The West Coast’s Worst Disaster

Only a brown-and-whlte setter survived the tragedy of the Princess Sophia, so no one knows what happened in those last terrible hours when the CPR steamer slipped off Vanderbilt Reef and took three hundred and forty-three people to death in icy Alaskan waters

JIM NESBITT October 15 1951

The West Coast’s Worst Disaster

Only a brown-and-whlte setter survived the tragedy of the Princess Sophia, so no one knows what happened in those last terrible hours when the CPR steamer slipped off Vanderbilt Reef and took three hundred and forty-three people to death in icy Alaskan waters

JIM NESBITT October 15 1951

The West Coast’s Worst Disaster

Only a brown-and-whlte setter survived the tragedy of the Princess Sophia, so no one knows what happened in those last terrible hours when the CPR steamer slipped off Vanderbilt Reef and took three hundred and forty-three people to death in icy Alaskan waters


THE WIND was moaning up Alaska’s long stately Lynn Canal and flurries of snow were whipping the greatcoats of the crowd knotted together on Skagway’s plank wharf the night the Princess Sophia left on her last voyage. She hugged the dock, a beacon of warm light in the fresh blizzard, jammed from cabih to steerage with three hundred and forty-three persons going “outside” for the winter. For the north was emptying itself at the end of another season. The stern-wheelers which ply the grey Yukon river were up on the beach at Whitehorse after the final voyage of the year. The last tourists had been trucked out to Mendenhall

Glacier and whisked past the Trail of ’98. The

last yellow leaves had fled from the birches and aspens. The first snow was on the caribou moss and the first ice was drifting in the river. And, like the geese who had gone before them in swift wavering V’s, the old northern hands were going south. It was late October 1918. On the bridge Capt. Louis P. Locke, the Sophia’s sixty-five-year-old Nova Scotia-born skipper, pulled the ship’s whistle for the fifteenminute signal. All his life he had been on the sea. He had shipped as a boy from Halifax in his father’s windjammers, served as apprentice in steam between New York and England, mastered the Princess Alice with the Duke of Connaught, then Governor-General of Canada, aboard. Soon he would be due for retirement. Now he looked up at the towering cliffs of Skagway where a huge painted replica of Soapy Smith’s skull grinned whitely down on the very wharf where the gold-rush gangster had been shot down in the bad old days. It was almost 10 p.m. Last-minute passengers were jostling

departing guests on the crowded gangway. On the saloon deck the ship’s orchestra was playing. As the ice-coated mooring lines splashed into the sea the twenty-three-hundred-ton ship, flying the checkered flag of the Canadian Pacific, backed out of the dock and turned her prow into the blackness. The farewell crowd trudged the half mile back across the wooden causeway to the ghost town of Skagway, to the Golden North Hotel and the Nugget and Ma Pullen’s famous boardinghouse. CPR agent L. H. Johnston went back to his office and wired Capt. J. W. Troup, manager of the CPR’s coast service in Victoria: “Sophia south, 10 p.m., 268 passengers, 24 horses, 5 tons freight.” She was an ordinary enough ship, Princess Sophia. But along the quiet inland passage that flanks the glacier-streaked coastline of the

Alaskan panhandle her name still evokes a shudder. No ship will ever be called Sophia again.

Everyone on board, it seemed, knew everyone else. There was Jack Chisolm, a rugged Klondyke logging operator, and his pretty wife, and Mr. and Mrs. J. A. Sehgers who ran the Yukonia Hotel on Front Street—the old “Dance-Hall Row” of Dawson City. There was Edward S. Ironside, collector of customs at Dawson, with his ageing mother who had gone north that summer to visit him. Now he would spend Christmas with his family at Owen Sound, Ont., for the first time in years. There was William O’Brien, member of the Yukon Council, with his wife and five children, and big powerful William Scouse of Seattle who was credited with hoisting the Continued on page 51

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first bucket of fabulously rich gold gravel at Eldorado Creek twenty years before.

