Send Help: The Princess May Sinking Sentinel Island


Tiffany Storry | Programs Assistant & Contributing Researcher

Despite S.S. Princess May’s long career across many different oceans and ports, she is still most well known for her crash in August of 1910.  The image of her wreck also became one of the most recognizable ship wreck images of the time, and today we are still amazed by it.

The S.S. Princess May was built in England by the Hawthorn, Leslie & Co. in 1888 for the Formosa Trading Company over in Asia. Originally named Cass she served thirteen years over on the China coast where she had some bizarre adventures on that coast. The ship went through many names during her service in Asia. When the Canadian Pacific Railway Coast Service purchase the ship she was named S.S. Princess May, part of their Princess line which ferried people along the coast and a subset of their Empress line ships.

A lighthouse is supposed to keep you from running aground. However, the Princess May still somehow managed! S.S. Princess May left Skagway, Alaska, that day with 80 passengers and 68 crew and a shipment of gold. Just later that day she was high and dry at an angle of 23 degrees on the north end of Sentinel Island, AK. What had to have been the chain of events for this mishap to happen?

The Canadian Pacific Railway ship was steaming down the Lynn Canal at 12 knots under the command of Captain John McLeod. As the passengers and captain were sleeping blissfully at four in the morning, surrounded by heavy fog and smooth seas, the ship struck the reef and was shipwrecked.

As the ships engine rooms flooded the wireless operator, W.R. Keller, did not have time to send out a distress call before the main power was lost. He improvised and was able to send out the Morse code message above before the room was completely flooded, alerting near by ships.

Thankfully, quick thinking meant that all passengers and crew members, as well as the gold shipment, were saved and made their way to the lighthouse! The lighthouse keeper did his best job to make these castaways comfortable.

The passengers and crew left the island in the fishing vessels Georgia and Rustler, making their way back to Juneau. As they sailed away initial estimates of the wreck assumed the ship would be a total loss. However, a month later Captain Logan, with his salvage tug from Santa Cruz and a BC salvage tug captained by William Jollife, managed to pull the vessel off the reef. Afterwards she underwent large restorations, and the cost of the salvage and repairs was over $115,000. The S.S. Princess May returned to service within the year, and continued to ferry people along the coast for nine more years with no additional mishaps or misadventure