British Columbia

Headstone honours family lost in West Coast shipwreck that killed hundreds in 1918

A new headstone in a Vancouver cemetery pays tribute to a family that perished in one of the worst nautical disasters in West Coast history — a disaster largely forgotten about due to its timing around the end of the First World War.

7 members of O'Brien family were among around 360 who died in SS Princess Sophia disaster

The SS Princess Sophia sank in Alaska's Lynn Canal in October 1918, killing all passengers and crew. (Alaska State Library)

As a ship loaded with bodies recovered from one of the worst nautical disasters in West Coast history arrived in the Port of Vancouver, its sombre journey was interrupted by the sound of honking horns and jubilation.

It was the early morning of Nov. 11, 1918, and news of the armistice ending the First World War had reached British Columbia.

The coincidence of timing has meant the sinking of the SS Princess Sophia with around 360 passengers and crew members aboard never etched itself into the country's collective memory the way it might have otherwise, said David Leverton, executive director of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia.

The museum staff wanted to change that and is installing a headstone at Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver to mark the final resting place of the O'Brien family of seven, 100 years after they died in the disaster.

"We realized it was first and foremost the largest marine disaster that had happened on the Pacific Northwest coast of North America, and nobody knew about it," Leverton said.

"There were so many people who tragically lost their lives. We wanted to do something that was a tribute to the families, the descendents who had suffered so terribly from this."

Ship steered off-course

William and Sarah O'Brien lived in Whitehorse and boarded the Princess Sophia in Skagway, Alaska, with their five children, ages two through 14.

Just four hours after leaving the port, the ship ran aground at full throttle on the Vanderbilt reef, about 50 kilometres northwest of Juneau, Alaska. It was the middle of the night and without the help of modern-day navigational technology, the vessel had strayed about two kilometres off course.

They thought they would be able to get passengers off but the weather wouldn't abate.- David Leverton, executive director of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia

"The only way that they could dead reckon was to blow the ship's whistle and count the seconds for the back echo. So with strong winds and strong currents, they ended up getting progressively off course," Leverton said.

The captain sent out mayday calls and the first help boat arrived around 5 a.m., but fluctuating tides and blizzard conditions prevented them from getting close.

"They thought they would be able to get passengers off but the weather wouldn't abate," Leverton said.

No light, heat for 2 days before sinking

Over the course of two days, the captain continued to reassess the situation as the ship lost power and stormy conditions continued, but continued hopeful that the weather would turn in their favour.

"You had more than 300 passengers and crew who didn't have any light, didn't have any heat and all they would have heard was the sound of the gale force winds outside, the pounding of the sea and ship grinding on the reef," Leverton said.

The SS Princess Sophia hit the Vanderbilt Reef and sank in October 1918 killing all 364 passengers and crew on board. 0:48

Waves battering the stern ultimately dislodged it from its perch and it's believed the Princess Sophia sank in the course of an hour. When rescue crews arrived on the morning of Oct. 26, 1918, the weather had calmed but all they could see was the mast protruding from the water.

There was a public inquiry and lawsuit, but ultimately it was determined that the captain had done everything he could to protect his passengers and crew, and the disaster was caused by "perils of the sea," Leverton said.

Months before bodies recovered

It took many months to recover the victims' bodies and the last O'Brien, Sarah, was recovered 10 months after the accident.

Many of the victims are buried in Seattle and at Victoria's Ross Bay Cemetery, but the largest number — 74 — are at Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver, including the O'Briens.

Anyone whose body was not claimed by family was interred at Mountain View and several graves were never marked.

The museum was unsuccessful in tracking down any of the O'Brien family's relatives, but Leverton said anyone can visit their grave site now that it's marked.

"Anyone going to Mountain View Cemetery, when they walk past the O'Brien plots, there will now be a gravestone there to recognize the family and pay tribute."

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