Perhaps an Angel Flies Over These Waters

By , October 25, 2011

Today, October 25th, as I have done the last few days, I will listen to a song that makes me miserable.

The song is Ballad of the Princess Sophia by the Longest Night Ensemble, on their CD Not Too Dark. This is an album of songs and stories for the Winter Solstice, recorded in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. I picked it up at the Goodwill store in Whitehorse on the trip to retrieve Aly from last summer’s archaeological field school. As it happened, I had recently read one of the best of many books on the Princess Sophia, Ken Coates and Bill Morrison’s Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down with Her (check your local, independent bookstore).

The ship ran aground on Vanderbilt Reef north of Juneau in a blinding October blizzard. She stuck there a few days, then sank, killing all aboard. Coates and Morrison point out that the sinking represented a huge disaster for our region, as many of the leading citizens of gold rush-era Alaska and the Yukon died. Only the region’s isolation, and the end of World War I coming within a few short weeks of the disaster kept it from becoming as well known as it might have been.

Today is the 94th anniversary of the death of the Steamship Princess Sophia, and all the souls aboard her.

The tune of Ballad of the Princess Sophia is repetitive, almost simplistic, which is part of its charm. It sounds like a “comfort tune,” the type of song people sometimes hum to themselves more or less subconsciously as a sort of self-administered lullaby. It’s the lyrics that affect me so deeply. They recount the experiences of a young girl, Pearl O’Brien, whose family took passage on the Princess Sophia. It describes their travel from Dawson to Skagway, boarding the ship, and, inevitably, their final moments aboard the doomed vessel.

Pearl dreams of a guardian angel, a vision she shares with her younger sister, Mary. As darkness, confusion, and panic engulf them, Pearl assures her sibling that the angel is still with them.

And then, the end comes suddenly. Late this afternoon in 1918, in high winds and white out conditions, Sophia dislodged from the rock, and all aboard died. The song dolefully concludes:

“Perhaps an angel flies over these waters/brings peace to all good souls, in their final hour.”

I’ve visited Vanderbilt Reef often. The ferry between Haines and Juneau passes close by it, and I used to fish for halibut near the reef with friends. I’ve spent many long hours, waiting for a bite, contemplating the bare expanse of rock, some of it scraped smooth by the last grinding passage of Sophia’s hull as she slipped off the reef. It’s a bleak enough place on a calm, sunny, late summer day. In the blackness of an October blizzard, it could well be the most sorrowful place imaginable. One could only hope for angels to be hovering near.

Because, you see, according to the evidence laid out by Coates and Morrison, none of the victims that night drowned in the ocean. Thick oil seeping from the wreck coated the water’s surface. All aboard, except for one dog, suffocated in the oil. The thought of such a fate chills me to the bone.

The last few days have been windy, here on Lynn Canal. The winds far short of the blizzard and 50 to 100 mile per hour winds that led to Sophia’s doom, but there is a hint, a faint echo of what the passengers and crew must have faced that night.

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