Passenger Letters

Passenger Letters

Both Jack Maskell’s and Auris McQueen’s bodies were found with letters that they had written while on Vanderbilt Reef. Both men had carefully tucked the letters away to protect them from the sea water. They are reproduced here in full.


1. From Jack Maskell to his fiancée, Miss Dorothy Burgess.

Shipwrecked off
coast of Alaska.
S.S. Princess Sophia
24th Oct 1918.

My Own Dear Sweetheart,
I am writing this dear girl while the boat is in grave danger. We struck a rock last night which threw many from their berths, women rushed out in their night attire, some were crying, some too weak to move, but the life boats were soon swung out in all readiness, but cannot get near owing to the storm raging and the reef which we are on. There are now seven ships near. When the tide went down two thirds of the boat was high and dry. We are expecting the lights to go out any minute, also the fires. The boat might go to pieces, for the force of the waves are [sic] terrible, making awful noises on the side of the boat, which has quite a list to port. No one is allowed to sleep, but believe me dear Dorrie it might have been much worse. Just hear[d?] there is another big steamer coming. We struck the reef in a terrible snowstorm. There is a big buoy near marking the danger but the captain was to port instead [of[ to starboard of [the] buoy. I made my will this morning, leaving everything to you, my own true love and I want you to give £100 to my dear Mother, £100 to my dear Dad, £100 to dear wee Jack, and the balance of my estate (about £300) to you, Dorrie dear. The Eagle Lodge will take care of my remains.

In danger at Sea
Princess Sophia
24th October 1918.

To whom it may concern:
Should anything happen [to] me, notify Eagle Lodge, Dawson.
My insurance, finances and property I leave to my wife (who was to be) Miss Dorothy Burgess, 37 Smart St., Longsight, Manchester, England.

J. Maskell



2. From Auris McQueen to his Mother.

In the Lynn Canal off Skagway,

Dear Mama,

The man who wrote ‘On a Slow Train Through Arkansas’ could write a true story of a ‘Slow Trip Through Alaska’ if he had been with a party of a few soldiers. We were sure making a slow trip. We were on a government steamer from Fort Gibbon to Whitehorse and had no pilot who knew the river, so had to tie up nights, and at that got stuck on six sand bars. We were 19 days on that 11-day trip up the Yukon.

Then at Skagway the stampede of people out of the Interior had got ahead of us and we had to miss three boats and only got on this one by good luck. Now, this ship, the Princess Sophia, is on a rock and when we can get away is a question.

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 3 a.m. yesterday she struck a rock submerged at high tide, and for a while there was 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 on for an hour or so and seemed to think there was no chance for us. But we passed through the first real danger point at high tide at 6 a.m. when it was thought she might pound her bottom out on the rocks, and everybody settled down to wait for help. We had three tugboats here in the afternoon, but the weather was too rough to transfer any passengers. The most critical time, nobody but the ship’s officers, we soldiers and a few sailors amongst the crew and passengers were told of it, was at low tide at noon when the captain and chief officer figured she was caught on the starboard bow and would hang there while she settled on the port side and astern. They were afraid she would turn turtle, but the bow pounded around and slipped until she settled into a groove, well supported forward on both sides. 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.

She is a double-bottom boat and her inner hull is not penetrated, so here we stick. She pounds some on a rising tide and it is slow writing, but our only inconvenience is, so far, lack of water. The main steam pipe got twisted off and we were without lights last night, and have run out of soft sugar. But the pipe is fixed so we are getting heat and lights now, and we still have lump sugar and water for drinking.
A lighthouse tender, big enough to hold all the 400 passengers, and one big launch are standing by. And as soon as this storm quits we will be taken off and make another lap to Juneau. I suppose after 3 or 4 days there, we can go to Seattle, after I reckon we will be quarantined, as there are six cases of influenza aboard. The decks are all dry, and this wreck has all the markings of a movie stage setting. All we lack is the hero and the vampire. I am going to quit, and see if I can rustle a bucket and a line to get some sea water to wash in. We are mighty lucky we were not all buried in the sea water.



Both of these letters are reproduced in Appendix A of Coates and Morrison, The Sinking of the Princess Sophia, 171-173. Jack Maskell’s letter is available at the Yukon Territorial Archives, Seddon Collection, 86/49. Auris McQueen’s letter is quoted from the Alaska Daily Empire, 30 October 1918.