Ceremony recalls Alaska’s worst maritime disaster

JUNEAU, Alaska — Community members gathered at Evergreen Cemetery to commemorate the 96th anniversary of the wreck of the Princess Sophia, a steamship that sank on Oct. 25, 1918 in Lynn Canal.

The short ceremony, which has been held at the cemetery for at least 20 years, took place Oct. 25 at the joint gravesite of Walter Harper and Frances Wells, newlyweds who were among the 343 victims of the disaster, the worst maritime accident in Alaska history.

Those in attendance at Saturday’s event included Mary Lou Spartz, a local writer whose play based on the Sophia disaster was last performed in 2013, and Mark Boesser, Archdeacon for the Episcopal Church in Southeast Alaska.

Spartz said she became interested in the story as a child when she came across the Harpers’ grave while playing in Evergreen Cemetery. She went home and asked her father, Floyd Fagerson, who told her the story of their tragic deaths, and it has stuck with her ever since.

The sinking of the Princess Sophia is especially tragic because rescuers reached the ship well before it went down, but the evacuation of the ship was delayed due to weather. The ship had been traveling south from Skagway and, in an early snowstorm, ran aground on Vanderbilt Reef about 30 miles outside of Juneau, in the early morning of Oct. 24.

After successfully reaching the ship, which was not taking on water at that point, the rescue vessels pulled back with plans to return when conditions improved. Contrary to expectations, the storm worsened. The ship was pushed off the reef in heavy winds, resulting in severe damage to its hull. By the time rescuers were able to get back to the site, the Sophia sank. None of the passengers or crew members survived (though some accounts tell of a lone dog that made it to shore).

The Harpers were traveling aboard the Sophia en route to Seattle, then Philadelphia, where Walter planned to attend medical school and return to Alaska to practice. Frances was a nurse. Boesser, quoting from historical accounts published in Kenneth Coates and William Morrison’s “Taking the North Down with Her: The Sinking of the Princess Sophia,” said Walter was known to be a courageous and calm man, the type of person you’d want with you in a bad situation. Of Athabaskan and Irish descent, Walter had the distinction of being the first person to reach the summit of Mount McKinley in 1913 at age 21.

Boesser and Spartz said the group is already beginning to plan commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Sophia in October 2018.

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