Anna Maria sails south

The Anna Maria is launched with three Caterpillars easing it into the Skagway Small Boat Harbor. Photo by Dimitra Lavrakas

The little riverboat that could: Anna Maria sails Lynn Canal again

As the Anna Maria cruised into open waters early Sunday morning, its yellow stack barely peeked over the stone wall of Skagway Small Boat Harbor.
The “infamous” Anna Maria’s few days docked in Skagway were not without turmoil before the riverboat set out to brave the Inside Passage, Harbormaster Ken Russo said.
Capt. Fred Whitford battled small Skagway streets and weight limits on the roads as the boat was transported from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory over White Pass. Then when Whitford launched the boat into the water on June 14, the steering hydraulics failed.
“Originally, they were gonna put the boat in the water in the spring, but they waited until Sunday because of the road (weight) bans,” said Hunz & Hunz Enterprises’ Josh Magee. Magee supervised the boat’s transportation from the White Pass border at 11:30 p.m. June 10. It took them three hours to get into town.
A three-man crew drove pilot cars leading the 120,000 pound vessel down the pass into the Skagway staging area.
Magee said his team prepped the Skagway streets by putting blocks on the curbs and widening Alaska and State Streets so the boat’s eight axles and 36 tires wouldn’t damage the roadway. Whitford removed the boat’s motors, polls, masts and radio antennas to meet height and weight restrictions. Nevertheless, telephone wires were taken down to make way for the vessel, Russo said.
Magee then helped usher the boat into the water on June 14 using forklifts.
While in Whitehorse, Whitford added a 10-foot long keel that would steady the flat-bottomed river boat and provide for ease of maneuvering on the Inside Passage waters.
Without the keel, the boat would be tossed around the ocean waters “like a sailboat,” Magee said.
Whitford, en route to Vancouver, British Columbia, was unavailable for comment, but his wife, Mary Whitford, said she expects him by June 22. Mary said they plan to rename the boat the Celestial Star, keeping with a theme of vessel names on the Starline Tours, Whitford’s company.
But even with the keel, the treacherous waters leave reason for doubt. Mary said she hopes the boat will arrive in time for their daughter’s June 30 wedding slated to take place on the boat.
“Considering it was supposed to be here in May, I hope it’s here by the wedding,” she said.
The Anna Maria’s string of problems would likely cause other captains to abandon ship, but her history proves calamity is nothing new.
The boat first journeyed through Skagway on its way to Whitehorse soon after its construction in 1988 in Sydney, British Columbia. Magee supervised the operation both times. The smokestacks, engines and antennas had to be removed to make the trip each time, he said.
In 1988, the boat missed the Whitehorse tourist season because of weight restrictions on the pass.
When the permafrost had hardened and the boat was transported over the pass, it ran aground and damaged its propellers on its maiden run on the Yukon River on May 24, 1989. Original owners Gus Karpes and Irene Pugh’s hopes of ferrying people between Whitehorse and Dawson were dashed when they couldn’t pay the mortgage on the $1 million vessel.
Karpes and Pugh filed for bankruptcy and the Toronto-based Pan American Leasing Corp. bought the Anna Maria in 1989, but that didn’t last long. Several owners tried using the Anna Maria as a tour boat, but most gave up.
Whitford will use the boat for dinner cruises on a more temperate part of the Fraser River, that is, if it can get there.

Lest we forget: SS Princess Sophia

WP&YR’s Gary Danielson speaks by the memorial with all the names of those who perished, including Mrs. E.M. Bell, the great aunt of Dawson’s Sylvia Burkhard (left). Photo by Carl Mulvihill

Skagwayans help dedicate long-awaited memorial to steamship in Dawson City

They say she “took the North down with her.” Now she has risen in spirit with a fitting memorial from the home port of many on board.
On Oct. 23, 1918, the SS Princess Sophia left Skagway with 343 persons on board. That night, a sudden snow storm hit Lynn Canal and the ship struck Vanderbilt Reef north of Juneau. After an unsuccessful wait to be floated off the reef by the tide, the ship broke apart the next evening, and all aboard perished.
“It was the worst marine disaster on the West Coast,” tells Skagway balladeer Steve Hites, but the story was bumped off the front pages by the end of World War One, and never reached Titanic fame. Hites penned a song about the tragedy, and performed “Last Voyage of the Princess Sophia” at a memorial in Dawson City on May 26. “It was a tremendous honor to be invited,” he said.
Why Dawson for a memorial for a ship that sank 600 miles away? As Hites sings, and as was recounted by speakers at the memorial, including White Pass & Yukon Route’s Gary Danielson, most on board were Yukoners and Alaskans catching the ship south after a summer of working steamers on the Yukon River.

Skagway's Steve Hites sings his revised version of "The Last Voyage of the Princess Sophia." Photo by Kelly Miller, courtesy of Klondyke Centennial Society

“The White Pass felt the loss of the Sophia more than most as fully one-third of (the Sophia’s) passengers were employed by the company and worked mainly with the river divisions...” Danielson said. “Fully five separate riverboat crews were torn apart by the loss of life of crew members and, along with them, much of the company’s knowledge, of Yukon River navigation.”
Hites, who hadn’t performed his song in public in the Yukon for 22 years, said he changed some of the lyrics to reflect research turned up in the book “The Sinking of the Princess Sophia.” His original version, based on oral tradition, portrayed an almost festive scene before the ship went down, but the truth, indicated in letters found on passengers, was the opposite, he discovered. Since most on board were riverboat people, they knew the danger they were in.
“I made a promise not long ago when flying over Vanderbilt Reef that I would tell the story right,” Hites said.
He hopes the Dawson event inspires more memorials in Skagway and Juneau. – JEFF BRADY