The sinking of the Princess Kathleen

SS Princess Kathleen on the rocks at Lena Point, Alaska (Flickr/born1945)

Here is an interesting story from the seas of the Inside Passage near Juneau Alaska.  It is particularly interesting to me as I used to live near the site of the sinking and had a view of the rocky point upon which the Princess Kathleen struck and eventually sank not too far from.  It is hard to imagine that such a large passenger ship passed not too far from my living room window and sank  on a foggy night in the not too distant past.  After all, this did occur in the age of radar….unfortunately for the Captain, he chose not to use it on this particular night.

What was a lucky ending for most of the passengers, has now become a rather unfortunate story of dealing with the unknown, but likely still large amount of fuel oil remaining on board the slowly deteriorating vessel as it has been slowly leaking and causing an oil sheen in the area.  Quantity of heavy fuel oil on board could range upwards of 155,000 gallons.  To make things even more interesting, the site of the shipwreck lies right off the new NOAA Ted Stevens Marine Research Facility built upon the rocky point of land that the ship ran aground on.

Built in 1924 by John Brown & Company in Scotland, the ship was operated by the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s BC Coast Steamships.  She was twin screw, powered by compound steam turbines that drove her at 22.5 knots.  Princess Kathleen came in at 5,875 gross tons, with overall an overall length of 369ft. and a 60ft. beam.  She briefly served as a troop ship during World War II, and then went back into service as a passenger liner plying the coast of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska.  She was known for her luxury, and impeccable cleanliness.  Accounts from engineers who served on board her reported that the engine room was kept in imaculate condition, with deck plates painted freshly painted each month and all brass and copper fittings and lines highly polished.  The fleet of “Princess” ships were known as one of the finest coastal cruising fleets in the world.

This account from the Cruise Bruise blog tells the story:

The vessel was sailing towards Skagway, having entered Favorite Channel. The Channel is located north of Stephens Passage, between Shelter Island and the mainland. She had 307 passengers and 80 crew aboard when the steamship, captained by Graham O. Hughs hit the rocks at Point Lena.

At the time of the sinking, around 0300 hours as passengers and most crew slept, Chief Officer Charles W. Savage was on the bridge. Savage would later say though the ship had radar, it had not been turned on. A company spokesman told the press that whether or not to turn on the radar was a decision made by the officer in charge and apparently Savage did not deem the situation radar worthy as it traveled off shore at a speed said to be 9 knots.

The shipwreck was destined for a horror story, to be sure. Initially, Savage’s crew sent out an SOS on the wrong frequency. It would be two hours later before the United States Coast Guard would become aware a Canadian ship had been grounded on their shores.

When the USCG got wind of the plight of the Princess Kathleen, they immediately sent a cutter that had been towing a fishing vessel to the scene. The rescue ship arrived around 0630 hours to begin the evacuation of passengers who had already begun to make their way onto what they thought was an island.

The evacuation took a toll on the passengers, as many hiked through the bush to get to a road where vehicles were waiting to transport them into town. One passenger suffering a heart attack soon after arriving at the Baranof Hotel.

Passengers would be compensated with a complete refund of their fare, and an average of $1,000 for property loss.

Later that day as the tide rose, Princess Kathleen slipped further and further off the rocks and into the sea. Her bow rests about 50 below the surface of the water, the stern 120 feet below, with about an 80 degree list. She had 155,000 gallons of bunker C fuel or also known as No. 6 fuel oil on board when she sunk.

Over 50 years later, a ship that had become a favorite dive location for divers with a fondness for sunken ships, now has people wondering, what were our parents thinking, when they left that ship to pollute the pristine Alaskan waters, without repercussions to the Canadian company that owned it.

NOAA DATA

Rec. No.: 50212

Lat Dec.: 58,3951888888889

Long Dec.: 134,779272222222

Source: Direct

Lat 83: 58/23/42.68

Long 83: 134/46/45.38

Quality: High

Nativ Lat: 58/23/42.68

Nativ Lon: 134/46/45.38

Nat.Datum: North American Datum of 1983 (NAD 83)

Chart No.: 17316 [to NOAA chart]

Area: [O] Canadian Border to Point Manby

Cart. code: [cart.100] [cart. code: 100] submerged wreck, dangerous to navigation

Sound. code: [sndg.130] soundings in fathoms and tenths

Depth: 4,3

Quadrant: 2

Reference: [ref.20] Guide to Sunken Ships in American Waters. A., A.L. Lonsdale and H.R. Kaplan, Compass Publications, 1964. (out of print)

