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.
On Oct. 24, 1918, the steamship Princess Sophia struck and stuck upon the Vanderbilt Reef northwest of Juneau. For 39 hours, the ship sat there, perched on the precipice of its demise, before storm and tides lifted, dragged, and dropped the steamer on the rocks. Gouged and falling apart, the ship sank beneath the water around 5:50 p.m. on Oct. 25. That was the time noted on the victims’ watches when seawater or oil stopped them.
The sinking of the Princess Sophia is the deadliest maritime disaster in Alaska history. Every living thing on the Sophia, except a single dog, died. No one knows precisely how many people died that day. Passenger and crew lists were not exact, and some recovered bodies were never identified. After decades of research, the best estimates suggest that 364 to 368 people were on board.
The story of the wreck, its immediate context and causes, has been told many times. Less well-known is the gory aftermath, including the corpses, photo ops, and racism in the official response. Amid those tangled narratives of the aftermath, one story stands out. One man was willing to shatter his fortune and health to keep the last promise to his beloved, lost wife.
The last broadcast from the Princess Sophia came at 5:20 p.m. as the ship was rapidly sinking. 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 his last message, “Alright, I will. You talk to me, so I know you are coming.”
In its last moments, the ship was surrounded by a snowstorm, ice, rocks, frigid water, and a thick blanket of oil released from its fuel bunkers. As the ship flooded, some tried for the lifeboats, others tried to swim with and without life preservers, and others still remained in their rooms and grimly accepted their fate. The pervasive oil choked those who reached the water. When the first bodies were recovered, most of the victims were found to have died from ingesting oil.
Due to the snowstorm, which had contributed to the wreck, nearby ships could not observe the Princess Sophia’s last moments. Early the next day, boats in the area drifted back to the site, hoping to rescue survivors or at least gawk at what they assumed would be a macabre scene. Through the long stormy night, from captain to greenest sailor, they had imagined a horror, frozen bodies amid broken shards of a steamship, a mangled nightmare landscape dusted with snow.
Instead, they arrived and saw almost nothing. No survivors were clinging to wreckage. There was also no wreckage, no corpses floating past, no oil slick. Wind, waves, and currents had already shifted the debris and bodies away from the wreck site. The only hint that anything had happened, that a boat with nearly 400 people had been just there, was a bit of mast sticking out of the water.
These were sailors on ships, many of them experienced veterans of the Inside Passage. While they lacked specifics on the Sophia’s final demise, they did possess some understanding of what the outcomes would have been possible for those aboard the doomed steamer.
A few days later, a sailor wrote: “We were simply dumbfounded to see no sign of the Sophia, except fifteen or twenty feet of one of her masts sticking out of the water, close to the buoy. Our feelings were hardly describable. It seemed to strike us numb and cold, so that we could scarcely credit the evidence of our own eyes. It was incredible.”
Yet, not all visitors to the site were as humbled by the experience. Some sightseers made the most of the opportunity. They took turns climbing onto the surviving mast, needing that personal photograph to prove they had stood where hundreds had died.
The death of nearly 400 people meant there was suddenly a hunt for nearly 400 corpses, a need to provide closure to families and friends. The Canadian Pacific Railway — the Princess Sophia had been part of its princess fleet — offered a reward of $50, more than $900 in 2023 dollars, for every recovered body, but the grim work took time. In October 1919, a year after the wreck, the remains of passenger Joseph Santine washed ashore near Haines. By then, he was a skeleton wrapped in clothes, though still in possession of his bankbook and naturalization papers. He had been on his way home to finally ready to marry his love, Mary Brown of Seattle.
The Sophia sank on a Friday. By Saturday, a flotilla of local ships scoured the inlets, island, and beaches. By the end of Sunday, 160 bodies had been found. By Nov. 1, about 180 bodies had been recovered, still only half the total passengers and crew.
A repeated fear at the time, and one without even the slightest bit of evidence, was looting by Alaska Natives. In a letter, Gov. Thomas Riggs wrote, “We were keeping track ... that there was no pilfering by Indians.” Deputy Collector of Customs C. D. Garfield warned that all Alaska Natives in the search area were “to leave adjacent waters immediately and not return under severe penalties.”
