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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

05 May 2013

❖ The Sinking of the PRINCESS SOPHIA ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ 1918

Captain Leonard P. Locke
Lost: all hands
25 October 1918.
Vanderbilt Reef, Lynn Canal, AK.
On Vanderbilt Reef, 

24 October 1918.
The next day the ship and all hands 
slipped off the reef.
Two original photos from the archives of the S. P. H. S.©
"When the Canadian Pacific passenger steamship PRINCESS SOPHIA went down on 25 October 1918 in Lynn Canal, near Juneau, with 343 persons on board, the only articles salvaged from her were two empty lifeboats and a safe. The only survivor of this marine disaster, one of the greatest on record on the Pacific Coast, was a dog. 
  The wreck set in motion 15-years of litigation, ending when the US Supreme Court refused to review the ruling of the Circuit Court of Appeals limiting liability of the owner to $643.50 for 227 victims' estates. Claims of their survivors had aggregated $2,095,000.
  During the course of litigation as many as 40 pounds of legal papers were brought into court, at one time, by the attorneys for the defense.
  Benjamin Grosscup, Seattle attorney who argued the case for the claimants before the Court of Appeals in San Francisco, recently gave the Seattle Hist. Society his copy of the 13-volume apostles on appeal, the papers sent to the higher court in behalf of his clients after the case had been heard in the District Court. The thick books contain radio messages, logs, depositions, and interviews never reported in detail by the contemporary press. Wrapped in legal terminology, they describe step by step a drama of despair.
  The PRINCESS SOPHIA was a single-screw, 245-ft vessel built in Scotland six years earlier for the BC-Alaska service. She plied between Victoria, Vancouver, and Skagway.
  Normally she carried 250 passengers, but a rush of miners from the interior, waiting to go "outside" at the end of the season, had taxed Skagway's meager tourist accommodations nearly a week. As a consequence, the vessel was temporarily certified to carry an additional 100 passengers. She turned away many. With all berths full, she had 256 in 1st class, and 38 in 2nd class, when she sailed down Skagway at 10 o'clock the night of 23 October.
  Five hours later, during a snowstorm, the steamship ran aground on Vanderbilt Reef, not far from where she previously had stranded in April 1913, and incurred $25,000 damage.
The Princess boats had a reputation for speed and witnesses who saw the SOPHIA pass in the storm testified that she did not slow down for bad weather, but was maintaining her customary 13 knots. It was admitted that no lookout was posted in the bow.
Site of the loss of PRINCESS SOPHIA, 1918.
Courtesy of Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society
The Sea Chest, June 1977.
Click to enlarge.

The reef was out of the water at this stage of the tide, and the ship, riding high, was carried ahead with great force and wedged on the top of the submerged mountain, remaining there the next 40 hours. She was 1.75-miles off her course, and 3-miles from shore.
Examination in daylight revealed that the reef had torn plates from her bottom and a hole two feet wide was gouged out of the starboard side, extending from the bow 60-ft aft.
In an exchange of wireless messages Capt. Leonard P. Locke was advised by the company's managing agent to back the steamship off at high water. When daylight showed, this was impossible.
      Locke was informed that the PRINCESS ALICE of the same line was about to depart from Victoria and would rescue the passengers.

