A strong wind shook a spruce tree above the graves of Walter Harper and his wife Frances Wells in Evergreen Cemetery, 100 years to the day after their deaths.
Next to the graves, a crowd of more than 50 people gathered to pay respects to them and the 351 others who perished when the SS Princess Sophia sank into the waters of Lynn Canal on Oct. 25, 1918. The gusts of wind peppered attendees with rain from time to time, and Rev. Gordon Blue from the Church of the Holy Trinity thanked people for braving the elements to honor those who were lost in the “important and terrible occurrence.”
As Blue led the service, a woman stood behind him wearing a polka-dot coat paired with a purple hat and purple gloves. The woman, Patsy Boxall, came up from her home near Vancouver, B.C. to take in the centennial events honoring the victims on the Princess Sophia.
Boxall and her sister Eileen Marshall were both there, honoring their uncle George Sjolseth, one of the Sophia’s ill-fated passengers.
“He’s part of our history,” Boxall said.
The sinking of the Sophia is a major event in the history of the Yukon and Alaska, as a loss of more than 350 people dealt a huge blow to a region that didn’t have a large population at the time, as chronicled in books including Ken Coates and Bill Morrison’s “The Sinking of the Princess Sophia: Taking the North Down with Her.”
Sjolseth was coming back from gold mining in Alaska, returning to his home in Seattle to enlist in the Army, Boxall said. His remains were found in May 1919, Boxall said, and are now buried in the Seattle area.
Marshall brought up family documents and postcards that Sjolseth sent during his time in Alaska, looking to compare information with other people who were affected by the tragedy.
Though there was only one Juneau resident aboard the Princess Sophia, there’s still a great deal of local interest in the ship’s fate. Many of the attendees brought cameras to record the ceremony and some of them stayed long after it was over to discuss the history of Harper and others on the ship.
“It was very special to share with these people who are descendents who do remember the history,” Marshall said. “We are family. We’re all part of the family.”
Another member of that extended family was Ken Karstens, who came up from Colorado for the centennial ceremonies. Karstens is a descendent of Harry Karstens, who was part of the first expedition to reach the top of Denali (then called Mount McKinley) in 1913. Harper was another member of that group, and Ken Karstens said he feels a distant kinship to Harper as a result.
Karstens said he was impressed at the resiliency of those in attendance. He thought back to the windy, stormy weather conditions surrounding the sinking of the Sophia and said it was fitting that the wind and rain swept through the memorial ceremony.
The ceremony lasted about half an hour, with Blue reading scripture and prayers and volunteers reading a synopsis of the Sophia’s story and of the Harpers’ story. Mary Lou Spartz, an avid researcher of the Sophia’s history, read off the names of the 21 passengers who are buried in Evergreen Cemetery.
Near the close of the ceremony, Tess Altiveros from “The Princess Sophia” opera sang one of the pieces from the performance, entitled “Sophia’s Lullaby.” Thursday was the opera’s opening night. The wind made it difficult to hear parts of the memorial service, but it slowed down for most of Oliveros’ performance.
“The wind softly whispers a sweet lullaby,” Altiveros sang, with perfect timing as the weather matched the lyrics.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.