Before that weekend was over, there was already a procedure in place in Juneau. Bodies were brought in, recorded, and checked for any identifying possessions. Then, a group of volunteers stripped and cleaned the bodies. Men handled the adult male corpses, and women took the women and children. Oil covered most of the bodies. Eroded by elements and animals, they no longer looked like people. As one participant said, the corpses “could not be recognized as human bodies at all. They looked more like a huge liver.” Gasoline was needed to clear the oil from the bodies before they could be embalmed.
Naturally, there were some more mundane, practical issues. Two days after the wreck, there were no more coffins available in Juneau, and embalming fluid ran out soon after. Boxes of deceased filled warehouses. The influenza pandemic, popularly known as the Spanish flu, also struck Juneau at this time. On Oct. 29, the mayor, city health officer, and health board chairmen announced that Juneau was under quarantine. All residents were to avoid the docks when a ship was in. All public gatherings were banned, including schools and churches. A mask mandate with a $21 fine followed on Nov. 13.
John Pugh, a customs collector, was the only known Juneau resident to die on the Sophia. On the day of his funeral, banks closed, and flags were hung at half-mast. The locals really liked him. While the town would have turned out en masse for his funeral, only Masons were allowed to attend due to the influenza edict.
Almost everyone in Southeast Alaska would have known someone on the Sophia if not many individuals. The ship and its crew were regular visitors, and its passengers included prominent Alaskans like Walter Harper, who summited Denali in 1913. As Gov. Riggs wrote, “I feel the disaster probably as much as any many in Alaska as there were on board fully fifty people with whom I was acquainted, many of them intimately, and whom I regarded with deep affection.”
While divers worked the icy waters, the Princess Alice left Juneau on Nov. 9 carrying 156 bodies, most bound for Vancouver and Victoria. In recognition of its somber cargo, no whistles were blown, and it pulled away from the dock with as little noise as possible. From this point, the recovery of bodies continued in dribs and drabs, a corpse washed onto a beach here, a sudden underwater discovery there. Some bodies were never recovered and, again, given the uncertain nature of the crew and passenger list, no one can be sure as to who might have been missed. Four bodies were never identified, three buried in Vancouver and the last in Juneau.
By December 1918, Canadian Pacific Railway management considered the recovery process concluded. The bounties for bodies continued, but company leadership believed, not entirely without cause, that the remaining dead must have been carried out to sea. However, still among the missing was Ilene Winchell, a situation her husband could not endure, would not allow to endure.
Albert Winchell was born in 1873, the son of German immigrants. And like so very many, he was lured to Alaska by golden prospects. In 1907, he was the president of a miner’s union in Valdez. Three years later, he was living in Seward. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Flat as part of the Iditarod gold rush, sometimes called the last gold rush in Alaska, or at least the last major one. During its 1910 to 1912 peak, around 10,000 fortune hunters piled into the region.
Unlike most stampeders, the Winchells prospered in their new domain. He was not exactly nouveau riche but was certainly comfortable and prominent. In 1914, the Seward Daily Gateway described him as “one of the old timers on Kenai peninsula and an owner of some valuable property above Susitna Station.” By 1918, long after most would-be prospectors had departed, he and his wife were still ensconced in Flat.
For all his modest fortune, land, and minor renown, Albert valued nothing more than his wife, Ilene, whose health had been faltering of late. That fall, with the dreaded winter approaching, they decided that Ilene would spend the season blanketed by the warmer weather of California. Albert would stay in Alaska and mind the homestead.
An aside, different sources variably spelled the family name as Winschell, Winschel, Winchel, and Winchell. Similarly, Ilene was occasionally Aileen. However, Winchell and Ilene are how the names were predominantly published in Alaska, including on her death certificate, so those spellings are used here.
Before she left, Ilene was overwhelmed with a vague, foreboding premonition that something terrible would happen to her on the journey south. So, before she set out, she made Albert promise, made him swear that if anything happened to her, he would ensure she was buried next to her mother, also in California. Then, she was off for her first-class cabin on the Princess Sophia.
When Albert heard the news of the disaster, he waited until it was cold enough, and the ground firm enough, for him to walk several hundred miles to Anchorage and take his own steamer to Juneau, where he arrived in December. The sheer tragedy of the Princess Sophia disaster can overwhelm smaller stories, and the story of the Winchells is so dramatic in its entirety that this walk is the smallest detail of a far larger tale. Apart from its admittedly inescapable context, the walk might have been the subject of its own stories, as with Emil Anderson’s 20-day hike across the upper Alaska Peninsula in 1916 to turn himself into prison.
