15 small fishing vessels.

Leadbetter carefully circled the Sophia. The storm was now at gale force with huge waves crashing over the forward deck of the Cedar. Almost unmanageable in the violent sea, Leadbetter radioed the Sophia that he was heading for Sentinel Island to spend the night where the rocks of the island could break the wind. He radioed. “IF SOPHIA IS IN NO DANGER SLIPPING OFF AND PASSENGERS SAFE UNTIL DAYLIGHT WOULD LIKE TO DROP ANCHOR UNDER SENTINEL ISLAND.” Then he added, “WILL BE IN TOUCH BY WIRELESS, IF YOU THINK NECESSARY WILL REMAIN WAY OVER NIGHT.”

The Cedar head for the protection of Sentinel Island where it dropped anchor in a small bay. Even though it was protected from the storm, the wrenching of the waves made it apparent to the crew of the Cedar that the rescue attempt of the next morning was going to be anything but routine. All night long there was a battery of communication between the Sophia and the Cedar and the other ships as to the state of the hull of the Sophia and how a rescue attempt would have to be conducted the next day.

The next morning, the Cedar steamed back to the Sophia. She was still stuck on the reef and if the storm had let up during the night it had not let up that much. The liner was still high and dry on Vanderbilt Reef with the rocks of the reef clearly visible on both port and starboard. Giant swells were pounding the ship unmercifully and ice had formed all along the gunnels from bow to stern giving the Sophia the appearance of a ghost ship.

All day long the Cedar and the other ships hovered around the vessel, their bows to the wind to maintain position. The wind increased in ferocity. Even with both of her anchors down, the Cedar was constantly being swept back by the blast. At ll:00 am, Leadbetter realized that he could no longer maintain a vigil. He contacted the Sophia again. “I CAN’T MAKE ANCHORS HOLD. COULD NOT ROW BOAT TO YOU AT PRESENT. BELIEVE YOUR PASSENGERS ARE PERFECTLY SAFE UNTIL WIND MODERATES. WILL STAND BY UNTIL SAFE TO MAKE TRANSFER.” At this point it was all that the Cedar could do to keep itself afloat. Visibility had been reduced to zero again and the waves threatened to drag the tender up onto Vanderbilt Reef alongside the Sophia. Once again the Cedar headed for Sentinel Island to spend the night.

By this time the Sophia had been caught on the rocks for 34 hours and it was apparent to all of the mariners in the small flotilla that a rescue attempt was going to have to be made the next day. So far they had been fortunate, but there was no guarantee that their good luck would hold. Since the King and Winge had 300 fathoms of steel cable aboard (1800 feet), it was agreed among the crew of the gathered ships that the passengers could best be evacuated by lowering them to the desk of the King and Winge one at a time. It would be a long, dangerous undertaking but the crew of the King and Winge was willing to take that risk.

Now, in a day of bad breaks, there was about to be one more. Having survived a blinding snowstorm, driving wind and increasingly violent waters, there was yet one more danger for the Sophia to weather: a rising tide. Wedged on the rock as she was, there was danger that the ship would not rise with the tide. Then, with the rising waters acting as a lever, the torque would pop plates loose all along the hull and twist the ship to pieces.

Though no one knows for sure, this is probably exactly what happened. As the tide moved in, the hull was levered to the breaking point. Hull plates undoubtedly snapped and cold water rushed into the bowels of the ship. From the oil that was found on the water afterwards, it is also assumed that the cold water hit the hot boilers and the ship, quite literally, blew itself apart. Then, filled with water, the Sophia was dragged helpless across the reef by the incoming tide and dropped into its watery grave. The end must have come quickly for the last message the Cedar received was simply. “SHIP FOUNDERING ON REEF. COME AT ONCE.” It was 4:50 pm on October 25, l9l8.

The Cedar immediately headed back toward Vanderbilt Reef. But if the storm had relented to any degree none of the crew could swear to it. There was still a driving snowstorm and visibility was still close to zero. The Cedar bounced in the waves like a pinecone in a whirlpool, the screws popping free of the water frequently. At 5:02 the last message from the Sophia was received. “FOR GOD’S SAKE HURRY. THE WATER IS COMING IN MY ROOM!” But it was a useless call. The storm was so fierce that no ship could respond. With powerful waves pounding the hull so forcefully that Leadbetter feared the safety of his own ship, he ordered the Cedar back to Sentinel Island.

The next day the storm had let up enough for the Cedar to try to reach Vanderbilt Reef again. But back at the reef all that was left of the luxury liner were two upright masts marking the final resting place of the cruiser. For hours the Cedar searched for survivors. It was a vain attempt, for though there were scores of bodies, some of them on Sentinel Island, there was not a single survivor. Leadbetter then wired ships in the area. “NO SIGN OF LIFE. NO HOPE OF SURVIVORS.”

It took months to recover all the bodies. Many were removed from the wreck, but for weeks bodies were found floating in the Lynn Canal, some drifting as far south as Juneau. Accounts of the rescue stated there were bodies and debris scattered along the shores of Lynn Canal for sixty miles. Worst of all were the sodden toys of children who had gone down with the ship. Many of the bodies were fully clothed and in life vests indicating that at the end the evacuation of the ship had been orderly. Many of the watches on the bodies stopped at 7:30, perhaps the final moment of the Sophia.

