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Revisiting the Princess Sophia, the sunken 'Ship of Sorrow'

The more than 350 people who died aboard the SS Princess Sophia were Canadians and Americans by nationality, but avocation had made them all Northerners.

The more than 350 people who died aboard the SS Princess Sophia were Canadians and Americans by nationality, but avocation had made them all Northerners.

Ken Coates, co-author of The Sinking of the Princess Sophia, Taking the North Down With Her, said historical examination of the disaster, the worst in B.C. and West Coast history, offers an interesting insight into the behaviour of a people who were becoming integrated by the northern experience.

“People from Victoria would go up north to work in the Yukon, but also go to work in Alaska,” said Coates. “People from Alaska would come down in the winter to live in Vancouver or Washington, Oregon or California.

“The sinking of the Princess Sophia and the stories that weave in and around the 350 who died remind us of a time when what they called the North Lands was a very unique, cross-border society,” he said in a telephone interview from Regina, where he teaches at the University of Saskatchewan.

The SS Princess Sophia sank on Oct. 25, 1918, with estimates of the death toll ranging up to 367. Nobody on board survived, save one pet dog who swam to shore. The ship was one of four coastal liners operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway, all named for princesses.

The Princess Sophia had departed Skagway, Alaska, on Oct. 23, 1918, with stops planned in Juneau, Wrangell and Ketchikan before hitting Prince Rupert, Alert Bay and eventually Vancouver.

The following day at 2 a.m., about 87 kilometres south of Skagway and 74 kilometres north of Juneau, the Princess Sophia struck a reef. Slightly off course in bad weather, she was going full steam, rode up onto the rock and stuck fast. She remained stuck for 40 hours, enough time for rescue boats to arrive. But stormy conditions and high tides made it too risky to abandon ship.

Rescue boat crews chose to return to port and come back the following day, the 26th, when weather was expected to improve. But in the meantime, the Princess Sophia was lifted off the reef and sank, leaving no survivors.

The dead were a collection of Americans and Canadians, miners, prospectors, entrepreneurs and a big collection of riverboat sailors finishing up the season after putting up their vessels for the winter. About 50 were women and children, families of the men on board.

An official Canadian inquiry and a lawsuit later found the captain acted reasonably by not attempting to offload passengers.

But Coates said what is intriguing is how the disaster has slid from memory and has only begun to resurface in the past 20 years.

“It’s quite astonishing that you can have a major disaster like this almost disappear from public knowledge,” he said.

Coates said the death toll alone, about 10 per cent of the non-Indigenous population of the North, should have made it more infamous.

But it’s only now, 100 years later, that commemoration is beginning. Marker plaques are being dedicated. An opera will be performed this month in Alaska, and on Oct. 2 the Royal Canadian Mint released a commemorative coin.

Coates himself, despite a boyhood in the Yukon, a long interest in history, and many hours in libraries and archives, didn’t learn about the Princess Sophia until he was a third-year undergraduate at the University of British Columbia. Even then, he was researching something else and came across a newspaper headline about the shipwreck.

He was intrigued but it wasn’t until years later, while teaching in the history department at the University of Victoria from 1986 to 1992, that he teamed up with fellow historian Bill Morrison to write the book about the Princess Sophia disaster.

Coates said disasters make for interesting historical study because they are good indicators of the strengths and weaknesses in any society.

Hurricane Katrina, for example, exposed huge social chasms in 2005 when it slammed into New Orleans. The Princess Sophia, on the other hand, revealed how integrated and collegial were the people of Alaska, B.C. and the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

For example, the rescue attempt was large co-ordinated out of Victoria via radio. Boats from Alaska and B.C. answered the distress call.

When drowned bodies were recovered, they were first taken to Alaska, then transferred to a Canadian coastal liner, the Princess Alice, and taken to Vancouver. When American families couldn’t afford or didn’t want the bodies, they were buried in Canada.

“Back then, folks would move back and forth across the border and had a level of kinship that was quite remarkable,” said Coates.

“This is one of those incredible stories that transcends national boundaries,” he said. “The fact we have a Canadian ship going down in American waters only reinforces that.”

David Leverton, executive director at the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, said in many ways, historical events conspired to keep the Princess Sophia out of mind.

The Princess Alice, for example, arrived near Vancouver on Nov. 10, 1918. The next day, the armistice was declared, ending the fighting of the First World War. Amidst the celebration, the wreck of the Princess Sophia was forced out of mind.

Also, the deadly Spanish flu had arrived in B.C. that year, and civic authorities were just beginning to respond.

The last thing anybody wanted to hear about was a ship carrying 50 to 70 drowned bodies, the Princess Alice, whose last passage had already earned it the dreary nickname “The Ship of Sorrow.”

“There was just so much going on simultaneously,” said Leverton.

Now the submerged wreck of the Princess Sophia has become a destination for divers.

Annette Smith, 66, and a resident of Alaska most of her life where she skippers a whale-watching boat, has dived to the Princess Sophia more than 200 times, probably more than any other person.

Smith can still remember her first visit when she followed a rope down to midships.

“I turned to go up to the bow and the whole bow area was lined with all these plumous anemones,” she said. “So there was these white, ghostly shapes waving in the current.

“For me it was as though all the ghosts on the ship were waving and telling me it was OK for me to be there,” said Smith. “From that point I’ve been hooked, and I wanted to know all about it and all about the people who were on board.”

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