Monday, October 25, 2010

October 25, 1918

Vanderbilt Reef is a small, rocky island in the Alaskan inside passage, south of Skagway. It's just slightly above the water. Every summer it's passed by thousands of tourists on cruise ships, who take scant notice of it breaking the surface as they go by...

The inside passage has been, and remains, a critical waterway for both the U.S. and Canada. In summer it's dominated by cruise ships, but it also supports many communities. Due to geography and climate, roads and trains have difficulty getting to several areas. So ships are still a major source of supplies, travel, and trade.

At the start of the 20th century, this vital waterway was served by ships designed to transport both passengers and freight, whichever was needed. One was the Princess Sophia.

S.S. Princess Sophia

She was a modern ship by the day's standards, with wireless communications and electric lighting throughout. Though not as luxurious as the big Atlantic liners, she was considered quite comfortable.

In late October, 1918 the Princess Sophia was making a typical inside passage run, stopping at several ports in Alaska and Canada. She carried 343 passengers and crew, and was commanded by Captain Leonard Locke.

On October 25, at around 2:00 a.m. she drifted off course in a snowstorm and ran aground, quite hard, on Vanderbilt Reef. The force of the impact drove most of the ship out of the water and up on the rock. And there she sat, stuck. Although her bottom was badly damaged, she was perched high and dry out of the water. The engines and electricity were still running.

Princess Sophia grounded on the reef. The object in the foreground is a navigation marker.

A distress call was sent out immediately, and within a few hours a number of rescue vessels surrounded the beached ship. The storm had died down.

Captain Locke faced a difficult decision. The rocky area was exposed at low tide, making rescues dangerous for the coming boats. To add to the problem, in 1904 the steamship Clallam, under similar circumstances, had started to evacuate passengers into lifeboats. The boats capsized, killing 54 people. Rescue boats were later able to get everyone else off safely.

Since the Princess Sophia, stuck up on land, was in no immediate danger, the decision was made to wait on the evacuation until the afternoon's high tide.

By the time afternoon came, the weather was rapidly worsening. Strong winds whipped up violent seas, making approaches by the rescue craft impossible. Lifeboats couldn't be safely launched. Between Captain Locke and the rescue boat captains, they decided to postpone the evacuation until the next day. Although damaged, the Princess Sophia was high out of water, the power was operating, and it's people were secure. The rescuers returned to port to ride out the storm, and lodging arrangements were made on shore for when the passengers were taken off in the morning.

The afternoon storm became a gale. Then violent waves submerged the reef- and the Princess Sophia began partially floating again. Strong winds and waves blew her back off the reef and back into the water.

Except now she was a ship with her bottom torn out from the day's damage.

At 16:50 her wireless operator began frantically calling for help. The rescue vessels began to return, but a blizzard had started, limiting visibility to a few yards. Heavy seas broke over their decks in cascades. They tried to find Vanderbilt Reef, but in this condition were in real danger of striking the rocks (and each other). Realizing that nothing could be done except lose their own ships, they reluctantly returned to port.

The next morning the weather had improved, and the boats set out at first light for Vanderbilt Reef hoping to find survivors.

But all that was left of the Princess Sophia was her mast, sticking up from the wreck below.

Picture taken as boats arrived in the morning. The triangular navigation buoy is the same one seen in the previous picture. The Princess Sophia's mast is on the right.

Floating bodies were everywhere, covered in thick layers of oil. They continued to wash ashore for months, and many were removed from the ship by divers. Quite a few were children. Some were buried in Juneau, others in Vancouver. Their graves are marked in local cemeteries today.

343 people were lost. The only survivor was a dog, which belonged to a couple on board. It had swum to a nearby island and was rescued a day later.

The Princess Sophia made local headlines, but was forgotten on a larger scale. World War I came to an end shortly afterwards, and a worldwide flu pandemic that would kill 50 million people was raging. These 2 events quickly pushed the Princess Sophia from the newspapers.

The wreck today is completely submerged off Vanderbilt reef, passed annually by cruising tourists unaware of the tragedy beneath them.


Necandum said...

Interesting, to see the point where so many peoples' lives were changed so completely, one small decision marking the difference between a risky rescue and catastrophe. Life's capricious, ain't it?

Thanks for the history, even (especially?) if it's a bit morbid.

The Mother said...

Have to feel sorry for that captain. What must he have been thinking as the ship sank? All those attempts to keep everyone safe by taking the prudent course--turned out not to be so prudent.

I probably went right over it and didn't realize it, either.

Sarah Glenn said...

When you said they were waiting for the tide to come back in, I thought, "Bad idea. What happens when the water rises under the ship?"

Sometimes you have to think about the future and choose to take risks. Being too cautious led to more deaths.

Thanks for this story. I hadn't heard it before.

M.Brayfield said...

I hadn't heard of this one, so thanks again.

Mugdha said...

This was really interesting to read. Thank you for sharing!

Sharon said...

This isn't unknown in Canada. I saw a television show about the wreck within the last year or so.

Of course, I'm a history nut and seek out books and films about wars, shipwrecks, epidemics, and other fun subjects.

Jon said...

Here on Lake Superior the gales of November are about to start. They always give me the willies.

Anonymous said...

i hear gornon lightfoot warming up.

J-Quell'n said...

Very interesting...thanks for this :)

ERP said...

I wonder - did they evaluate the damage to the keel while they were beached? Were they unaware that if they refloated they would sick rapidly?

Silliyak said...

If you're a shill for the cruise industry, you really suck!

ian in hamburg said...

The Sophia story I've been hearing since I was a little kid because it's part of our family history.

My grandfather and grandmother were living up in the Yukon during that time.

Before my mother was born, my grandmother was supposed to sail with my aunt on the doomed voyage, but something came up and they had to cancel their tickets.

Some 65 years later my grandmother died in a hospital in Vancouver, BC. The hospital is on Sophia street. My mother said afterward: the first Sophia didn't get her, but the second one did.

Christine said...

If you're interested in history like this, you should read about BC's Ripple Rock. It sunk far more ships and claimed more lives until it they tunneled underneath it from the shore and blew it to bits in the mid-1900s. There's even video recordings.

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