Unknown Titanic of the West Coast

A hundred years ago, the Princess Sophia sank off Canada, leaving no survivors

Princess Sophia

Photo: Winter & Pond Photo Collection / Alaska State Library
Princess Sophia 10 hours after striking Vanderbilt Reef, Oct. 24, 1918.

David Moe
Sun City, Calif.

8, the Canadian Pacific passenger ship SS Princess Sophia sank at sea.

At 10 p.m. Oct. 23, the ship left the port at Skagway, Alaska, with 298 passengers and a crew of 65. There was a blinding snowstorm and by 2 a.m. on Oct. 24, the ship hit Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal near Juneau, Alaska, because they had not detected a navigational error that had them 2 miles off course. They became stuck on the reef.

Princess Sophia

Photo: Winter & Pond Photo Collection / Alaska State Library
In the aftermath of the shipwreck, a man stands on the last remains of the Princess Sophia.

Capt. Leonard Locke sent messages of their situation to their agent in Juneau, who sent two vessels to the aid of the Sophia. The two vessels arrived at the scene but were unable to assist due to the heavy seas. The vessels circled for hours, waiting to save passengers and crew, and eventually anchored close by to offer moral support

At first, the Sophia wasn’t taking on water, and Locke hoped the ship could float free off the reef at high tide. The waters were too dangerous for the other ships, and no one wanted to risk additional lives in attempting the rescue. The closest vessel came within 400 yards before rough waves forced it back.

The storm grew worse, so the would-be rescuers retreated. When they returned to Vanderbilt Reef at 8:30 a.m. on Oct. 26, only 40 feet of the ship’s foremast was visible above the water. The Princess Sophia had sunk and all of the passengers and crew were lost.

It was the worst maritime accident in the history of British Columbia and Alaska, and many people believed the people aboard could have and should have been saved. The only survivor was a small dog that managed to swim to a nearby island and was later recovered. It’s a tragedy to be remembered this day.

David Moe graduated from the University of Minnesota, Morris, and received his M.A. degree from San Francisco State University. He spent four years in the U.S. Navy and 32 years in the insurance business. He and his wife, Thordis, have two daughters and four grandchildren. They live in Sun City, Calif.

This article originally appeared in the November 16, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.