The SS Princess Sophia, before her tragic end. (Alaska State Library, Sadlier-Olsen Family Collection)

Maritime Museum marks 100th anniversary of the ‘Unknown Titanic of the West Coast’

Sinking of SS Princess Sophia considered worst maritime accident in history of Pacific Northwest

One hundred years after the tragic sinking of Victoria’s SS Princess Sophia, the Maritime Museum of BC and family members of those that went down with the ship, came together to commemorate the largest marine tragedy in the history of the Pacific Northwest.

As the second-to-last ship to leave Skagway, Alaska, before the winter settled in, Sophia departed for her home port of Victoria late in the evening Oct. 23, 1918, three hours behind schedule.

The ship was packed to the gunwales with letters to loved ones serving in WWI, Christmas presents and goods for friends and family in southern B.C. and over 350 crew members and passengers.

Within an hour, heavy snow and fog dropped visibility to zero, with strong winds blowing the ship dangerously off course.

At 2 a.m. the following morning, Sophia hit Vanderbilt Reef – a rock that lurks just below the surface of Lynn Canal – head-on. While the ship escaped immediate damage, the raging seas beat Sophia’s hull against the rocks for the next 40 hours as the passengers awaited rescue.

Though seven vessels were dispatched to help, Sophia’s Captain Leonard Locke, made the fatal decision to wait for the storm to die down before transferring passengers, feeling it was unsafe to do so in such stormy seas.

All rescue vessels were eventually forced to retreat back to the shoreline, leaving Sophia defenceless and alone in the blinding snowstorm.

Between 5:30 and 6 p.m. on Oct. 25, Sophia sank, taking all passengers and crew with her. There were no survivors except for a lone dog that swam to a nearby island.

An estimated 367 passengers and crew perished, including many political and business leaders and 10 per cent of Dawson City’s population.

To this day, it remains the largest marine tragedy in the history of the Pacific Northwest.

The timing of the disaster had the vessel dubbed the “Unknown Titanic of the West Coast,” the museum’s volunteer librarian Judy Thompson explained. The delivery of the bodies to Vancouver occurred on Nov.10, a day before armistice ended WWI. The news and celebration from the ending of the war took over, burying the disaster in history.

RELATED: Maritime Museum of B.C. brings sinking ship back to life in Victoria

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking, the Maritime Museum of BC unveiled a commemorative plaque during a ceremony Thursday, that will be permanently installed in the Parade of Ships Memorial Wall in Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

Relatives of some of the passengers who died attended the ceremony and shared stories of the impact the tragic event had on their families.

Three great-nieces of John Zaccarelli, one of the passengers on Sophia, were present for the event. Charlaine Pears, Zuzanne Zaccarelli, and Janice Booth, said Zaccarelli was travelling with his sister Marie Vifquain and her young daughter Charlotte Joy when the ship went down.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, their partners, who were not on the ship, came together in grief.

“They eventually married. Probably out of their sorrow they found some joy,” said Janice Booth, who took a cruise to Alaska and threw flowers into the water while passing Lynn Canal, in remembrance of her aunt, uncle and cousin. “I was quite emotional at the time knowing that some relatives of mine had passed away at that site.”

For more information visit PrincessSophia.org.


 

keri.coles@blackpress.ca

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