Of all the tragedies to hit the Skagway area, as far as I can tell, the most sensational is the wreck of the Princess Sophia. She was southbound from Skagway carrying 300 passengers and 65 crew members, 92 years ago today. That’s more than the Palm Sunday avalanche, and it’s a story more shrouded in mystery than the Christmas Day murders. The main reason that so little was known for so long – and in many ways, so little is still known today—is that the company who owned the vessel destroyed all records related to the incident. Bad press, you know?
At the time of the wreck, in 1918, Sophia was one of many regularly-scheduled ships to cruise up and down the coast much like today’s Alaska marine highway ferry system. This was before regular air service, and before well-developed roads, so the water was the main form of transit for many. Each fall, just like today, a mass exodus left Skagway. In 1918 it wasn’t just Skagway's summer workers heading home; back then Skagway was one of the main access ports to getting in and out of the Yukon, northern BC, and interior Alaska. The exit from Skagway was made up of people from all over; most notably Dawson.
Members of Dawson’s Arctic Brotherhood who were on board included entrepreneurs William C. Sharron and Albert Pinska; Sam Henry; carpenter Thomas Collins; James A. Clarke; and customs officer Edmund Ironside. The wife and daughter of C. J. Vifquain were also on board, as well as Council City member John Haynes. Ironside is the most notable character of the AB group on the ship. The book written by Betty O’Keefe and Ian MacDonald on the subject give light to the well-loved officer of the law. According to a tale by Ironside, another passenger, Lulu Mae Eads, was the same “Lady Lou” of the Robert Service poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” Ironside himself had no misgivings in admitting that his own poetry was modeled after Robert Service’s—at the time, many amateur Northern poets styled their poems after their favorite poet (who, by the way, mentions the AB in two poems but was not himself a member).
Ironside was traveling with his mother for a winter holiday. Nostalgia raged among the passengers, crew, and the farewell parties in Skagway as Sophia’s final voyage of the season lay ahead. This year, according to O’Keefe and MacDonald, there were more people leaving than usual. Unlike past years, many of them planned to never return. Ironside, wrought in emotion as well as everyone around him, captured the moment in a short poem called “Leaving Dawson.” The final few lines:
It isn’t “goodbye” forever
That is the message you vain would send,
To the magic city of Dawson as the
Ship sails around the bend.
Unfortunately, Ironside’s words held an ominous foreboding, as for at least 365 oceangoers, it would be goodbye forever.
The wreck happened in the midst of a blizzard. Many rescue attempts were thwarted by the weather. It was another Arctic Brother, Governor Thomas Christmas Riggs, who orchestrated the recovery efforts and coordinated the search for bodies from Juneau. Charles Garfield, a member of Nome’s AB camp, was the sailor who confirmed that none of the passengers or crew of Sophia survived. If Dawson had the most passengers on board, Juneau was equally captivated by the disaster by heading up relief efforts. No one in Juneau was unaffected by the search.
After the Titanic sinking in 1912, ship safety had been heightened; but the Princess Sophia had added extra berths last minute to over-extend their passenger capacity. The final report ended in much controversy by stating that the ship's pilot had indeed been going too fast as well. In spite of the hope that many ships gave the passengers and crew in the hours following the initial cause of the wreck-- collision with a reef, about halfway between Skagway and Juneau-- no rescue would occur. Many passengers wrote out their final wills and letters to loved ones in the moments before water filled the boat and the lives of 365 were lost.
Shortly after the disaster, Governor Riggs quarantined Juneau, banning all maritime traffic due to an influenza outbreak. It was this same Spanish flu that had tragically ended the young life of Skagway officer Vincent Dortero in October of 1918, around the same time. Dortero was in Iowa serving with the military. Not only was he an AB, he also was a member of the Eagles, Pioneers, and Knights of Pythias. His death was reported in the Skagway papers, and was a rude awakening to many.
On a more positive note to close out October in AB history, the 1909 Arctic Brotherhood book documents two clubs being founded in this month.
October 22nd of 1900 marked the founding of Camp #11, Council City. The camp was established with fifteen charter members by Walter H. Ferguson, the US Commissioner for that district. Council City was located in the vicinity of Nome on the Seward Peninsula. At the time of the camp’s founding, Council City was on the decline. It was debatable as to whether the camp would survive at all… more on that next month!!
Also in October of 1907 the Arctic Brotherhood camp in Fairbanks, #16, was re-organized. It had originally been founded in 1903, but poor management had caused its breakdown and its members decided that a re-establishment was in order. Next month Fairbanks is in the spotlight again, with a night to remember for many.