Eighty of the passengers were steamboat men who during the summer took the little white stern-wheelers through the rapids and shoals and broad stretches of the great romantic river which the Indians named Yukon. There was Capt. C. J. Rloomquist, master of the Dawson, which was to crack up in Rink Rapids six years later, and Arthur Lewis, purser of the Casca, which was destined to smash against the Dawson’s sunken hulk a decade after that. There was Capt. John Green, master of the steamer Yukon, which followed the serpentine twists of its namesake river from Dawson City to Fairbanks, Alaska.

Mrs. Charles Cousins of Victoria had gone north for the summer to visit her husband and planned to return with him. Rut business kept him in the north; she was sailing alone.

Capt. James Alexander, forty-one, big handsome veteran of the Dragoon Guards, a galloper for Sir John French in the South African War, had plans of his own. He had spent a decade developing the famous Engineer Mine near Atlin, R.C. Now he was planning to sell and it was common gossip he could get more than two million dollars for it. He planned to buy an island in the Gulf of Georgia, build a hunting lodge, get a yacht and open a big mansion in Vancouver to introduce his wife to society.

Old Charlie Queen, a wealthy bachelor, was heading for Vancouver, where he’d been alderman and hotelkeeper. He spent his summers mining claims on Spruce Creek, his winters talking to friends on every street corner in Vancouver. He knew everyone in town.

Murray Eads and his wife prepared for bed. Mrs. Eads put a linen bag filled with five thousand dollars in jewels under his pillow. Their prosperous Royal Alexandra Hotel in Dawson City had made them rich. They hadn’t been outside since the gold-rush days. Back in 1901 they’d booked on the steamer Islander but changed their minds at the last minute. The Islander went down, with scores lost. Ever since, the Eads had been fearful of shipwreck. So they stayed on in the Yukon. Now that they were growing old they had stifled their fears and were sailing to visit relatives. They had changed their wills, which had been in favor of each other—now they were made out to the next-of-kin. If they drowned together there would be no long court cases.

Down in the crew quarters there were life and excitement. Fred Harvey, a steward, told the boys that this was one year he’d spend Christmas with his wife and family. It would be the first time in years, for he was just back from France where he’d been wounded. Two fifteen-year-olds, Lionel Olsen and

Frank Burke, were stewards too. They signed on the Sophia when a flu epidemic closed their Vancouver school. They were new to the sea and excited by it.

It was a happy ship that steamed at full speed through the Alaskan night of Oct. 22-23 toward the wicked hidden rock „thM-bears Thé innocent "name of Vanderbilt Reef.

She hit with a grinding shudder. The whole ship trembled like a woman in terror. People were hurled from their bunks. Dishes smashed in the galley. Passengers threw on clothes, wrapped blankets around themselves, peered through portholes and scrambled over each other to reach the decks. There was nothing to be seen but blackness. Sophia, listing at a dizzy angle, lay still. Through the gale, screaming in the rigging, officers shouted at one another that the ship was aground.

Locke checked his charts and sent officers to examine the ship’s bottom. She was not holed. The captain decided there was no immediate danger. He told the passengers to go back to sleep; they were quite safe.

Unable to Transfer Passengers

Daylight found a covey of small craft hovering about the stricken ship. The storm had somewhat abated. At 9.11 a.m. Capt. Locke sent his first wireless message to Capt. Troup in Victoria: “Princess Sophia ran on Vanderbilt Reef at 3 a.m. Ship not taking water. Unable to back off at high water. Ship pounded. Assistance on way from Juneau.”

First to reach Sophia was the U. S. steamer Cedar under Capt. Leadbetter. Locke and Leadbetter shouted through megaphones.

“What about the passengers?” asked Leadbetter.

Locke shouted back: “We’re all

right. The ship’s safe. We’ll wait till the gale moderates. It’s too dangerous now.”

Sophia was wedged high in a V-shaped crevice in the reef. Her stern hung over the white-capped waters, which broke against her sides. The passengers seemed happy enough. Cedar’s crew could hear the piano and there was singing. Passengers could be seen on deck, quite calm. No one shouted to the Cedar except Capt. Locke.