If the Canadian Pacific Railway was not going to send more divers to investigate the wreck — and they were not — then Albert Winchell would hire his own. On Dec. 21, Albert and a local diver, Selmer Jacobson, made their first of five visits to the Vanderbilt Reef. And on Jacobson’s first dive, he saw four bodies, recovering one. Because of Ilene’s illness, she was given her own stateroom on the steamship. Jacobson located that cabin and was able to observe two women within but could not reach them. On Jacobson’s last visit to the site with Albert, the diver was able to remove rings from one of the women, but they did not belong to Ilene.
Jacobson made no more dives at the Princess Sophia site due to the risky nature of the work. Diving in winter, with the level of technology available in Alaska then, was hazardous work. The floating ice continually threatened to clip the hose, and Jacobson quit after his breath froze into his breathing apparatus, blocking the air passage. As soon as he could, Albert hired another diver out of Seattle.
Whether shamed into action by Albert or not, by March 1919 the Canadian Pacific Railway was again sending divers to re-examine the wreckage. On July 2 alone, 21 bodies were brought into Juneau directly from the wreckage of the Princess Sophia. While the lot did not include Ilene, her handbag was discovered in the coat pocket of a recovered man, a little mystery with no answer.
Finally, on July 10, 1919, six and a half months after Albert began his search, Ilene was recovered, along with four other bodies. As it turned out, she had spent her last moments not in a stateroom but with several others on the ship’s saloon deck. The Whitehorse Weekly Star declared: “There are men who have torn the writing of solemn pledges to shreds and drenched the shreds in blood and called it nothing. There are men who have been willing to spend life itself to keep good a promise made. Of the latter is Al Winchell.”
The discovery was bittersweet news for Albert. There had been months to grieve before he was suddenly confronted with the reality of his loss in the most gruesome manner possible. Impolite as it may be to mention, there is a significant difference between a body found the day after a wreck and one found seven and a half months later.
Moreover, Albert had spent himself in the endeavor: financially, physically, and emotionally. Divers were not cheap, and the costs consumed his savings. When his liquid assets were tapped dry, he borrowed money. He could have stayed on land but instead accompanied every trip to the site, hoping for a different result each time. Over the months, he aged visibly, and his once robust energy dwindled. Everything he possessed had gone into keeping his word.
The Dawson Daily News wrote, “Winchell is an old man now. His friends say that he has grown old since the Princess Sophia went down. He lives with but one thought and one end and that is expressed in the line of a letter he wrote a few days ago, which says, ‘I hope there is a God in heaven who will favor me by giving me my poor Ilene. I am nearly in.’ ”
Four days after Ilene was recovered, the Winchells left Juneau together, bound for California on the Princess Mary, another ship in the Canadian Pacific Railway fleet. Later that month, Albert duly buried Ilene in the Saint Catherine of Siena Cemetery of Martinez, California, next to her mother. Albert lived until 1955, alone but perhaps revitalized by the thought of a promise kept.
“Al Winchell Goes South With Body of Wife from Sophia.” [Juneau] Alaska Daily Empire, July 14, 1919, 5.
“Al Winchell’s Heroic Efforts to Recover Body of Lost Wife.” Cordova Daily Times, August 19, 1919, 3.
Coates, Ken, and Bill Morrison. The Sinking of the Princes Sophia: Taking the North Down with Her. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990.
“Diver Will Try Again to Get Wreck Bodies.” [Juneau] Alaska Daily Empire, February 14, 1919, 5.
“Local Union.” [Valdez] Alaska Prospector, June 13, 1907, 2.
“Long Search is Rewarded for Body of Wife.” [Juneau] Alaska Daily Empire, July 11, 1919, 6.
“More Bodies of Sophia Wreck Reach Juneau.” [Juneau] Alaska Daily Empire, July 3, 1919, 5.
“Remains Recovered.” Iditarod Pioneer, August 16, 1919, 3.
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.
“Two Women Found by Diver Who is Now in the City.” [Juneau] Alaska Daily Empire, February 1, 1919, 2.
Untitled article. Seward Daily Gateway, March 13, 1914, 1.