Story last updated at 10/23/2013 - 2:09 pm
Did the captain of the Princess Sophia shoot two crew members intent on robbing one of his passengers of the gold she'd left in the ship's safe? Was he in his cabin with that woman, and another, when the ship ground into a reef near Juneau?
These are some of the questions a recent reader's theater version of local author Mary Lou Spartz' play, "The Real Story of the Sinking of the Princess Sophia," explored at the Alaska State Museum.
Spartz' play, while based on the very real disaster, is a work of fiction based in "fact, myth and gossip," she said.
In October of 1918, the Princess Sophia was heading south from Skagway in poor weather. It went slightly off course and hit Vanderbilt Reef, near Juneau. It spent more than two days lodged firmly on the reef until high winds and waves moved it, ripping out the bottom and causing the boilers to explode. Everyone on board (except one English Setter) died, and the event still ranks as the worst maritime disaster in the Inside Passage.
Though estimates have been placed at around 354 dead, Spartz said it's not exactly clear how many people were on board.
The play is a "ghostly tribunal" in the lighthouse adjacent to the reef, and includes a cast including the (knowingly) deceased captain, first mate, two women, two would-be robbers (or heroes, depending who's telling the story), a judge, and Spartz, who served as the narrator. Though for the majority of the story the characters were concerned with "getting the story straight," by the end, many of them simply wanted the captain to admit he had been wrong in deciding not to use lifeboats to help them abandon ship. This was something that, in the play, he had difficulty doing.
"I did everything right. I played by the rules," he said. "Somebody has to follow the rules..."
Spartz said the captain had been directed by his company, Canadian Pacific, to stay on board, along with his passengers. They said they were sending a rescue ship that would be there "momentarily." The water was also extremely rough for small craft.
Momentarily didn't happen. The rescue ship was delayed by the same storm that wracked the Princess Sophia.
Spartz first heard the story of the sinking of the Princess Sophia when she was around 11. She lived near Evergreen Cemetery, and she saw a tombstone of someone who had died in the disaster. She asked her father about it. Later in life, she began researching it more. She first began writing the play 20 years ago.
As a reader's theater version of the play, "The Real Story of the Sinking of the Princess Sophia" wasn't a full performance, but audience members said it still helped them visualize what might have happened.
"This is just one of those stories that I've read, but was always a long ago and far away type of story. You tend to remember stuff better when it gets a little bit closer to where you've been," said Pete Redshaw.
"There are just stories with stories with stories," said audience member Jeanie Henry.
Spartz said she wants to draw attention to the fact that the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking is coming up in 2018. Though "it's a Canadian story," being a Canadian ship, Juneau played a large part.
During the time the ship was stranded on the reef, Juneau residents went out in rough seas and offered to help. After it sank, high school students collected bodies of the dead.
The sinking never got the attention it deserved, Spartz said, because the day the ship with the passengers' bodies arrived in Vancouver was Nov. 11, 1918 - Armistice Day.
"We stepped up (as a community,)" Spartz said. "I'd like to see us take credit for it."
The following link provides a good history of the event: http://www.sitnews.us/Kiffer/PrincessSophia/120505_princess_sophia.html
Mary Catharine Martin is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.