Alaska Life

Only Tommy the dog survived: The story of Alaska’s most deadly maritime disaster, the 1918 sinking of the Princess Sophia

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

The frigid sea lapped at the shores of Tee Harbor, about 15 miles northwest of Juneau. At first, there was just the suggestion of movement, a small wake directed toward the shore. As it approached, details came into focus. Whatever it was, it was covered in oil. It was a dog, starved and exhausted. Half-crazed from fear, it dragged itself onto the beach and pulled away from the water as quickly as it could. Beneath the crud, it had white fur with dark, liver-colored spots. Alaskans across the territory soon learned about the dog, whose name was later revealed as Tommy. For Tommy was the sole survivor from the wreck of the SS Princess Sophia in 1918, the deadliest maritime disaster in Alaska history.

For many reasons, 1918 was a horrible year for Alaska. The promise of the various gold rushes, from Juneau to the Cook Inlet to the Klondike to Nome to Fairbanks to Iditarod, had long since faded. Fortune hunters abandoned the territory by the thousands. The 1917 American entry to World War I drained more of the populace away, raised the costs in Alaska for essential supplies and depleted federal funding for the territory. The fragile economy and development of Alaska were nearly shattered.

The global influenza pandemic, popularly known as the Spanish influenza, also reached Alaska in 1918. Alaska was one of the areas of the world hardest hit. From 1918 to 1919, roughly half of all Alaska deaths were due to influenza. Only 10% of the residents survived at Brevig Mission, near Nome. Due to outmigration and high death rates, Alaska’s population declined by 14.5% from 1910 to 1920. Amid these horrors was the sinking of the Princess Sophia.

The Princess Sophia was a 245-foot-long, 44-foot-wide steamship ordered by the Canadian Pacific Railway Coastal Service in 1911. It was the newest addition to their princess fleet, a collection of smaller ocean liners, all with “princess” in their names. Other notable ships in the fleet included the Princess Louisa, Princess Adelaide and Princess May. The Princess Sophia was built in Scotland and launched in 1911, with its maiden voyage a year later after outfitting. It and two sister ships then sailed from Scotland around Cape Horn and north along the west coast of the Americas. Once the steamer reached its new home base in British Columbia, it was converted from coal-burning to oil. At a peak speed of around 13 knots, she was somewhat slow but durable, capable of handling the frequent storms of the Pacific Northwest.

As launched, the steamship was licensed for 250 passengers, though easily obtained permissions allowed her to carry more, and her maximum capacity was twice that. The highest-quality staterooms included two berths, running water, a sink and electric lights. Outside the sleeping accommodations, there was an observation room and a separate smoking room with a staffed bar, both finished in maple. The central social location on board was the expansive dining saloon that could seat more than 100 people. The saloon was finished in rich mahogany with maple panels. As the Victoria Daily Colonist noted, “the whole vessel shows that nothing has been left undone to provide for the comfort of the traveler.”

The steamer ran up and down the coast without notoriety for most of its relatively brief existence. No ship in Alaska during that era was without accidents, given the fog, wind, storms, few navigational aids, questionable charts, strong tides and numerous submerged hazards. However, the Princess Sophia successfully avoided the worst of them for seven years. In April 1913, she hit a reef at Sentinel Island near Juneau but did not breach the bulkhead and was able to continue the journey. She similarly survived beaching during a January 1914 snowstorm and a September 1918 collision with another vessel.


With some breaks caused by World War I, the Princess Sophia ran a regular route between Vancouver and Skagway beginning in 1913. On Oct. 19, 1918, the steamer left Vancouver and turned north. While diminished from its gold rush peak, Skagway remained a key transportation hub for travelers from Yukon and Alaska to points south. The late fall-early winter timing meant a larger-than-average crowd of passengers eager to escape to warmer climes. Ice had already closed the Yukon River for the season, removing one alternative route out of the Klondike and Interior Alaska.

On Oct. 23, 1918, at 10:10 p.m., the steamer pulled out of Skagway with Juneau as the next planned destination. About an hour later, the weather turned rough, a blinding snowstorm combined with heavy winds. At the helm was Capt. Leonard Locke, a veteran of the princess fleet. He was neither a fearless navigator from legend nor a dunce carried upwards by luck. Instead, he was somewhere in that broad range in between, a man who did his job and maybe little more.

Some people, by their choices and behavior, leave outsized footprints upon the historical record. Others do not. Capt. Locke was the latter. There are no grand, colorful anecdotes about him. He was described as “fastidious and punctilious,” which are common and possibly even admirable traits in a ship’s captain. Some crew members considered him vain, pointing out that he wore a toupee to hide his baldness. One shipmate later testified that the married Locke spent much of his time on board entertaining female passengers privately in his cabin. Vain philanderers are perhaps even more common than fastidious captains.

On the fateful night, Capt. Locke kept the ship running at around 11-12 knots despite the poor visibility. Company policy and best practices suggested that he should have reduced the speed to about 7 knots. The Princess Sophia was late in leaving Skagway, and he conceivably was trying to keep as close to the schedule as possible. In the rush, the Princess Sophia veered off course in the Lynn Canal, steaming straight down the middle when it should have been in the deeper water on the side.

At about 2:10 a.m., the steamer struck the Vanderbilt Reef, a rocky outcropping northwest of Juneau nearly entirely covered by water. A few passengers panicked, and one woman ostentatiously changed into a black dress, but there was initially little to worry about. Most importantly, the hull was not leaking, and they were able to send a distress call to Juneau. Capt. Locke told the passengers the ship would float free from the rocks at high tide.