HISTORY:

HISTORY NM40/52(10/4/52)–S.S. PRINCESS KATHLEEN LIES SUNK IN 20FMS OF WATER, WITH FOREMOST SHOWING AT LOW WATER, ABOUT 100 YARDS WESTERLY OF POINT LENA IN LAT 58-28-44N, LONG 134-46-42W(NAD27) (PA). NM41/52(10/11/52)–WK BUOY ESTABLISHED NM39/53(9/26/53)–WK BUOY DISCONTINUED, THERE IS REPORTED TO BE A MINIMUM DEPTH OF 40FT AT MLLW OVER THE WK. (UPDATED 12/95 RWD) H10682/96–PRINCESS KATHLEEN (SUBM 4.3FM AT MLLW), DIVE INVESTIGATION FOUND THE WRECK LAYING ON HER PORT SIDE, BOW FACING NORTH, WITH HER MASTS EXTENDING DOWNWARD AND OFFSHORE, POSITION GIVEN IN LAT 58-23-42.68N, LONG 134-46-45.38W. (UPDATED 1/97 RWD)


Historic reports indicate periodic oil discharges and sheens from the vessel in the years following the sinking. Spill reports from the last decade include similar reports of sheen and oil in the area. Recently, there has been an increase in the frequency of reports; possibly indicating a recent change in the vessel’s condition. In response to these reports the United States Coast Guard (USCG) opened the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (OSLTF) to assess the condition of the vessel.

USCG contracted with Southeast Alaska Lighterage and Global Offshore Divers to evaluate damage to the vessel through the use of two remotely operated vehicles (ROV). The ROVs dove on the wreck on February 17, 18 and 19, 2010. The ROVs discovered bunker oil trapped inside the superstructure of the vessel, during certain tides the bunker oil is able to escape through broken portholes.

The Coast Guard and the State of Alaska have established a Unified Command to assess the quantity of oil on board and possibly commence removal operations.  The Unified Command website can be found HERE.

8 Comment

  1. […] nest, a crazy beautiful twisted tree and the clean up effort to remove the oil from the sunken Princess Kathleen. And it didn’t […]

  2. Sid Fujinari says: Reply

    I am absolutely flabbergast by the Captain of the vessel’s decision to not turnon the radar. His excuse, as i read it, was because he did not think it necessary in open waters. They were in an inside passage, for God’s sake!! Iv’e sailed on APL’s C-5 S 75a’s. I’v had the priviledge to sail on all 5, thee SS Presidents Cleveland, Wilson, Adam, Jackson and Taylor. They were the Best and ost exciting ships to steer and work on. But, the Captain of every shi I’ve sailed out of the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific kept the radar on even at opensea because any sailor worth his salt knows hat it’s thenorm to be aware of even far off vessels if you two were the only ships in thesea  so there can be contat made to be aware agood time ahead of thier intentions as they were ours. Smooth sailngs…..  

  3. Greg says: Reply

    I graduated from Juneau Hi in 1953.  We all trekked out to the site.  I got there in time to see the vessel sink.  At this time Alaska Steamship Lines was the main transport to Seattle, akin to Greyhound. 

    Recently a hi school classmate told me of his and a friends’ efforts to do an amateur dive at the site.  They rigged up a bucket, garden hose, bicycle pump, tested it out and were all set to go.  Final preps the nite before.  He says when he woke up all his gear was gone.  Turns out his dad was on to him and had torched the project.  

    It was quite an event.

  4. Anonymous says: Reply

    Any information about the collision of Princess Kathleen and Prince Rupert 1950 also Inside Passage?

  5. Blair Hunter says: Reply

    My Dad sailed on her he had the job of checking to where the water level was. He was also on board when it ramed 20 feet in front of his bunk.

  6. George Marikas says: Reply

    I dont know what to say…

    George Marikas
    edumartime

  7. Helen Russell says: Reply

    My Father was a stewart on the Princess Kathleen when she sank off of Point Lena. I have hear stories and seen pictures of the ship sinking. My mother told me of the wives waiting at the dock in Vancouver for the men to return. It was lucky that everyone got out save.

  8. evan williams says: Reply

    i belive i have a milk jug from the ship i dont know where it came from it has the back stamp of the line on the bottom and the empress design on the outside

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