Juneau residents recite a prayer at the grave of Walter Harper and his wife, Francis Wells, during a memorial at Evergreen Cemetery Tuesday marking the 98th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Princess Sophia on Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal.

At cemetery gathering, group remembers Princess Sophia’s sinking

At least 21 grave markers in Juneau’s Evergreen Cemetery share a common death date: 1918.

On Oct. 25, 1918, more than 340 people died when the SS Princess Sophia sank after striking Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal. On Tuesday, a group of about 35 people gathered around the graves of Walter Harper and Frances Wells in Evergreen to commemorate Alaska’s worst maritime disaster.

Harper and Wells are among the 21 shipwreck victims buried in Juneau. During Tuesday’s memorial, several people told brief stories about Harper, Wells and other passengers who were traveling on the ill-fated ship.

Harper and Wells were on their way back to the Lower 48 to become involved in World War I war effort when the Princess Sophia sank. Only five years earlier, Harper became the first man to reach the summit of Denali, then known as Mount McKinley.

Now, 98 years after the disaster, people still visit Harper’s grave. Many of the 35 people who attended Tuesday’s memorial have been doing so for at least 25 years.

Mark Boesser is among that group. From a seat beneath a large tree near Harper and Wells’ grave, Boesser led Tuesday’s memorial.

“We learn more each time we do this,” Boesser told the Empire after the event.

Each year, somebody will show up with a piece of information that nobody else knew, or at least disclosed, before, he said. This year, the new interesting fact came from Mary Lou Spartz, who spoke briefly about the Juneau’s involvement in the rescue and recovery efforts.

According to Spartz, Juneau residents played a key role in recovering and identifying the bodies of those who died in the shipwreck.

“It wasn’t all pleasant, and it wasn’t all safe,” she said describing the work.

It was important, however. Because the shipwreck’s only survivor was a dog, the only accounts we have of the final moments of the Princess Sophia are from letters recovered from the dead.

Tuesday’s memorial service played out like most of those in the past, but future commemorations are likely to be more noteworthy, particularly those of 2018 — the disaster’s centennial.

Katy Giorgio of the Orpheus Project, a local opera group, announced at the memorial that the group has started working on an opera about the Princess Sophia that is scheduled to premiere in October 2018.

Fairbanks-based composer Emerson Eads and Juneau-based playwright David Hunsaker are currently working on the opera. They hope to workshop in about a year to find cast members, according to Todd Hunt, who will conduct the opera.

A representative of the Pioneers of Alaska, a fraternal history organization, also announced Tuesday that the organization is working to build a memorial to those who died on the Princess Sophia at Eagle Beach State Recreation Area.

The memorial will comprise a boulder with a bronze plaque describing how the ship sank. Like the opera, this memorial is slated to be finished by October 2018, according to Terry Brenner, a member of the Pioneers of Alaska.

• Contact reporter Sam DeGrave at 523-2279 or sam.degrave@juneauempire.com.

Juneau residents gather at the grave of Walter Harper and his wife, Francis Wells, during a memorial at Evergreen Cemetery Tuesday marking the 98th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Princess Sophia on Vanderbilt Reef in Lynn Canal.

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