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The SS Princess Sophia was a steel-built coastal passenger liner that operated off the coast of British Columbia, Canada and southeast Alaska, United States, through the Inside Passage. She sank on 25 October 1918, after grounding on Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal near Juneau, Alaska. All aboard were lost, for a total death toll of 343.


Construction and Design of the Princess Sophia


The SS Princess Sophia was a steamship weighing 2,320 gross tons and 1,466 tons net register. She was built in Paisley, Scotland, of steel, with a double hull. She came equipped with wireless communications and full electric lighting. She was launched in November 1911 and completed in 1912. She was built to burn coal and converted to oil fuel shortly after her arrival in British Columbia. At the time she sank, Captain Leonard Locke was her commander, and Captain Jeremiah Shaw was second in command.

The Last Voyage of the Princess Sophia


On 23 October 1918, the SS Princess Sophia departed Skagway, Alaska at 22:10 local time. 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. There were 75 crew and 268 passengers on board, including 50 women and children. Four hours after leaving Skagway, the ship encountered heavy snow and a rising northwest wind.


Ahead of the Princess Sophia, in Lynn Canal, lay a rock known as Vanderbilt Reef. At high tide this rock was covered by water, but at low tide its highest point stood about twelve feet above the surface. Vanderbilt Reef in the tip of an underwater mountain that rises 1,000 ft (305 m) from the bottom of Lynn Canal. The channel at this point was about 6.5 miles (10.5 km) wide, with the reef narrowing the navigable part of the channel to a mere 2.5 miles (4 km) on its east side.


While traveling south through Lynn Canal, Sophia drifted about 1.25 miles (2 km) off course, and ran aground on Vanderbilt Reef, about 54 miles south of Skagway, at 02:00 on 24 October 1918. The wireless operator sent out a distress call immediately. The message reached Juneau and rescue efforts began by 02:15 on 24 October 1918.


High tide came at 06:00 on 24 October. Low tide came about noon. With the next high tide due at 16:00, and the seas too rough to permit evacuation, Captain Locke chose to wait and see if he could get the vessel off. However, this was impossible.

Rescue Attempts Fail Due to Rough Seas


Captain Locke warned off James Davis, captain of the fishing vessel Estebeth, who attempted to reach Sophia in a skiff. Davis and other small boat captains at the scene could see that Sophia had been seriously damaged; a hole in her bow allowed water to run in and out of the hull at a rate of 200-300 gallons per minute. With no way to evacuate passengers, the only thing to be done was wait for an improvement in the weather.


Captain J.W. Ledbetter, commander of the USLHA lighthouse tender Cedar, had the only ship equipped with wireless. The rescue plan was to wait until high tide at 17:00 on 25 October covered the reef with water. It was hoped this would be enough to launch Sophia’s lifeboats and carry those aboard to safety. However, rough seas forced the abandonment of the plan. The last wireless message came from Sophia at 17:20 on 25 October. By the morning of 26 October 1918, only her foremast remained above water. Rescue vessels spent three hours looking for survivors; they found only bodies.




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