Old Ben Shanahan was a one-eyed Irishman, a dory fisherman recruited from the Gloucester fleet by Codfish Kelly to come to Seattle and fish the Bering Sea. That was before the first great war, the war to end wars. In his book Salt of the Sea, the Pacific Coast Cod Fishery and the Last Days of Sail, Captain Ed Shields remembers Ben Shanahan with fondness.
"He had only one eye;" Shields writes, "the other one had been lost during a barroom brawl… How the others looked after the fight was a question never answered, but we all figured that if Ben lost an eye, the other men fared much worse."
During the long night watch onboard the Sophie Christenson when the crew kept warm by walking the length of the weather deck, old Ben Shanahan sometimes told stories about that night in 1918 onboard the halibut schooner King and Winge in the Lynn Canal just south of Skagway. It was late in October and snow was falling when the Princess Sophia, a Canadian Pacific Steamer southbound from Skagway, struck Vanderbilt Reef and stranded. There were 345 persons onboard – 75 among the crew and 218 men, 35 women, and 17 children among the passengers as well as a few dozen horses, and an English setter.
The Princess Sophia’s wireless distress call was received at Juneau, some 30 miles from the reef, where the King and Winge immediately got underway. E.P. Pond, a professional photographer, came onboard with a pierhead leap.
The King and Winge was alongside the Princess Sophia before first light and offered to take passengers off in her dories, as many as the schooner could carry. The dorymen knew their boats and their own abilities but the captain of the steamer, Captain Leonard Locke, thought the risk too great to transfer by dory in the dark.
It was unlikely the dories could come alongside to offload the passengers directly. They would have been stove in against the vertical wall of the ship’s hull or foundered on the shallow reef. More likely the passengers would have to be fitted with life jackets and floated to leeward where the dories waited to recover them. The shock of cold water and waves would probably kill the most frail. Others might simply be lost in the darkness and die of exposure. There were certain to be casualties.
His ship was hard aground and in no immediate danger. The Princess Sophia was fitted with a double bottom and her hull was sound. The tidal range in the Lynn Canal runs 15 to 20 feet. The next high water might refloat her if the weather held. Rather than risk his passengers and crew to the uncertain mercy of the sea, Captain Locke gambled on the weather.
The King and Winge lingered through the day, ready if Locke thought better of his decision. On her deck Pond took photographs of the stranded steamer as the tide fell and the seas rose. As the weather deteroriated, the schooner finally had to abandon her post and run for shelter in the lee of Benjamin Island.
By the time the U.S. Lighthouse Service tender Cedar arrived it was low tide and the steamer’s hull was completely out of the water. The Cedar took shelter alongside the King and Winge waiting for the turn of the tide.
Onboard the steamer was a contingent of soldiers including Auris McQueen. That day, waiting for the Princess Sophia to refloat, he wrote a letter to his mother.
"It’s storming now, about a 50-mile wind and we can only see a couple of hundred yards on account of the snow and spray. At three A.M. yesterday she struck a rock submerged at high tide, and for a while there was a some excitement, but no panic. Two women fainted and one of them got herself into a black evening dress and didn’t worry over who saw her putting it on. Some of the men, too, kept life preservers for an hour or so and seemed to think that there was no chance for us…
"We had three tugboats here in the afternoon, but the weather was too rough to transfer any passengers…The wind and the sea from behind pounded and pushed her until she is now, 30 hours after, on the rock clear back to the middle and we can’t get off."
It was the last letter Auris McQueen ever wrote.
Late that day the Cedar received a desperate wireless call. "Taking water and foundering, for God’s sake come and save us." The rising tide and seas had loosened the ship’s hold on the reef. The Princess Sophia was slipping into deep water.
The Cedar signaled the King and Winge and they both got underway in a blinding snow storm. It took courage and skill to sail into the teeth of a gale with no visibility, no auxilary engine, no navigation other than dead reckoning and a reef as your destination. The men onboard the schooner knew their situation could rapidly become as desperate as those they hoped to help.
When they arrived at Vanderbilt Reef it was dark already and the Princess Sophia no where evident. At dawn the next day all that was visible was the steamer’s masthead and the bodies on the water, floating in life jackets or lashed to life rafts, the corpses covered with bunker fuel oil. Of the 345 onboard, only the English setter survived. It was later found oil-soaked and suffering from exposure at Tee Harbor. It was the worst maritime disaster in the history of the Pacific Northwest.
It seems likely that the rising seas pounded the Princess Sophia on the reef, holing her double hull. Eventually she slid stern first off the ledge, sinking to the bottom like a headstone.
The salvage divers later recovered the gold from the ship’s safe, the ship’s bell, and many of the personal possessions of the dead.