Curiously, autopsies revealed that only four of the bodies recovered died from drowning. Of those bodies found on Sentinel Island, most appeared to have died of oil in their lungs, probably from the oil slick created when the boilers blew. Where the Sophia went down, the water was so shallow that at low tide the rescuers could walk to the wreck. Where the ship spent the last agonizing moments, the reef was said to have been scraped “smooth as a dollar” from the rocking motion of the Sophia.

In any disaster, the finger of blame is pointed first at the Captain. Criticism of Captain Locke was not long in coming. Posthumously charged with a variety of violations of both ethics and cruise line policy, it was claimed that Locke, among other infractions, had women passengers in his cabin and had neglected lifeboat drills. In an un-authored, l956 article in Real Adventure, a man claiming to have been a “deck hand on the Nambo” charged that Locke was “notorious in [Lynn Canal]. A stubborn, evil-tempered man, he was not liked by anyone. Nor was he noted for his talent or ability as a ship’s master. It was only natural that he would avoid asking for help from nearby. He feared the knowing jeers of seafarers in every port in Alaska. He was stupid and incompetent.”

The un-named deck hand claimed that Locke refused to let any of the passengers off the Sophia, and that Locke’s “rotten sould [sic] roast in Hell forever.” Further, the deck hand stated, many passengers “bore mute testimony of the last, frenzied horror that boiled through the vessel. Ribs and bones were crushed and broken. Passengers and crew became savages, trampling each other in the fearful moment during which the ship went to the bottom. They tried to fight their way to the open decks, clawing, biting, gouging.”

In defense of Captain Locke, however, it should be noted that having women in one’s cabin was hardly a hanging offense, even on a luxury liner. Not having lifeboat drills might have been a serious charge, but with the Sophia on Vanderbilt Reef for 34 hours, it is hard to believe that some form of emergency evacuation plan was not discussed. That bodies were found with lifejackets on would seem to indicate the passengers had been prepared for the eventuality that the ship would be going down. Why it took this particular “eyewitness” on a ship that is not mentioned in any of the accounts almost 40 years to come forward with a story that was published anonymously would lead one to suspect the veracity of the author.

Support for Captain Locke’s position came from an unexpected source. In a letter recovered from the wreck, one of the passengers, Auris W. McQueen, wrote a letter to his mother in which he describes sitting on the Sophia waiting for the tide to raise the ship. The tone of the letter is one of calm and patience rather than panic or fear. The Sophia, he wrote, “is a double-bottom boat and her inner hull is not penetrated, so here we stick. She pounds some on a rising tide and it is slow writing but our inconvenience is, so far, lack of water. The main steam pipe got twisted off and we were without light last night, and have run out of soft sugar. But the pipe is fixed so we are getting heat and lights now, and we still have lump sugar and water for drinking.

“A lighthouse tender, big enough to hold the 400 passengers, and one big launch are standing by. And as this storm quits we will be taken off and make another lap to Juneau. I suppose after three or four days there, we can go to Seattle, after I reckon we will be quarantined as there are six cases of influenza aboard. The decks are all icy, and this wreck has all the marks of a movie stage setting. All we lack is the hero and the vampire. I am going to quit, and see if I can rustle a buck and a line to get some sea water to wash in. We are mighty lucky we were not all buried in the sea water.”

At a subsequent maritime hearing in Juneau, Leadbetter came to the defense of Locke. Leadbetter claimed that, in Locke’s position, he would have made the same decision with regard to keeping the passengers onboard. Captain Locke had acted in the best interests of his passengers, Leadbetter asserted. Locke had no way of knowing that a bad storm was coming. Even the barometers on other ships in the area had failed to warn their captains of the on-coming bad weather. In fact, it was reported by many reputable mariners that barometers in the area were actually rising, not falling, thus playing a cruel hoax on many other vessels from Juneau to Skagway.

With regard to the navigation abilities of Locke, Vanderbilt Reef was identified only by an unlighted buoy which would have been impossible to see at night in a blinding snowstorm. With regard to the integrity of the hull of the Sophia, the record showed that it had gone aground near Sentinel Island in April of l9l3, but had risen off the rocks with the next tide. (Locke was not the Captain of the Sophia at the time.) The ship had also gone aground in a snow storm the next year near Blinkinsop Bay and her 45 passengers had been taken to Vancouver on another ship. The next year she had hit a dock in Wrangell and lost some of her railing. It is possible that there might have been damage to the hull of the Sophia which weakened its integrity. The damage might only have come to light if the hull was put under unexpected pressure. That unexpected pressure might have come on the stormy October night on Vanderbilt Reef.

The account of the sinking of the Sophia made great press for about 48 hours. Then came the Armistice ending World War I and the Sophia disappeared off the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. In the end, the maritime court found that the wreck was caused by “laxity on part of the ships’ officers.” But a more likely cause of the accident was that the Sophia was a victim of man’s oldest adversary: bad luck.

However, to finish on a light note, it would be inaccurate to say that there were no survivors. There were no human survivors and none of the 24 horses on board survived the wreck. But, on March 6, l9l9, it was reported that an oil-soaked, nearly frozen English setter had been found in Tee Harbor shortly after the disaster. The dog was definitely identified as a “passenger” aboard the Sophia. It was noted that the dog was “very afraid of salt water.”

By Steven Levi

Leave a Reply