At 4.32 p.m. Oct. 24 Locke wirelessed Troup: “Sophia still fast on reef;

resting safely, strong northerly wind; unable to transfer passengers until wind moderates, or perhaps at high water; steamer and two gasboats standing by.”

Troup wirelessed back: “Report

what assistance you have secured, also condition. Do you think she will come off next high water? Advise disposition passengers.”

“I Make This, My Last Will . . .”

The dusk of a new night closed in. Snow came again in swirling flurries. Visibility was very poor. Pte. Auris W. McQueen, of the U.S. Signal Corps, wrote his mother: “It’s storming now—about a fifty-mile wind—and we can only see a couple of hundred yards on account of snow and spray. We were going along at full speed when she hit a rock and for a while there was some excitement, but no panic. Two women fainted and one got herself into a black evening dress and didn’t worry about who saw her putting it on. Some of the men kept life preservers on for an hour or so and seemed to think there was no chance for us. The captain was afraid she would turn turtle -but her bow slipped until she settled into a

groove, well supported forward on both sides, and now she’s on the rock clear back to the middle and can’t get off.”

James Maskell, a young Englishman, did some writing too: “We struck the reef in a blinding snowstorm. A number of passengers were thrown out of their berths and great excitement prevailed. Boats were made ready to lower when information was received that the boat was not taking water. The passengers became quiet. Owing to the storm the boats were not lowered. This morning we are surrounded by a number of small boats, but it is too rough to transfer the passengers. In the realism that we are surrounded by grave danger, I make this, my last will . . .”

At 11.29 p.m. Oct. 24, Locke wirelessed Troup: “Ship sitting firmly on reef, unable to transfer passengers on account of strong northwest sea; ship pounding heavily; cannot get off without salvage gear.”

Weather Getting Worse

Princess Sophia and her passengers got through another night on Vanderbilt Reef while the seas pounded against the vessel’s sides.

At daylight the next morning Locke wirelessed Troup: “Steamer Cedar

and three gasboats standing by, unable to take off passengers account strong northerly gale and big sea running; ship hard and fast, with bottom badly damaged but not making water. Unable to back off reef; main steam pipe broken; disposition of passengers normal.”

The wind came up again after daylight. The snow grew thicker. The gasboat Estebeth under Capt. Davis got within f.fty feet of the Princess Sophia. Davis and Locke talked through megaphones.

“Do you think the weather is going down?” shouted Locke.

“Hell, no. More likely going up,” Davis roared back

The weather was not too bad when Davis arrived. He saw a Sophia lifeboat in the water. He saw it raised to the deck and an hour later lowered again. Four men in the boat were examining Sophia’s bottom. The boat was rowed clear round the Sophia.

The passengers somehow managed to put in the daylight hours of Oct. 25, cheered by the vessels standing by. Darkness closed in early over the Lynn Canal that day. The wind increased and snow came thick. The rescue vessels scurried for shelter. Sophia was left alone on the reef, angry seas pounding her weakening hull, the rocks eating more and more into her bulkheads.

Cedar waited in a quiet cove not many miles away. Capt. Leadbetter Continued on page 54

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Continued from page 52 was worried. Perhaps the storm would go down. Perhaps Capt. Locke would allow his passengers off at daylight. At 5 p.m. Cedar picked up this wireless message: “We are foundering on reef. For God’s sake come and save us.”

Cedar left her cove and wirelessed back: “Coming ful]_apeed buUcannot JÊÊ©B-aeCÜürit thick snow and heavy seas.” Sophia replied: “All right, but for God’s sake hurry. Water coming into room.”

Cedar could not make it. Her skipper couldn’t see the bow of his own vessel. He had to return to shelter. Half an hour later another message came from Sophia: “Just in time to say good-by. We are foundering.” It was the last word the world heard.

Next day, Oct. 26, Vancouver Province editor Roy Brown scored a notable scoop when, on a tip from a CPR telegraph operator, he gave the world the first news of the tragedy. Three hours later—at 5 p.m.—the CPR broke its own silence with a terse message from its head office in Montreal: “The President regrets to announce the loss of the company’s steamer Princess Sophia with all passengers and crew.”