Snow ceased falling at 7 o'clock in the morning, the sea was quieter, but still choppy and small craft were on the way from Juneau to aid the ship, dispatched after the company agent there, learned by radio, of the wreck. Two gas-powered fishing boats reached the reef at 10 o'clock and were followed by the large Seattle halibut schooner KING & WINGE and two cannery tenders. They were ready to go to work with their dories, removing passengers, but the PRINCESS SOPHIA was resting on even keel and Capt. Locke declined assistance.
By evening the rescue fleet was joined by the 65-ft ESTEBETH, the Army transport H. B. PETERSON, and the lighthouse tender CEDAR. Capt. Locke informed Capt. J. W. Leadbetter of the CEDAR that he had orders to keep his passengers on board, adding that he considered them perfectly safe, safer than they would be if he attempted to place them on the rescue vessels. Locke also told the captain of the tanker ATLAS bound for Juneau, not to stop, that he needed no help.
The barometer was rising and he expected the weather to improve, but this was not the case. A northwest wind picked up, the PRINCESS SOPHIA pounded on the rocks, and a little after 8 PM in the evening the electric lights, which had been burning brilliantly, went out for good.
The rescue fleet lay as close as was safe, but Capt. Locke still wanted no help. By then it would have been difficult to render assistance. That evening the captain reported to the agent's office, "disposition of the passengers normal."
As the morning of the 25th dawned, the KING & WINGE, the CEDAR, and the halibut schooner SITKA, still hovered as close to the reef as they dared. There was no sign from the PRINCESS SOPHIA and watches observed no one on deck.
The gale blew all day and when daylight waned, the CEDAR and the KING & WINGE anchored in the shelter of the south end of Benjamin Island, and the captain discussed what to do if the steamship’s situation became critical. Capt. Locke, by radio, still professed to be awaiting the PRINCESS ALICE, not knowing her departure from Victoria had been delayed.
By 4:40 the ship’s pounding became more threatening and Locke wired Leadbetter to come to his assistance. What happened aboard the SOPHIA in the next half hour is unknown. Two tanks, bound together and covered with planks were found later with children tied on them, back to back and apparently set afloat in the hope that they would reach land. No lifeboats were removed from the falls.
The last word from the SOPHIA’s radio operator was at 5:20 when he reported that water was over his feet and pleaded, ‘for God’s sake come and save us!’
By then the storm made rescue impossible. The wreck was not visible and, with her radio out of commission, there was no means of guiding the waiting craft through the high seas. At daybreak they steered a compass course in blinding sleet and, on approaching the reef, saw only a foremast rising from the water where the PRINCESS SOPHIA had been. She had slipped from her wedged position to a lower shelf on the reef, carrying with her everyone aboard. Those who attempted to float or swim away were coated with oil escaping from the ruptured fuel tanks. One man succeeded in reaching shore, but died on the beach from exhaustion before his presence was discovered.
One of the intercepted wireless messages entered as evidence by claimants in the lawsuit stated that nearly all of the passengers, believing themselves doomed, were writing farewell notes. Counsel for the claimants alleged that bodies must have been searched upon recovery by persons looking for any messages that might have cast blame upon the company. No letters written in the last hours reached their intended destination except one, concealed in the back of a watch.
Bodies were picked up for a long time, but not all were recovered. One man was found with $40,000 in a money belt. A woman had $80,000 in bills sewn into her coat and another’s body carried $5,000 in jewels.
Scene of the wreck & loss of the PRINCESS SOPHIA.

MONAGHAN, shown here on Vanderbilt Reef, AK., 
 built by Capt. Charles H. Curry, at Brown's Bay, 
Orcas Island, WA in 1911. 
At the helm is Capt. Robert O. Griswold, Shaw Island, WA.
 He helped to collect 26 bodies from Shoal Point, Douglas Is.
Two original photos from the archives of the S. P. H. S.©

 In June, with hundreds of damage suits shaping up, the Canadian Pacific Railroad Co. instituted suit in the US to limit the liability of the owners to the value of the vessel and the freight and passenger money paid for the trip. Attorneys for the heirs sought to recover under Alaskan law $10,000 for each adult human life and $3,000 for reach child lost.
US Commissioner A. C. Bowman was assigned as special master to hear the arguments of a corps of attorneys representing the company and William Martin of Seattle on behalf of the claimants. Taking of evidence covered six years, with hundreds of witnesses called before Bowman. Martin repeatedly charged that the PRINCESS SOPHIA had put to sea with a crew of untrained boys and with old style lifeboat gear that was difficult to handle. He alleged that the company ordered the passengers kept aboard the steamship until its own vessel could arrive in order to save salvage money.
When the case went to the District Court, Judge Jeremiah Neterer narrowed the company’s blame down to two points—that proper lookout was not maintained and the vessel was traveling at an excessive speed. He decided that failure to transfer the passengers was due to the captain’s error in judgment and the company could not be held responsible for his act.
While his findings appeared to open the way to collecting heavy damages, the judge cited a federal maritime law centering around the condition of the ship and the crew at the time of the disaster. He held that the insurance money on the ship belonged to the company and not to the passengers and that the liability was limited to the value of the vessel when salvaged and the fares and freight charges for the voyage.
As the ship was virtually worthless and the Court of Appeals, in a 30-page decision, upheld Judge Neterer, the years of litigation—one of the longest drawn-out cases in history—resulted in nothing except the heap of printed documents.
In the Seattle Hist. Society’s library at the Museum of History and Industry, in years to come, researchers may read the accusations and arguments of attorneys, the testimony of witnesses, and their interpretation of events in that critical 40-hours, when 343 lives were balanced perilously upon a rock in Lynn Canal."
Text by author/historian Lucile McDonald
The Seattle Times, 24 January 1965

The Orcas Island built 56-ft wooden, tug/tender, MONAGHAN operated by Captain Robert O. Griswold, is the historical thread to San Juan County.

For additional reading, there are at least two books in print on the loss of the PRINCESS SOPHIA.
      The Sinking of the PRINCESS SOPHIA, Taking the North Down with Her by Ken Coates and Bill Morrison. University of Alaska Press, 1991.
      The Final Voyage of the PRINCESS SOPHIA, Did They All Have to Die? by Betty O'Keefe and Ian MacDonald. Heritage House, 1998.

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