Story Time w/ Aunt Phil: Cruise ship sinks near Juneau
This week in 1952, Life Magazine shared the story of the sinking of the Canadian ship Princess Kathleen off Lena Point, 18 miles north of Juneau.
This Canadian Pacific passenger ship was the predecessor to the Princess Patricia – the first “Love Boat” operated by Princess Cruises. And for most of the mid-twentieth century, with the exception of World War II, the luxury liner served most of her maritime career plying the coastal communities of British Columbia, Alaska and Washington.
On September 7, 1952, while on the final Alaska cruise of the season, the trim three-stacker encountered heavy squalls and poor visibility while traveling between Juneau and Skagway. Chief Officer Charles W. Savage ordered a simple change of course to steer the 369-foot vessel into the middle of the channel after he spotted the Shelter Island Light.
But the strong tides of Lynn Canal and heavy squalls pushed the ship off her course to port and dense rainfall made it difficult to detect her dangerous swing toward shore.
Savage picked up his binoculars and stepped to the bridge to look for landmarks or navigation lights. As he did so, the lookout shouted, “Land”, but as it was through the intercom system and, as words tend to become indistinguishable when shouted into the microphone, the rest of his message was lost. The mate ran to see what the lookout had sighted and found the quartermaster had kept the helm to starboard. Then, for the first time, he sighted land, but it seemed some distance away.
At 2:58 a.m., the Princess Kathleen ran aground on Lena Point, about 14 miles northwest of Juneau, in Alaska’s Lynn Canal – North America’s deepest fjord.
Initially, Savage’s crew sent out an SOS on the wrong frequency. It would be two hours later before the U.S. Coast Guard would become aware that a Canadian ship had been grounded on their shores. When the Coast Guard got wind of the plight of the Princess Kathleen, they immediately sent a cutter to the scene.
As the tide fell, the Princess Kathleen took on a very decided list, and with increased winds picking up her stern, she soon was driven against the rocks. By 5:30 a.m. Savage ordered the lifejacket-clad passengers to evacuate the ship.
While waiting for help onshore, passengers built campfires to keep themselves warm. One report by a historian noted that the survivors showed no panic at all and that some of them assumed they were on an island. However, they soon found out that they had to hack their way through the forest for a mile and a half to reach a nearby road where busses then transported them into Juneau.
The Coast Guard cutter arrived at 6:30 a.m. and eventually made two trips to evacuate about 150 remaining passengers. By 9 a.m. all 307 passengers had safely disembarked the stricken vessel.
When the tide rose, it swamped and flooded the ship, forcing Savage and 80 crewmembers to abandon the vessel at 11:30 a.m. And then just after noon, the Princess Kathleen finally slipped below the surface of the water and remains there to this day. Scuba divers now enjoy visiting the underwater wreck, which has become a popular dive spot.