The Sinking of the «Princess Sophia»: Taking the North Down with Her


216 pages
Contains Photos, Maps, Bibliography
ISBN 0-19-540784-9
DDC 910'.916434




Reviewed by William A. Waiser

William A. Waiser is an associate professor of History at the University
of Saskatchewan, and author of Mackenzie King, Grey Owl and a National
Park: The History of Prince Albert National Park.


It was the worst maritime disaster in the history of the Pacific
Northwest (353 lives lost) , yet the sinking of the Princess Sophia, in
late October of 1918, is hardly known today. The tragedy is not even
mentioned in most historical literature on the Yukon.

This neglect, as much as the disaster itself, intrigued northern
historians Coates and Morrison. Ultimately, it caused them to conclude,
in their fine book, that the Sophia’s loss was not just another
catastrophe. Rather, the incident had broader significance in terms of
both what it revealed about the transient nature of
early-twentieth-century northern society and what it said about the
writing of northern history.

In October of 1918, while travelling between Skagway (Alaska) and
Vancouver via the “inside passage” route, the Princess Sophia ran
aground on the Vanderbilt Reef in the Lynn Canal, and sank less than two
days later during a severe snowstorm. Describing in considerable detail
the events before, during, and after the disaster, Coates and Morrison
have pieced together a fascinating, at times absorbing, story of human
loss and tragedy. They also demonstrate how the disaster had profound
repercussions for the region, because many passengers were following an
annual routine of going “outside” for the winter. The Sophia’s
sinking consequently hit the far northwest particularly hard: Dawson
City lost 10 percent of its population!

Coates and Morrison offer several reasons why the disaster has been
ignored. It fell between the end of the Great War and the outbreak of
the Spanish-flu epidemic; and by coincidence, the ship that carried many
of the bodies south arrived in Vancouver harbor on the day of the
Armistice. The terrible event also goes against the region’s popular
romantic image as home of the Klondike gold rush, and is not something
to be remembered, let alone commemorated. In fact, the disaster capped a
prolonged period of economic and political decay that had sapped much of
the Yukon River valley’s energy and promise. Herein lies the story’s
tragic irony: several of the Sophia’s passengers had finally given up
hope of striking it rich after many futile years, and were leaving the
north forever.


Coates, Kenneth S., “The Sinking of the «Princess Sophia»: Taking the North Down with Her,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 22, 2024,