ERIN LINN MCMULLAN
Special to the Westerly
David Leverton’s hands manipulate two chess pieces to illustrate how, amidst a blinding snowstorm, SS Princess Sophia locked onto Vanderbilt Reef in Alaska’s Inside Passage over 40 hours from Oct. 23-25, 1918. Pirouetting across the reef with changing king tides, it took down with it some 363 passengers in Pacific Northwest’s largest marine disaster. The night before, the executive director at Maritime Museum of BC had given a talk at Tofino’s Legion about CPR’s steamship, which sank only six years after Titanic but remains largely unknown outside the North. He marvels at how in tune, however, its passenger’s descendants remain like Yvonne Bond, whose husband’s uncle, Roy Arlo Matheson went down with the ship.
Leverton kicked off Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Museum’s new speaker series and a month-long visit by Sophia’s interactive mobile exhibit. This satellite commemorates the disaster’s 100th anniversary, along with a larger traveling exhibit set to rotate from Vancouver to Whitehorse and Juneau, Alaska.
As a student coming out of the north, Leverton first learned about Sophia in a song by Alaska historian, Steve Hites. Passing Vanderbilt Reef, “with Steve’s record strapped to my backpack, I tried to imagine 40 hours 40 years ago and the reasons why.”
Several attempts were made to lower Sophia’s lifeboats but the storm prevented safe transfer of passengers to seven waiting rescue ships. Veteran seaman Captain Locke hoped improving weather and calmer seas would enable that next morning. Overnight, USS Cedar stood vigil.
By daylight, only Sophia’s foremast remained visible; cracked in half with her bow in 40 feet of water, her stern in 140.
Leverton describes the timepieces stopped at 6 p.m., one final clue to the mystery after the radio operator’s 4:40 SOS: “Water is filling the room.”
Most poignant are two letters that survived tucked into pockets despite icy waters slicked with oil, after presumably the boilers exploded. Jack Maskell’s letter to his fiancé describes passengers thrown from their berths on impact and Auris McQueen compares the stranded ship to a “movie stage setting. All we lack is the hero and the vampire.”
Dawson City, Yukon was decimated, losing half its citizens including the Eads who inspired characters in Robert Service’s poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” Due to board with his young family, but cancelling last-minute, Whitehorse’s T.C. Richards would go on to impact the territory’s transportation and mining. Imagine the ripple effect, Leverton points out, had Sophia’s 363 passengers survived.
Sophia’s “story is told very evocatively,” says Ava Hansen, Clayoquot Museum’s operations manager, complimenting Leverton’s ability to put a human face on the tragedy and help imagine what passengers and crew were thinking.
Exhibit footage shows the warning light now marking Vanderbilt Reef and Sophia at rest below, abloom with six-foot anemones waving in the current-like ghosts, as one diver describes them.
A cautionary tale as uncharted Canadian Arctic seas open up. “You can never predict Mother Nature,” reminds Leverton, “and with all the modern technology we have available to us, we always have the risk of human nature.”
This centennial exhibition, developed by the Maritime Museum of BC, is on display at the Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Museum (331 Main Street below the Legion) until May 20th.
Museum hours are Saturday and Sunday, 12:30-4:00 p.m.
Admission by donation.