On 23 October 1918, Princess Sophia departed Skagway, Alaska, at 22:10, more than three hours behind schedule. She was due to stop at Juneau and Wrangell, Alaska, on the 24th; Ketchikan, Alaska, and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, on the 25th; Alert Bay, British Columbia, on the 26th; and Vancouver, British Columbia, on the 27th. On board were 75 crew and about 268 passengers, including families of men serving overseas in the war, miners, and crews of sternwheelers that had finished operations for the winter. Fifty women and children were on the passenger list. Four hours after leaving Skagway, while proceeding south down Lynn Canal, the steamship encountered heavy blinding snow driven by a strong and rising northwest wind.
Heading south through Lynn Canal, Sophia drifted about 1.25 miles off course, and at 02:00 on 24 October 1918, Sophia struck ground hard on Vanderbilt Reef, 54 miles south of Skagway. A letter later recovered from the body of a passenger, Signal Corps Private Auris W. McQueen (1883–1918), described the scene on board just after the grounding: "Two women fainted and one of them got herself into a black evening dress and didn’t worry about who saw her putting it on. Some of the men, too, put on kept life preservers on for an hour or so and seemed to think there was no chance for us.
High tide came at 06:00 on 24 October. The wind had lessened, but Sophia was still stuck fast on the reef. Low tide came at about noon. The wind and waves forced the Sophia even farther up onto the reef, but fortunately the vessel’s double hull was not breached. At low tide on the reef the entire hull of the Sophia was completely out of the water. The barometer was rising, which indicated a possible improvement in the weather. With the next high tide at 16:00, and the seas so rough that any evacuation would be hazardous, Locke chose to wait to see if he could get the vessel off. This proved impossible. Without a tug, or more likely two or three tugs, the Sophia could never be taken off the reef. Worse yet, the passengers could not be evacuated from the vessel without life-threatening danger. At low tide the Sophia was surrounded on both sides by exposed rock. At high tide, the rock was awash, but the swells were such that a lifeboat would strike the rocks as the waves pounded up and down.
Decision not to evacuate
Locke warned off James Davis, captain of the fishing vessel Estebeth, who attempted and then abandoned an effort to reach Sophia in a skiff. Davis moored his vessel by tying up to the Vanderbilt Reef marker buoy, which was then in the lee of the Sophia and protected from the worse force of the weather. The desperation of the situation was obvious to Davis and the other captains of the small boats at the scene. Sophia had been seriously damaged striking the reef, with a hole in her bow that water ran in and out of at a rate that Davis estimated at 200 or 300 gallons per minute. With no apparent way to evacuate passengers, and Sophia stuck fast on the reef, the only thing that Davis and the other rescue boats could do was to wait to see if the weather would moderate enough to attempt an evacuation. Captain Locke, of Sophia was confident enough of his own vessel’s safety to tell via megaphone, Estebeth and Amy, which were taking a pounding in the weather, that Sophia was safe and they should take shelter in a harbor.
Capt. J.W Ledbetter, commander of the USLHS lighthouse tender Cedar did not receive word of the grounding until 14:00 on 24 October. Then 66 miles away, Ledbetter got in wireless contact with Captain Locke and set out with his ship to the rescue. Ledbetter asked Captain Locke if he wanted to try to evacuate some of the passengers that night. Locke told Ledbetter that the wind and the tide were too strong and it would be better for the rescue ships to anchor and wait until daylight. When Ledbetter arrived at 20:00 on 24 October he found three large vessels, including the fishing schooner King and Winge which had arrived at 18:20 and about fifteen smaller fishing vessels at the scene, arriving towards the evening on the 24th.
Meanwhile wireless reports of the grounding had reached James W. Troup, superintendent of CPR steamship operations in Victoria. He and other CPR officials were initially not too alarmed. It appeared that the passengers would be taken off soon, and the question would be one of finding accommodation for them ashore.
Memorial card for Herbert and Ellen Davies, husband and wife, who died October 25, 1918 in the wreck of the Princess Sophia on Vanderbilt Reef, in Lynn Canal, Alaska. Wikipedia
Last call for assistance
Just as Miller was disembarking from Cedar to return to King and Winge, at 16:50 on 25 October, Sophia sent out a wireless message: "Ship Foundering on Reef. Come at Once." Ledbetter immediately prepared to steam out to the reef. He signaled Miller on King and Winge to follow him with two blasts of the whistle, but Miller did not at first understand the signal. Ledbetter then drove Cedar alongside King and Winge and shouted out to Miller: "I am going out there to try and locate him. If the snow should clear up, you come out and relieve me." Miller replied: "I will give you an hour to find them."
The next radio message from Sophia came at 17:20: "For God’s sake, hurry, the water is in my room." There was more but the radio operator could not pick it up. Knowing Sophia had weak wireless batteries, Cedar wired Sophia to conserve battery power and only transmit if absolutely necessary. Sophia’s operator radioed back: "Alright I will. You talk to me so I know you are coming." This was the last wireless message from Sophia.
Loss of the ship
With no survivors and no witnesses to the actual sinking, what happened on Sophia to drive her off the reef is a matter of reconstruction from the available evidence and conjecture. Based on the evidence it appears that the storm blowing in from the north, raised water levels on the reef much higher than previously, causing the vessel to become buoyant again, but only partially so. The bow of the vessel remained on the reef, and the force of the wind and waves then spun the vessel almost completely around and washed her off the reef. Dragging across the rock ripped out the ship’s bottom, so when she reached deeper water near the navigation buoy, she sank. This process, based on the evidence, seems to have taken about an hour.
There appears to have been no time for an organized evacuation. Many people wore lifejackets, and two wooden lifeboats floated away (the 8 steel lifeboats sank). There were about 100 people still in their cabins when the ship sank. It’s hard to know why if there was half an hour before the ship sank why so many people were below deck, but there could be many reasons. As the sea water invaded the ship, the boiler exploded, buckling the deck and killing many people. Oil fuel spilled into the water, choking people who were trying to swim away. Sophia had been equipped with extra flotation devices, on the theory that people could cling on to these in the water awaiting rescue. These were worthless, as the coldness of the water would soon kill anyone in it long before rescue could arrive.
While there had been many shipwrecks and groundings over the years, and it was the rare vessel that did not run aground or have some problem of this nature, two shipwrecks would have been foremost in the minds of Captain Locke and his officers, as well as other senior captains and officers among the rescue vessels, like Captains Ledbetter of Cedar and Miller of the King and Winge. These two wrecks, of the Clallam in 1904 and the Princess May in 1910, showed well the dilemma faced by Captain Locke in making a decision whether to evacuate the Sophia.
In fine weather and smooth seas on August 5, 1910, Princess May, another CPR steamship, grounded on Sentinel Island, coincidentally within sight of Vanderbilt Reef. All aboard were evacuated to the nearby light station, and the vessel itself was later removed from the rock with relatively minor damage. Ironically it was the May that CPR dispatched on hearing of the grounding of the Sophia to pick up her passengers who they presumed would be soon evacuated. While the May grounding had been in early August, and not late October, still there were other vessels with the Sophia grounding and the stranded ship seemed to be secure.
Text via Wikipedia