The Coastal Steamer S.S. Princes Sophia departed Skagway at 10:15pm on October 23rd, 1918 with well over 350 passengers and crew. At 2:00 am of October 24th, she ran aground on Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal, about 30 miles North of Juneau, in a raging winter storm.
Rescue ships from Juneau began to arrive by 9:00 am and throughout the day. Finding his ship firmly lodged in the reef but intact, and judging evacuation to pose too great risk to the passengers, the Sophia's captain and the commanders of the responding vessels decided to wait, and see if a rising barometer delivered any relief.
The storm continued to increase, however, and by the time extreme evacuation measures were worth hazarding, it was too late to try them. Rescue vessels were released to seek shelter behind nearby islands. Weather conditions on October 25th continued to deteriorate and multiple efforts throughout the day to create options failed, until once again the rescue ships were forced to seek shelter.
At 5:20 pm, the U.S. Lighthouse Tender Cedar received a final message from the Princess Sophia radio operator: “Come quickly, the water is coming in my cabin.” The Cedar attempted to reach the Princess Sophia but was driven back by fierce winds and snow storm.
The next morning, as the weather cleared, rescuers found the Sophia had been thrown across the reef by the storm and sunk with the loss of all aboard, many suffocating in the bunker oil she spilled after her boilers exploded when they hit the cold water. Divers found that most of the passengers’ watches had stopped by 5:50.
Over the next few weeks, the community of Juneau responded to the recovery efforts for the casualties while at the same time dealing with a Spanish Flu epidemic. The little town of just 3,000 cleaned the oiled bodies of over 350 victims - an amount equal to more than 10% of its population, with rags and gasoline. Temporary morgues were created, and coffins had to be shipped in from other Southeast communities to meet the need. When news of the disaster reached Vancouver, it was overshadowed by understandable relief over the end of the Great War, which concluded the same day the Ship of Sorrows arrived, carrying the bodies.
The entire region was impacted by the tragedy, from Seattle to Whitehorse and into the reaches of Alaska, and the injury was felt acutely for generations. A century later, we take the time to commemorate the suffering, the grief, and the brave response made to the tragedy.
A centennial commemoration ceremony will be held at 5:00 on October 25th in the atrium of the Alaska State Library, Archives and Museum.