Alaska and the Yukon were shocked and plunged into grief. Flags flew at half-mast for days. There was hardly a family in Dawson City that wasn’t touched. Victoria, Vancouver and Seattle talked of little else. The war news became secondary.

It was the worst shipping disaster in Pacific Coast history. There had been heavy loss of life before—but never anything like this—Three hundred and forty-three people gone, not a soul saved. Rumors flew thick and fast— there had been survivors. But it was false news. The only survivor was a brown-and-white English setter that arrived at Tee Harbor two days after the disaster, his fur greasy with oil. The animal was so afraid of water that at one point, when crossing a creek on a footbridge, he kept his head between his paws and crawled across.

No one will ever know what happened in those last terrible hours. Passengers’ watches stopped between five and seven p.m. The ship apparently went quickly, once she started to break up. It’s believed she split in two and the stern plunged off the rock to the bottom. The bow portion was ground against the rock and went into the sea the other side of the reef. When Cedar arrived at daylight Oct. 26 the tip of the forward mast was showing. Lifeboats had not been lowered; there was no time. Besides, the sickening list of Sophia had made it impossible to work the davits.

More than three hundred coffins were rushed north from Seattle. The bodies found were frozen solid and covered with oil from Sophia’s fuel tanks. The Princess Alice, sent north to rescue Sophia passengers, returned to Vancouver a floating hearse, her flag at half-staff.

The flu raging in Vancouver saved some people from death in Sophia. They had had to cancel reservations because of illness. This caused a confusion of names. Some names were published as being lost when their owners weren’t aboard at all. All day long the phone rang in the W. D. Geohegan home in Vancouver. He answered the phone himself to explain that, though listed as lost, he had actually signed off the crew the previous trip.

For several days small boats looked for bodies. One Sophia passenger swam fifteen miles and was found dead in sitting position on a beach, his coat over his head. Frank Gosse, Sophia’s second mate, may have reached shore alive as footprints were seen in the sand near his frozen body.

A Negro woman’s body was found with eighty thousand dollars in bills sewed into her clothing. In the belt around the waist of another was forty thousand dollars in bills and gold dust. In a linen bag tied to the neck of another woman was a rich hoard of diamonds and rubies.

A number of bodies were lashed to lifeboats. William O’Brien was found with his arms locked tight around the frozen body of one of his boys.

It took the armistice of Nov. 11 to finally knock the Princess Sophia tragedy from the front pages. Long litigation followed. For years lawyers fought for damages for next-of-kin of Sophia dead. Old seadogs still argue whether Capt. Locke took a right course.

Governor Thomas Riggs of Alaska said: “I have examined the log of the steamer Cedar . . . and ... I am convinced no blame can be attached to Capt. Locke. Had the transfer taken place and had loss of life accompanied it Capt. Locke would have been blamed. The master of the steamer Cedar states that he would have acted as Capt. Locke did. It seemed impossible Sophia could have moved from the cradle of rock in which she rested.”

In direct contradiction to this a Juneau resident, Paul Graham, who had been on one of the rescue boats, said: “Every man, woman and child could have been saved. I believe I o'ould have taken them off in a rowboat. We were told that if the rescue boats had been Canadian or British they would have been allowed to take the passengers, but they were American and that settled it with Capt. Locke.”

There were many formal enquiries. Capt. Davis of the Estebeth testified at one: “You could have operated between the Princess Sophia and the Estebeth in a Peterborough canoe.” Capt. Cyril D. Neroutsos, marine superintendent of the B.C. Coast Service, asked his opinion of Locke running Sophia full speed in a snowstorm, answered with one word: “Unwise.”

Ottawa appointed a royal commission, which reported: “The conclusion is . . . the ship was lost through peril of the seas. As to why passengers were not landed is a matter of conjecture ... we find it was not unreasonable for Capt. Locke not to land his passengers.”

Immediately after the disaster the CPR put in a new order that the first duty of a ship’s captain after stranding was to get his passengers ashore.

By 1933 claims against the company had reached the Supreme Court of the United States. In the end the courts found no liability and as a result of this decision no passenger claims were paid. *