Special Project – SS Princess Sophia

SS Princess Sophia Exhibition
Alaska Special Project Fund

News Release: SS Princess Sophia Exhibit Opens

“The Titanic of the West Coast”

On the evening of October 23, 1918, the Canadian Pacific Steamship SS Princess Sophia sailed from Skagway with a full load of more than 350 passengers and crew. Many of them were heading south for the winter, having worked in the interior of the Yukon and Alaska territories all summer. The festive mood was soon disrupted in the middle of the night when the ship struck Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn

SS Princess Sophia
The SS Princess Sophia perched precariously on Vanderbilt Reef as the storm raged.
– Winter & Pond photo, Alaska Historical Library

Canal, about 20 miles north of Juneau. The ship foundered on the reef, apparently unharmed, and Captain Louis Locke decided to wait for high tide, hoping the ship would float free. In the meantime a cadre of small boats from Juneau waited for the lowering of life boats to take passengers away to safety. Over the next day and a half, that moment never came, and the storm worsened. At about 5 p.m. on October 25, 1918, a series of desperate May Day calls were heard from the ship, but no boats could get to it in the raging storm. The next morning, the fate of the ship and its occupants became known. The Sophia had swung on the reef, broken apart, and sunk. All were lost, except a dog that was able to swim four miles to shore.

The Juneau community rallied over the next few weeks to recover the dead. The entire northern Alaska-Yukon-British Columbia region mourned. So many friends had perished. Among them were some prominent Alaskans. Walter Harper, a Native Alaskan from Fort Yukon, was one of the first men to summit Denali. He was honeymooning with his bride, Frances. John Pugh, district collector of U.S. Customs, the

SS Princess Sophia
A recovery boat approaches the site of the SS Princess Sophia wreck. Only a mast is visible.
– Skagway Museum

only Juneau resident to perish, had sailed north to Skagway, his former home, to assist officers there in processing the annual fall exodus from the Yukon. He was on board with his counterpart from the Yukon. And there were more than 80 employees of the Skagway-based White Pass & Yukon Route’s steamboat division in the Yukon. The loss from this marine disaster – the worst of its kind on the West Coast – would be felt for many years to come in the North, but it was lost in the headlines at the end of World War I. The disaster, our Titanic, is relatively unknown, even to this day.

SS Princess Sophia
U.S. District Collector of Customs John Pugh, the only Juneau resident who died on the Sophia.
– Case & Draper photo,
Alaska Historical Library

As the centennial of this SS Princess Sophia sinking approaches, committees from Skagway and Juneau are working to commemorate the event by supporting the development and tour of the SS Princess Sophia Exhibition by the Maritime Museum of British Columbia. This exhibit will travel the region in 2018, educating the many who have never heard about the disaster and its impacts. An artifact-supported exhibit is scheduled for the Alaska State Museum next summer, and a smaller version will be placed in the Skagway Museum beginning next May.

SS Princess Sophia
The late Gil Thompson of Skagway holds up a photo of the SS Princess Sophia. Thompson considered himself a “survivor” of the disaster, since his mother kept their family from sailing on the ship that Oct. 23 due to concerns about possible Spanish Flu cases on the vessel.
– Photo by Jeff Brady

The Margaret Frans Brady Fund recognizes the importance of this project to the region, which fits our education mission. With an initial donation of $20,000 ($10,000 for Juneau and $10,000 for Skagway), the MFB Fund supports the work of the Skagway and Juneau committees, which seek to raise $90,000 between the two communities to support these project components in Alaska, as well as the permanent installation of waterfront plaques.

You may donate to this fund by supporting the entire Alaska portion of the museum exhibits or designate it in your memo for Skagway or Juneau. All funds donated for this special project will be spent in Alaska. If, for some reason, the SS Princess Sophia Exhibition project does not move forward, the funds will be held for other work by the local committees such as commemorative plaques or production.