Tag Archives: princess sophia

Walter Harper

A book review, of sorts:


Walter Harper’s biography, cover

Prompted by the post on here about the sinking of the Princess Sophia, I had to read Walter Harper’s biography by Mary Ehrlander. It turned out to be a well written, and fascinating read.

Walter Harper was the youngest child of the famed Irish gold prospector Arthur Harper and Athabascan Jenny Albert. He was born in Nuchelawoya, which is now the village of Tanana, in December of 1892. Walter did not know his father, as his parents separated after his birth, and Jenny raised him in the traditional Athabascan ways.

At 16, Walter met the Episcopal archdeacon, Hudson Stuck. Stuck was immediately impressed by Walter, and he soon became the archdeacon’s trail assistant. It was a role that Harper flourished in. Already an accomplished hunter and fisherman, Harper quickly mastered the river boat and dog team, as Walter traveled with Stuck throughout the Yukon River basin.


Walter Harper with a pet fox kit

It didn’t take long for Harper to become vital to Stuck’s operation. In 1913, Stuck and Harry Karstens decided to attempt to climb Denali, North America’s highest peak. There was never any question that the 21 year old Harper would be a member of the expedition. Missionary Robert Tatum also joined the group. On June 7 of that year, Walter Harper became the first known person to step on the summit of Denali. By all accounts, Harper was the glue that held the expedition together, allowing it to succeed.

Walter Harper led an incredible life, in many ways he experienced the very best that Alaska had to offer at that time. Hudson Stuck was a prolific writer, and Harper kept his own journals of his experiences, although only Walter’s journal of the Denali summit has survived. Ehrlander is a great storyteller, and does a wonderful job of recreating Harper & Stuck’s adventures, as well as exploring what had developed into a father/son relationship.

Harper packed a lot of life into his short time on earth. Fresh off of his marriage at the age of 25, Harper and his new bride, Frances Wells, left for a camping trip, spending their wedding night in a tent along the Porcupine River. They did a hunting-honeymoon, for food to stock the Fort Yukon mission & hospital for the coming winter. Having such a good time in each other’s company, they stayed longer than planned, missing a steamer to Whitehorse, for their trip Outside. Eventually, the couple did leave Fort Yukon on the steamer Alaska for Whitehorse. From Whitehorse, they took the White Pass & Yukon Railway to Skagway, where they booked passage on the Princess Sophia’s last trip south for the season. The Princess Sophia would strike Vanderbilt Reef, and rough seas would eventually sink the ship. All lives on board were lost.

Walter Harper and Frances Wells were buried in Juneau.


“Here Lie the Bodies of Walter Harper and Frances Wells, His Wife, Drowned on the Princess Sophia, 25th October 1918. May Light Perpetually Shine on Them. They Were Lovely and Pleasant in Their Lives, And in Death They Were Not Divided

Harper Glacier on Denali is named after both Walter and his father, Arthur. The ranger station in Talkeetna is also named after Walter Harper. I highly recommend Walter Harper: Alaska Native Son to anyone interested in this unique time and place in history. Nothing is quite like early 20th Century Alaska, and Walter Harper makes an extraordinary subject. The sky is the limit as to what this Alaskan could have accomplished if he had lived a longer life. Which is simply amazing in itself, considering what he did accomplish in such a short time span.


The Titanic of the West Coast


The Princess Sophia

It was 100 years ago on 25 October 1918, when one of the worst shipwrecks on North America’s west coast occurred. The sinking of the Princess Sophia.

A Canadian Pacific Steamer, the Princess Sophia left Skagway, Alaska on 23 October, bound for Vancouver and Victoria, Canada. It was the ship’s final run of the season, and she left the dock three hours late. There were 353 people on board; an eclectic group from the Yukon and Alaska: miners, business men, government officials, their wives and children, along with the ship’s crew.


Princess Sophia on Vanderbilt Reef

The Sophia, traveling off course, crashed onto Vanderbilt Reef at 2am on the 24th. The ship was traveling 11 knots at the time of impact. It is not known why or how the ship ran off course, although weather was probably a factor. The ship was cruising through heavy snow and fog, with zero visibility. Procedure called for the speed to be reduced to 7 knots, but the captain kept the pace up, possibly to make up for the late departure. The Sophia’s log was never recovered to provide insight.

A stresscall was sent out to Juneau, and a fleet of rescue boats went out to the reef, and circled the Sophia for several hours.


Princess Sophia atop Vanderbilt Reef

Initial inspections showed that the Sophia was not taking on water, so the captain hoped that the ship could float off the reef at high tide. Passengers waited anxiously from October 24 to the 25th to be rescued.

The sea began to worsen. A light house tender, The Cedar, could only get to within 400 yards of the Princess Sophia, and was pushed back by the rough waves. By afternoon on the 25th, the storm had increased in severity to the point that rescue ships had to seek shelter themselves.


“Last trace of the Princess Sophia”

The winds picked up, the tide rose, and the Sophia’s stern was lifted upward, breaking the hull away when the ship came down. It was now taking on water, and an SOS was sent out from the ship.

The Princess Sophia sat on Vanderbilt Reef for 40 hours, yet sank between 5:30-6:00 pm on the 25th. There were no survivors from the frigid Alaska waters.


Walter Harper; Formal photo, 1916

There was one Alaskan celebrity on board. Walter Harper, a Koyukon Athabascan, was the first person to summit Denali in 1913, as a member of the Karstens-Stuck Expedition. Harper had just been married on 1 September, and was on board the Sophia with his wife, Frances Wells. The couple were on their honeymoon.


A plaque erected by Pioneers of Alaska-Juneau, at Eagle Beach, 9 miles from the wreck site

Photos courtesy of the Alaska Library and its Archives