The Princess Sophia - A Story of Tragedy and the Northern Bond

    Juneau, AK (KINY) - A talk was given at the Alaska State Museum by Ken Coates, who is a co-author of a book that captures the history of the Princess Sophia ship.

    He told the story in a way that gave breadth to the horrible loss, but also framed it in the era and how this story, while in danger of being forgotten, really shares on how tightly nit northerners were in both Alaska and Canada.

    The ship had gotten wedged between rocks in Vanderbilt Reef, one of the last ships to go out before winter set in. They had been stuck for two days, unsure of what would happen to them, going from hope to terror each hour that passed, all while the sound of the ship scraping against the rocks filled their ears. People came from all over to try and rescue the crew and passengers, with Juneau pulling together any resources they had to try and help, but all of those efforts could not save them.

    Every single person aboard the ship died, either from the cold waters or by being suffocated by the fuel that spilled into the water.

    In the aftermath, bodies were brought in and were initially denied port due to celebrations stemming from the end of World War I. The next day though, the Juneau community worked diligently to ensure that each body was cleaned of oil, put in a coffin, and prepared for transport. Coates spoke about those citizens having to order more wood to build more coffins as there were not enough locally.

    Juneau has spent the majority of this past year creating exhibits, walking tours, operas, and more all to ensure that the story of the Princess Sophia lives on. Coates admitted that after a few decades, the story could be in danger of being lost again, but stressed that it was important to hold onto it.

    Coates had grown up in the Yukon and had fished as a young boy in the Lynn Canal. As he grew up he found himself more interested in archives than what the other kids enjoyed. The other kids called him "Cubicle" because being described as a square didn't quite fit Coates. Once he had gotten his papers in history as a young adult, he began to discover small snippets about the Princess Sophia. Sometime later he was asked if he knew any stories that could make for a great book. Recalling the story, the publishers and people involved were interested in the narrative. From there he and the other author, Bill Morrison, began unraveling the stories of those involved by tracking down family members and searching for documents that were often buried or guarded. Eventually, they were able to release "Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down with Her."

    Coates described the story as bittersweet, but that people are needed to keep the story alive.

    "There are so many parts to it, but I think the most important one is the fact that it reminds us to the degree that the Northland was integrated into one region. It wasn't the panhandle, the interior of Alaska, or the Yukon. This place belonged together and the history is so incredibly intertwined from the cruise ship industry of today to the Klondike Gold Rush of before. The Princess Sophia is the best way to show what that really means. It shows how deeply entrenched the American/Canadian cooperation was in this region."

    "Right now we've forgotten that a little bit. We can lead the charge and remind the people of North America about that."

    We asked Coates, what was the most challenging aspect of working on this story?

    "I still today struggle with telling this story."

    "I was raised in the Yukon and had been to the Vanderbilt Reef area a lot of times. I can really imagine what it was like. For me, this disaster really strikes close to home. I think that is kind of our responsibility to live with them those last few hours and that is hard to do."

    Coates also explained to us how he became interested in being a historian.

    "Growing up in the Yukon, you're immersed in history. Things like the Klondike Gold Rush and the Alaska Highway is part of all of the things you grew up doing all of the time. When you go as a University student, you can follow your passions or the careers that your parents want you to have or you can look for the thing that explains to you how the world actually operates."

    "For me, history does that."

    He ended our interview by explaining how that sense of northern community could be rebuilt.

    "I think we need to have more of Alaskans going to the Yukon and more Yukons coming to Alaska. We start this with personal relationships with sporting events, cultural events, things like video game tournaments. When people sit down and talk to each other, you realize that you're kind of the same people. You're living in the same part of the world with similar experiences."

    "Then people start to live, work, and do business together that builds cultural links and connections. It's kind of exciting."

    Find the full interview On Demand. The book can be found in local shops or ordered online. There is also more information about the story and the various events involving it on the Remember the Sophia website.

    A full recording of the lecture will soon be available on 360 North.

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