When the SS Princess Sophia went down in the dark, cold waters of the Inside Passage on the Lynn Canal on Oct. 25, 1918, it seems the story of the sinking ship went right along with it.
Widely considered B.C.’s greatest maritime disaster, few know the tale of how the great passenger steamship ran aground on Vanderbilt Reef, eventually falling prey to catastrophic wind and waves in the middle of a snowstorm, sinking and losing all 370 people onboard.
At least, that’s what historians have surmised.
“I don’t think we’ll ever truly know how many people were on that ship,” says David Leverton, executive director of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, where an exhibit dedicated to Sophia is on until March 11.
The story, however, did reach the north, where it is estimated Dawson City lost 10 per cent of its population in the tragedy. “Onboard were a lot of people who lived seasonally in the Yukon,” Leverton explains.
The Sophia was heading to Skagway, Alaska as she had hundreds of times before, carrying passengers and freight on the last journey of the season before the great freeze of the Yukon River.
“CP used to have steamship lines,” says Bill Morrison, co-writer of The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down with Her. “The princess ones did the coastal trade, much like the Queen of the North, it made regular runs between Seattle, Vancouver and Alaska.”
Morrison and writing partner Ken Coates, both historians, originally set out to write a paper on the tragedy. They discovered that in order to file a class action lawsuit against the CP steam company, relatives of the deceased had been asked to provide accounts of their lives in order to prove they were worth something.
“Suddenly we had this huge mass of data of individual people who had been on this ship, so now it wasn’t just about the ship, it was about the people on the ship,” Morrison says of the book’s trajectory.
The pair found one of the main reasons people hadn’t heard of the story was because of the passengers. “There were no Astor’s or Vanderbilt’s like on the Titanic,” he says.
For two nights, Sophia sat on the reef while rescue boats from Alaska came out, ready to collect passengers in an evacuation. But Captain Leonard Locke never gave the command, and the rest is history.
His body has never been recovered.
“We didn’t blame Locke,” Morrison says. “Everybody said it was an act of God and who were we to argue otherwise.”
Check out the new interactive #SSPrincessSophia exhibit @MaritimeMusBC dedicated to to the tragedy surrounding the ship's sinking on its 100th anniversary #yyj #yyjarts #yyjevents pic.twitter.com/8h2AlzRa8W
— Victoria News (@VictoriaNews) January 12, 2018
Sophia went down 17 days before the end of the First World War, and many say that also contributed to the loss of the story. When the Princess Alice, dubbed the “ship of sorrow” sailed into Vancouver on Nov.11, bringing the bodies of those recovered, she waited offshore while Armistice Day celebrations reigned. The next day, the bodies were laid out in a building on the dock for identification.
Coupled with that was the spread of Spanish influenza that altered the muster list; both passengers and crew originally scheduled for the voyage changed their plans last minute.
Unlike the Titanic, there are no survivors of Sophia left to piece together the complicated story. Ironically, when Morrison and Coates were gathering research for their book, Morrison found a former officer of the ship who turned out to be living right across the street from him in Victoria.
A purser back in 1916, he told Morrison protocol for the ship had been to sound the foghorn and listen for echoes to tell them where they were.
“Of the Sophia, he said, they got off course and you can’t hear an echo in a screaming blizzard,” Morrison says.
Some of those who perished in the icy waters are buried in Ross Bay Cemetery, and if you look closely enough, you’ll see that on their tombstones, Leverton says.
“This is a work in process,” he says of the exhibit, that will next travel to Vancouver, then on to Juneau, Alaska, and Whitehorse. “For anyone who does have additional information, we’re going to ask them to supply that to us.”
For more information visit PrincessSophia.org. The Maritime Museum at 634 Humboldt St. has extended opening hours during the exhibit, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. For rates and other details visit mmbc.bc.ca.