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Alaska's Titanic

More has been written about the Titanic than any other vessel in history. The image of the handsome ship, almost 900 feet long, poised on its bow minutes before it disappeared beneath the Atlantic has become iconic.

Walter Lord was not suffering from hyperbole when he titled his best-seller “A Night to Remember.” We can’t stop remembering — and remembering and remembering — the 1,500 men, women and children who died that night, and the 700 others who survived.

Less remembered is the shipwreck that produced the largest loss of life at sea in Alaska history, the wreck of the 245-foot Sophia. On Oct. 29, 1918, the Sophia, making its way from Skagway to Vancouver, became grounded on Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal. A few hours later, almost 350 people drowned. Unlike the Titanic, not a passenger or crew member survived. Only a dog reached shore.

Recently, thanks to my friend Don Mitchell, I have had the opportunity to read copies of a variety of letters and documents composed by Peter McCaskie, an Alaska miner who died on the Sophia. The originals are in the possession of a member of the McCaskie family back East.

Peter McCaskie was well known throughout the territory, had been an early stampeder. Like most miners, he understood the privations of the miner’s life as well, if not better than, the joys of success. I became interested in him because he mined near Rampart before 1910 and knew some of the Rampart miners I have written about.

McCaskie wrote well. He was clear, direct and observant. A 21st century reader not only learns about him but the world he inhabited.

Yet there’s a sense in which McCaskie’s writing is unsettling. The reader knows how his story ends — he drowns in the waters of Lynn Canal — and it is almost as if, for the reader, he is spending his life hurtling toward his destiny. This gives the reader the sense McCaskie’s life is futile because his fate is inexorable.

McCaskie himself experienced no such inexorability. He lived in the present, and if he was aware of his own mortality, he didn’t see himself on a collision course with Vanderbilt Reef.

This should be a reminder that living a life and telling the story of a life are not the same thing. Those who died on the Titanic and the Sophia were living. Now they are history, art, film — or, more generically, literature. When they died, they left the present and became part of a story they could not have imagined when they set sail.