Princess May’s Dramatic Grounding

Jan 23, 2023 0 comments

In August 1910, a Canadian steamship named Princess May ran aground near Sentinel Island, off the coast of Alaska, in the most spectacular fashion. The ship became wedged in the rocks, and when the water receded at low tide, the ship appeared to hang in the air completely out of water. An image that appears almost unreal was captured by a photographer, and that photograph circled the nation in newspapers, magazines and postcards. The wreck of the Princess May soon became one of the most recognizable shipwreck images in America.

Wreck of Princess May. Photo: William Howard

Princess May was built in England by the Hawthorn, Leslie & Co., Ltd. in 1888. The ship was initially named Cass when she joined the fleet of the Formosa Trading Company, based out of Taiwan. The arrival of Cass and her sister ship Smith at Taiwan was called the “shipping event of the year” for the China coast. The Formosa Trading Company was established by Taiwan's governor, Liu Mingchuan, following the advice of a former manager of China Merchant Steam Navigation Company. According to a historical source, the official reason for commissioning two steamers was to modernize Taiwan, however, the real objective was to rival the China Merchant Steam Navigation Company and its two allied English partners for passenger transport on the Yangtze River and between Shanghai and Tientsin.

However, the China Merchant Steam Navigation Company was able to frustrate this scheme, and the Formosa Trading Company became defunct. Cass was then run by a host of different companies under different names, including Arthur, Ningchow, and Hating. In 1901, after thirteen years servicing the Chinese coast, Cass was purchased by the newly organized Canadian Pacific Railway Coastal Service and renamed Princess May, after Mary of Teck, who was known as “May” and who would later become the Queen of England.

Photo: William R. Norton

On 5 August 1910, Princess May departed Skagway, Alaska, with 80 passengers and 68 crew and a shipment of gold. The ship was steaming down the Lynn Canal at 12 knots under heavy fog under the command of Captain John McLeo, when it stuck the rocks near the north end of Sentinel Island early in the morning. It was high tide and the momentum of the ship forced it well up onto the rocks, with the bow jutting upward at an angle of 23 degrees.

The hull was breached, through which water began to pour in and flooded the engine room, cutting off electrical power to the ship’s instruments, including its wireless set. The wireless operator, W.R. Keller, ran to the engine room and rigged an improvised electrical connection with the engine room telegraph battery, and using this was able to send out a wireless distress call before the engine room was completely flooded.

The close proximity of Sentinel Island helped prevent a major disaster. The passengers and crew were able to safely evacuate to the island, and the gold shipment was also secured. Later the passengers and crew were picked up by Princess Ena and other rescue ships and taken to Juneau.

To remove Princess May from the rocks, a Seattle-based salvage tug named Santa Cruz was brought in, as well as the William Jolliffe, one of the most powerful tugs on the British Columbia coast. The rocks were blasted and a temporary shipway was built, and after several failed attempts, the salvors were able to refloat the ship and tow it to port.

Princess May returned to service in less than a year, and remained with the Canadian Pacific Railway Coast Service for another nine years. In 1917, the steamer narrowly avoided disaster when it collided with another ship, the Jefferson, off the coast of British Columbia. The Princess May suffered little damage, while the Jefferson was severely damaged, but there were no injuries. In 1919, the Canadian Pacific Railway sold the Princess May to a company based in the Caribbean, where the ship continued to operate until the end of its active service. The ship was eventually scuttled in the 1930s.


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