For six years, SS Princess Sophia sailed the coasts of B.C. and Alaska.

“She would come from Victoria, she would pick up passengers in Vancouver and then she would continue up ports of call all the way to Skagway, Alaska” explained David Leverton of the Maritime Museum of B.C.

The steamship was built in Scotland in 1911.

One year later, she was commisioned to carry passengers, mail and freight during the height of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

“Whenever the ship’s whistle would blow, and she would come into port, it was a big day for everybody,” Leverton said.

On Oct. 23, 1918, the ship would set sail from Skagway to Victoria on one final and fatal voyage.

“They were not very far out of Skagway before they started to encounter a snowstorm,” Leverton explained.

Sophia was headed down the Lynn Canal when the crew encountered the Vanderbilt Reef.

“They drove this massive ship onto the reef, so 70 per cent of the ship was up and out of the water,” Leverton said.

Using the ship’s radiogram, which is on display at the museum, the captain sent out a call for help.

In the early morning hours of Oct. 24, dozens of vessels arrived to try and save the ship.

“The question was ‘do we get the passengers off or do we wait for the weather to subside?'” said Leverton. “They decided to wait for a break in the weather.”

After nearly 40 hours since becoming stuck on the reef, the weather proved to be too much.

The ship sunk on Oct. 25, claiming the lives of the more than 350 passengers and crew members on board.

Some refer to the tragedy as the Titanic of the West Coast.

“Beyond words, what it must have been like for the community to try and grapple with this entire disaster” explained Leverton, who feels the tragedy has been forgotten by many.

“The Spanish Flu was so new, and of course the end of the war, it was just lost,” Leverton said. “It happened at a time in which all of these other bigger stories were going on.”

Nearly a century after the incident, the museum is bringing back this important part of our maritime history with their new exhibit SS Princess Sophia: The Unknown Story of the Largest Marine Disaster along the Pacific Northwest Coast.

The exhibit is on at the Maritime Museum of B.C. (634 Humboldt St., Victoria) until March 11, 2018.

 

 

Ceilidh Millar