“For God’s sake come we are sinking” was the final message sent from the steamship Princess Sophia. On October 24, 1918, in a blinding snowstorm, the Sophia struck Vanderbilt Reef on her way from Skagway to Juneau. Extreme weather conditions and high seas thwarted rescue efforts, and the ship went down with 343 passengers. There were no survivors other than a dog.
In terms of lives lost, the Princess Sophia was the worst maritime disaster in Alaska history; however, between 1878 and 1915, alone, 87 ships wrecked along Alaska’s rugged coast. In many instances, there were photographers on hand to document the disasters. When the Princess May hit a reef off Sentinel Island on August 5, 1910, she stayed on the rocks for nearly a month. All passengers were safely evacuated, and there was ample time for W. H. Case to take memorable photographs.
The legacies of some shipwrecks live on to this day. Several attempts have been made to recover the Klondike gold that went down with the Islander south of Juneau on August 14, 1901. In 1934, the main hull was raised from the seabed and beached on Admiralty Island, but salvagers were disappointed to find only $75, 000 worth of gold instead of the anticipated millions. Hope for riches persist, however, because the bow of the ship is still on the ocean floor and salvage efforts continue.
Decades later, shipwrecks can also leave behind environmental hazards. In 2010, the United States Coast Guard and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation successfully removed bunker oil that had been leaking from the Princess Kathleen, which ran aground and sunk in foul weather near Lena Point, Juneau, on September 7, 1952. Ironically, the shipwreck lies just off the rocky point on which the new NOAA Ted Stevens Marine Research Facility has been built.
Images From the Historical Collections
More Information on Alaskan Shipwrecks
- DNR, Office of History and Archaeology (OHA): Maritime Heritage Program
- Alaska Dept of Environmental Conservation: Princess Kathleen Salvage
- DEC's Princess Kathleen Photo Gallery
- Juneau Empire stories on the Princess Kathleen salvage
- Shipwrecks of Alaska's Lynn Canal from NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries website
- Library and Archives of Canada: Investigating the Princess Sophia
- Library and Archives of Canada: Investigating the Islander
- More images of Alaskan shipwrecks at Alaska's Digital Archives