The steamship remained in place for the rest of the day, Oct. 24. High tide that morning failed to lift the ship free. Though several ships answered the call for help, they could not approach. Rather than abating, the storm had, if anything, worsened. The same swells and rocks that battered the Princess Sophia threatened to wreck them as well.

The morale among the passengers varied. Some were afraid, some were hopeful, and some simply felt inconvenienced by the delay. Some of them penned letters, of which at least two were later recovered. Auris McQueen was still hopeful when he wrote, “(we) have run out soft sugar. But the pipe is fixed so we are getting heat and lights now, and we still have lump sugar and water for drinking.”

John “Jack” Maskell was prepared for the worst in a letter to his fiancé later published around the world. He wrote, “I am writing this my dear girl while the boat is in grave danger. We struck a rock last night which threw many from their berths, women rushed out in their night attire, some were crying, some too weak to move, but the lifeboats were swung out in all readiness but owing to the storm would be madness to launch until there was no hope for the ship.”

He continued, “The boat might go to pieces, for the force of the waves are terrible, making awful noises on the side of the boat, which has quite a list to port. No one is allowed to sleep, but believe me dear Dorrie it might have been much worse. Just hear there is a big steamer coming.” The end of the letter contained his will, which stated, “My insurance, finances, and property I leave to my wife (who was to be) Miss Dorothy Burgess.”

The storm continued, and the day rolled over into the next. That afternoon, the combination of wind and tides briefly lifted the stern. The ship spun and fell against the rocks, which gouged and ripped apart the hull. After nearly 40 hours perched upon the reef, the steamer began to take on water.

Amid the storm, none of the ships in the area witnessed the Princess Sophia’s final moments. At 5:20 p.m., Oct. 25, wireless operator David Robinson sent, “For God’s sake, hurry, the water is coming into my room.” A lighthouse tender replied, “We are coming. Save your batteries.” Robinson then sent the last message from the doomed steamer, “Alright, I will. You talk to me, so I know you are coming.”

Within a half hour to an hour, everyone on board, except for Tommy the dog, was dead. Some were trapped on the boat and drowned. Some made it to the lifeboats, which were swamped by the waves or smashed against the rocks. Others tried to swim for it in the icy water, with and without life preservers. When full, the steamer carried 2,900 barrels of oil, which spilled out of the wreck and choked those trying to escape. Many of the watches found on the bodies registered times around 5:50 p.m., when the seawater or oil stopped them.

No one knows exactly how many people died that day. Passenger and crew lists were not exact; they included some who had not boarded and excluded some who had. Some of the recovered bodies were never identified. After decades of research, the best estimates suggest there were between 364 to 368 on board.

The allure of Alaska and the Yukon attracted fortune hunters from across the globe, and the passengers of the Princess Sophia were representatively diverse. Political borders have shifted in the century since, extremely so in some regions. The countries of origin for the deceased included what is now Canada, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, Syria and the United States.

The Canadian Pacific Railway offered a reward of $50, more than $900 in 2023 money, for every recovered body, but the grisly work took over a year. In October 1919, a year after the wreck, the remains of Joseph Santine washed ashore at Mud Bay near Haines. By then, he was a skeleton wrapped in clothes, though still in possession of his bankbook and naturalization papers. Alan Winchell hired his own salvage company to recover his wife. Other victims were washed away and never found.

Out of grief and horror, some accused Capt. Locke of failing in his duty, that the passengers and crew could have been taken off the ship during the long day of Oct. 24. Since he died with everyone else, Locke could not respond to his critics. The ship’s log was never found. The court battles lasted more than a decade, but all official inquiries exonerated the crew.

[A Gambell dog walked 166 miles across sea ice to Wales and made it home safely, save for 2 big bite marks]


Of the five dogs, a horse and other animals aboard the steamship, only Tommy survived. He swam 15 miles south to Tee Harbor, then made his way around to Auke Bay. Two days after the disaster, locals found him nearly frozen, starved and still covered in oil. Newspapers at the time identified him as an English setter belonging to James and Louisa Alexander. A century later, newly discovered evidence suggested he was, in fact, a Chesapeake Bay retriever, a Chessie. As with many Princess Sophia details, no one will ever know for sure. However, Chessies are renowned swimmers due to their waterproof coats and webbed paws, which might be how Tommy managed to survive where others did not.

Cannery workers at Auke Bay adopted Tommy for a while, but the dog had developed a severe fear of the water. According to an Alaska Daily Empire article, when crossing a footbridge, Tommy would “crawl across, with its head lowered between its fore paws, and look neither to the left nor right.” Both Alexanders died on the steamer, but Tommy was eventually returned to relatives in the Vancouver area.

Key sources:

Coates, Ken, and Bill Morrison. The Sinking of the Princes Sophia: Taking the North Down with Her. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990.

“Long Search is Rewarded for Body of Wife.” (Juneau) Alaska Daily Empire, July 11, 1919, 6.

“Only Survivor of Sophia is a Dog.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 3, 1919, 5.

“Only Survivor of Sophia is Identified.” (Juneau) Alaska Daily Empire, March 14, 1919, 2.

“Short Stories About Alaska Occurrences.” Cordova Daily Times, October 28, 1919, 2.


Thompson, Judy, and David R. Leverton. Those Who Perished: SS Princess Sophia, the Unknown Story of the Largest Shipwreck Disaster Along the Pacific Northwest Coast. Victoria, BC: Maritime Museum of British Columbia Society, 2018.

“Witnesses in Princess Sophia Case Declare Vessel Not Properly Manned.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 27, 1921, 1.

David Reamer | Histories of Alaska

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.