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A catastrophic shipwreck few remember changed the course of Alaska history

  • Author: Anchorage Daily News editorial board
    | Opinion
  • Updated: October 25
  • Published October 25

The Princess Sophia underway with passengers on deck. (Alaska State Library, John Grainger Photo Collection, P255-79-79)

Exactly 100 years ago, the deadliest maritime disaster in Alaska history took place as a storm raged through the Lynn Canal north of Juneau. The SS Princess Sophia, which had run aground on Vanderbilt Reef, foundered and sank on Oct. 25, 1918, with 343 Alaskans and Canadians on board. Despite several previous efforts to get to the ship and offload passengers, no vessels could reach the Princess Sophia in time. Every man, woman and child on board died that night.

The Princess Sophia was the last boat south in 1918, carrying Alaskans and Yukoners down the Inside Passage from the gold fields. After leaving Skagway on Oct. 23, the ship ran hard aground on Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal at 2 a.m. on Oct. 24. She remained hung up on the reef all day, and attempts by Juneau-based boats to reach the Sophia and offload passengers were aborted out of fears the bad weather could result in deaths of those who boarded lifeboats.

On Oct. 25, the force of a severe winter storm greatly increased. Snow pelted down, and the waves and wind buffeted the Princess Sophia and dragged her off the reef into deeper water. Frantic radio broadcasts from the ship conveyed the desperation of those on board. "For God's sake, hurry, the water is in my room," the radio operator wired to another vessel, which was in a protected anchorage waiting for an opportunity to render aid.

The last transmission from the Princess Sophia came minutes later, after the rescue ship told the radio operator to conserve battery power:  "All right, I will. You talk to me so I know you are coming."

By the time vessels reached the shipwreck site, there was no one to save. All had drowned or died of hypothermia. No lifeboats reached shore; it's not clear any were ever launched amid the intense weather conditions of the ship's final hours. The only survivor was reported to be a dog, an English setter that made it to shore and was found days later.

It's hard to quantify the magnitude of the loss of the Princess Sophia and its passengers to Alaska. In terms of population, Alaska is a small state now; in 1918, it was a tiny territory. In 1920, Alaska's recorded population stood at roughly 55,000 total. Anchorage had a population of 1,856. Fairbanks' population was 1,155. The fledgling territory had already lost thousands of its young men to fight in the first World War; soon it would lose thousands more of its residents, particularly in Alaska Native villages, as the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic made a late arrival in the north country.

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And some of those on board the Princess Sophia were irreplaceable. Fairbanks resident Henry B. Parkin, an inaugural member of the University of Alaska's Board of Regents, went down with the ship, as did hundreds of miners, merchants, community members and their families.

Perhaps the greatest loss of all was Walter Harper, the Koyukon Athabascan man who had been the first to set foot atop Denali. Only 25 years old at the time of his death, Harper was already a legend in Alaska, serving as the right hand of Episcopal archdeacon Hudson Stuck. He had married his wife, Francis Wells, in Fort Yukon only a month before the shipwreck. The couple was headed to the Lower 48 so that Harper could attend medical school and his wife could work for the Red Cross. It's hard to say what would have taken place if Harper hadn't perished, but it seems certain he would have been a strong leader for his people and the territory, and one it could ill afford to lose.

Losses resonate widely in a place like Alaska, and that was especially the case for the Princess Sophia. Because World War I ended just as the news of the disaster reached Seattle, and because no survivors could tell its story, the magnitude of the wreck and its effects haven't been fully recognized. Almost no one outside Alaska and the Yukon even knows it took place. But the loss was a gut-punch for a land already reeling from other world events, and as we live in the towns established by those who died aboard the Princess Sophia a century ago, we should remember their loss and what it meant for a fledgling territory struggling to find its way forward.

The views expressed here are those of the Anchorage Daily News, as expressed by its editorial board, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Current editorial board members are Ryan Binkley, Andy Pennington, Julia O'Malley, Tom Hewitt and Andrew Jensen. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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