JUST YESTERDAY: The Wreck of the Princess May

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The 250-foot coastal liner Princess May sits high and dry on rocks near Sentinel Island in Alaska’s Lynn Canal.

Photographer William Case’s image of the 1910 wreck went viral (to use today’s parlance) in newspapers and magazines around the world. It’s one of the most famous shipwreck photos ever.

As hopeless as the steamer’s predicament appears, there was no loss of life, and the vessel was re-floated and returned to service.

The 22-year-old Princess May was in the employ of the Canadian Pacific Railway Coast Service on the Inside Passage run, the 800-mile route connecting Vancouver, British Columbia, with the burgeoning western Alaskan fishing and mining ports. On August 5, 1910, the British-built vessel departed Skagway, Alaska, with 80 passengers, 68 crew, a few sacks of mail and a load of gold bullion.

Twin triple-expansion steam engines were spinning the two big propellers to the tune of a 10-knot cruising speed. Running down the canal, Princess May encountered a heavy fog; before speed could be effectively reduced, the 1,717-gross-ton vessel hit rocks off Sentinel Island. Her momentum carried her up and onto them. Her steel hull was gashed open, and water poured in.

Wireless operator W.R. Keller tried to send an SOS distress signal, but ship’s power went out. According to the Haines Sheldon Museum’s account, Keller then “ran belowdecks and MacGyvered a functioning electrical connection with the engine room’s lamp battery. Using this power, he was able to send a short message: “S.S. Princess May sinking Sentinel Island — send help.” Tugs arrived and passengers were evacuated, along with the gold and the mail sacks.

Twenty-five years later, in 1935, Princess May was scuttled intentionally after serving in the Caribbean. 

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue.