THE SINKING OF THE SS PRINCESS SOPHIA
The historic Canadian tragedy you’ve probably never heard of
The sky is dark, and the waves darker. A blinding snowstorm renders the deadly reef invisible until it’s too late. The moment of impact is depicted dramatically on the new pure silver coin from the Royal Canadian Mint — when a steamer ran aground on the Vanderbilt Reef and sank in late October of 1918, taking the lives of all 350 passengers.
The SS Princess Sophia was one of several coastal liners owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway that ferried passengers and freight between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Skagway, Alaska. From Skagway, passengers could connect with the railroad and with riverboats to take them up the Yukon River where many Canadians and Americans worked in summer.
The mood was festive on the day of the Sophia’s fateful final departure from Skagway on October 23, 1918. There was a celebration for American troops heading south to join the war effort. The voyage was to be the season’s final pick-up: the Yukon River was beginning to freeze, and friends made plans to get together when they returned in the spring.
“Although they only spent half the year together before heading off to far-flung homes for the winter, their lives were hugely interconnected and formed a unique integrated society of Americans and Canadians living and working together,” says Ken Coates.
Coates is a historian who specializes in Northern and Indigenous history and is the co-author of The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down with Her.
A TURN FOR THE WORSE
Shortly after the Sophia left port, the wind picked up, and by the time she had reached the middle of the Lynn Canal — only 16 km across at its widest points — snow and fog had reduced visibility to near zero. Around 2 a.m. on October 24, the ship ran aground and jammed into the v-shaped Vanderbilt Reef, the impact bringing her right out of the water.
Although rescue efforts began almost immediately, the weather made it impossible for boats to get close enough for passengers to transfer. For the first few hours, no one was particularly worried about the safety of those on board. The canals in the area were narrow and hard to navigate, and ships running aground in low tide was a fairly common occurrence. Usually, the next high tide would lift them off, and they would continue on their way, none the worse for wear.
But as the Sophia continued to grind against the reef for almost two days, the relative calm turned to panic.
“The sound of the steel hull on the rocks would have been excruciating,” says Coates. By the afternoon of October 25, the hull had been penetrated, and Captain Leonard Locke reported the steamer was taking on water.
By then, the storm had intensified and almost sank two of the rescue boats. They were forced to retreat, and there was nothing they could do but wait and hope. A few hours later, the storm pulled the ship off the reef, ripping out her bottom, and she sank. When rescue crews finally made it out again the next morning, the sea was calm — but there was nothing left of the Sophia but a mast sticking up out of the water.
There were no survivors.
THE YUKON DEVASTATED
This tragedy is generally considered the worst marine disaster in the Pacific Northwest. With more than 350 people on board, the loss of life represented 10 percent of the population of Dawson City and surrounding communities, and included soldiers, families and community leaders.
“The area lost a good part of its soul that day,” says Coates, “and the sinking also dealt a body blow to the Yukon economy.”
Before the Sophia sank, plans were underway for a $1 million sale of a mine in southern Yukon that would have revitalized the territory’s mining industry. But the mine’s owner and several engineers who had validated the claim were among the Sophia’s passengers. The sale was never completed.
The deaths of most of the crews and employees who ran the river boats represented a massive knowledge loss that disrupted travel and connections among communities along the Yukon River. As well, the Yukon had committed massive resources to the war effort: Whitehorse and Dawson City recorded Canada’s highest per capita investments in World War I war bonds.
Coates says it took the Yukon until World War II to begin to recover. The close bond between the Yukon and Alaska has never been truly restored.
REMEMBERING THE SS PRINCESS SOPHIA
The Mint is commemorating the centennial of this shared Canadian–U.S. tragedy with a 1-oz. pure silver coloured coin, The Sinking of the SS Princess Sophia. The Mint worked with the Maritime Museum of British Columbia’s David Leverton to ensure the coin’s design is as accurate as possible.
The reverse features the stunning coloured art of Yves Berube showing the moment the ship hit the reef. Berube’s crashing waves and somber sky evoke a sense of dread, and in the distance, the shoreline is just barely visible through the storm. The scene is framed by engraved cartography of Lynn Canal, and completed with an innovative nautical rope motif engraved to the edge — the first edge treatment of this kind in the world.
Despite the tremendous emotional, social and economic impacts of what has been called “the Titanic of the West Coast,” the story of the Sophia is almost unknown today. The recovered bodies didn’t make it to Victoria until November 11, 1918, when the city — and much of the world — was celebrating the Armistice that ended the First World War. By the next day, the Armistice had pushed everything else off the front pages, and the Sophia’s story faded into obscurity.
But the people of Juneau, Alaska, and the coast around the Lynn Canal remember.
They’ve been singing songs about the tragedy for decades, and Juneau opera company Orpheus Project recently commissioned an opera about the Sophia. And now, the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, the Vancouver Maritime Museum and the Alaska State Museum are partnering to present a touring exhibit to commemorate the 100th anniversary of this event. The exhibit opens in Whitehorse, Yukon, on October 25, and will tour around the continent throughout the next year: link to exhibit.