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The Princess Sophia: Examinations of a tragedy

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Posted: Saturday, October 13, 2012 10:56 pm | Updated: 11:36 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Alaska has had its share of tragedies. We tremble when they happen, gasp at the shock, mourn the victims and rebuild, but there’s always a little hole shaped like the ones we lost. But some tragedies occur on an epic scale — not only is the loss of life huge, but the event itself changes things in big ways, marking that day or hour or minute forever in our collective memories.

The sinking of the Princess Sophia in 1918 was one of those epic tragedies.

The end of autumn is a seminal event in the northern climes; days get shorter, temperatures fall and people leave to spend the winter months in warmer climes. It’s a pattern that began when gold was discovered in the Klondike and Alaska — miners and other entrepreneurs came up in the summer, worked the endless days really hard, either mining ore or taking miners’ money — then hopped on the last ship out to spend the winter in more favorable spots.

Two volumes, written about a decade apart and 80 years after the sinking, introduce us to the people and their stories that comprise the whole of the disaster and strive to answer many of the questions left in the aftermath of the tragedy. “The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down With Her” examines the effect the sinking had on the already dwindling population of the North as gold supplies petered out and other strikes occurred elsewhere. “The Final Voyage of the Princess Sophia: Did They All Have To Die?,” while somewhat hyperbolic in its title, looks at the causes of the sinking and whether it could have been prevented, who was to blame and how it changed maritime navigation in the Inside Passage.

In October 1918, the Princess Sophia was the season’s last ship — leaving Skagway for Seattle, with stops at Alaskan and Canadian ports along the way. When she left the dock on Oct. 23, she carried 353 passengers and crew — miners, businessmen, civic leaders and their families, men and women seeking medical help Outside, and local men recruited as crew. A significant number of well-placed and well-regarded community figures were among her passengers.

Because she left three hours late, Captain Leonard Locke pushed the ship at high speed to make up some time. About four hours after leaving, the Passage was hit by a heavy storm with blinding snow and strong winds. But Locke, who knew the Passage and trusted his navigational aids, kept up his speed, not realizing the ship was off course just enough to slam into Vanderbilt Reef, a rock almost smack in the middle of Lynn Canal. Its marker, an unlit buoy, was only visible during the day and certainly not in a blinding snowstorm.

The Sophia sent out a number of distress calls, which were heard and responded to, but the storm was so strong none of the rescue vessels could launch boats, and the Sophia’s life boats couldn’t be launched without significant loss of life. Locke, wanting to avoid losing passengers to unsuccessful rescue attempts, apparently hoped the tide or waves would wash the Sophia off the rocks enough to enable putting the passengers off, so he told the rescue boats to stay away for their safety and wait.

But instead of abating, the storm grew worse, and three days after hitting the rock, the Sophia sank, pushed off by waves, with no time to get anyone off. All 353 passengers and crew died.

Ken Coates and Bill Morrison look at the history of the gold strikes in Dawson City and its surrounds, and make a case that the sinking was just the final strike against the area.

“The importance of the Sophia story hinges on a central aspect of northern life: the transiency of the non-Native people.” Since most whites came to the North to amass a fortune, but didn’t plan to live there, their investment in the long-term health of the region was nil. Those few who did put down roots kept cities such as Dawson going longer than other now-forgotten towns and villages, but losing them, having the foundation of the region swept out to sea, as it were, only showed how illusory the sense of permanence was.

Betty O’Keefe and Ian MacDonald concentrate on the “hastily called” investigation into the disaster, which failed to provide an “adequate” answer, according to the authors. Those questions involved the shop’s speed, the storm, the alleged impossibility of evacuation, navigation aids, etc. The inquiry attributed the sinking to “the peril of the sea,” which the company, Canada Pacific, pushed for to lessen its liability. They received insurance money; relatives of the crew received the minimum amount of compensation required by law; and the passengers’ estates received nothing, expect years of legal bills and hassles.

One of the questions both books raise is why this particular tragedy — a pretty big one for Canada and Alaska — has receded from our memory. Why don’t we remember the Sophia and her doomed passengers like we remember the Titanic, the Lusitania and others? Coates and Morrison posit it’s because the Princess Sophia sank at a bad time.

“For one thing, the Princess Sophia disaster was not the only blow to hit the far northwest in 1918. The economies of both the Yukon and Alaska had been badly damaged by [World War 1], particularly by the departure of hundreds of young men for military services. A depression affected the entire region ... ”

Additionally, the day the news of the disaster hit, so did the news of the end of World War I, which naturally took over the news cycle. And the loss of 353 lives seemed to pale against the staggering losses throughout the War to End All Wars, as well as the Titanic disaster, which had occurred only six years earlier. The only real “celebrity” was Walter Harper, the first Native to climb Mount McKinley (with explorer Hudson Stuck), on his honeymoon, so there was no real hook to the story. But mostly, according to Coates and Morrison, it was the nature of the North and its people — those who died were mourned Outside, because that’s where they were from. There was no one area which could own the tragedy, and the transient nature of Northern society dictated that no one really belonged there.

Ultimately, I found Coates and Morrison to have the more compelling book, not just because they relate the sinking to a larger context as a whole, but because they also look at the individuals who made up that whole, relating intimate details of their lives and deaths, so the reader sees not just the big picture, but the smaller puzzle pieces that together make that picture. Theirs is a coherent, compelling read that makes the reader think carefully about how individuals, seemingly insignificant, are in fact vital to the whole picture, and the loss of even one is a tragedy. Losing 353 in one event can destroy an entire region.

“The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down With Her”

by Ken Coates and Bill Morrison

University of Alaska Press • $12.95

“The Final Voyage of the Princess Sophia: Did They All Have To Die?”

by Betty O’Keefe and

Ian McDonald

Heritage Fine Edge • $16.95

Libbie Martin is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at

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