Wreck of the SS Princess Sophia

Princess Sophia, was built for the Alaska run, and made her maiden voyage on June 7, 1912.

She was not a fancy ship, her hull was short and had high freeboard, but she had comfortable accomodation for about 250 passengers in first and second class. She came to a tragic end after only seven years of service. Under command of Capt. Louis P. Locke on October 24, 1918, at 3.00 a.m. during very bad weather southbound on the Lynn Canal AK, she ran aground on Sentinal Island, in almost the same place as the Pr. May 8 years earlier, but with tragic results, all 269 passengers and 73 crew were lost. Rescue vessels stood by, but because of the heavy seas and the poor weather, they were unable to abandon ship. She stayed up on the rocks all that day, but foundered and went down during the next night.

The previous afternoon, as the storm worsened, the combination of high wind and waves had caused the Princess Sophia to pivot on the reef, tearing her bottom out as she went, until only her bow remained on solid footing. She then 'floated' free and, to judge by the time elapsed between her first distress call at 4:50 and the time the watches found on most of the victims had stopped, 5:50, foundered relatively slowly. Divers later discovered that during the sinking her boiler had exploded, severely damaging her superstructure. Close to 100 were trapped below decks as the ship sank (divers recovered perhaps 90 bodies from within her in a series of operations that ran through August 1919) but the remaining 250 or so who floated free died quickly of exposure or from the effects of ingesting fuel oil.

Many people believed that the decision not to evacuate the ship was a grave error by Captain Locke, and that some or even all of the passengers could have been saved. The Ministry of Marine reached a similar conclusion in 1919 after hearing the evidence from first hand witnesses. Later, the courts ruled that right or wrong, the decision was within the reasonable range of judgment of the captain. Captain Ledbetter of the Cedar stated that in his opinion, he never saw conditions that would have permitted evacuation of the ship, but he was careful, even almost 50 years later, to state that this was as far as he could tell from when he arrived at the reef, which was at 20:00 on the 24th. As early as 10:20 on the 24th there were enough rescue vessels at the reef to have accommodated all of the people on the Sophia, and there would be 4 or 5 hours until the wind began to rise. Also Sophia had 8 lifeboats built of steel, not wood, which would presumably have fared better on wave-washed rocks. On the other hand, Captain Locke could not have known the weather would worsen, and there seem to have been signs that that it would improve. Historians Coates and Morrison speculate that the memory of the wreck of the Clallam, when everyone in the lifeboats died after a premature abandonment of the vessel, may have played a role in Locke's decision.