SS Princess May – The Steamship That Ran Aground on Sentinel Island

The Princess May was a steamship built in 1888 by Hawthorn Leslie and Company, originally serving as a coastal steamer before being acquired by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1901.

It gained historical notoriety for its dramatic grounding on the rocks off Sentinel Island, Alaska, in 1910, an incident widely photographed and reported.

After being sold in 1919 to the Pacific Salvage Company, the ship continued to serve in salvage and rescue operations until its retirement and scrapping in 1930.


Early Years of the Princess May

The Princess May, originally named SS Cass, was a product of the burgeoning shipbuilding industry in the late 19th century. It was constructed in 1888 by the esteemed shipbuilding firm Hawthorn Leslie and Company, located at Hebburn-on-Tyne, England.

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The ship was commissioned by the Canadian Pacific Navigation Company (CPNC), which was actively expanding its fleet to meet the growing demands of coastal trade and transportation. The SS Cass was designed to be a coastal steamer, intended to operate along the British coastline. Its construction represented the pinnacle of contemporary maritime engineering, incorporating several advanced features for the time.

Measuring 249 feet in length with a beam of 33 feet, the SS Cass had a gross tonnage of 1,920 tons. These dimensions made it a substantial vessel, capable of carrying a significant number of passengers and a considerable amount of cargo. The ship was equipped with a triple-expansion steam engine, a cutting-edge technology in the late 19th century. This type of engine used steam in three stages of expansion to maximize efficiency and power output, allowing the vessel to achieve higher speeds and greater fuel efficiency compared to earlier steam engines.

The steamships SS Jefferson and SS Princess May at dock in Skagway, 1904.
The steamships SS Jefferson and SS Princess May at dock in Skagway, 1904.

The ship’s design emphasized both durability and comfort. It featured a steel hull, which provided enhanced strength and resilience against the harsh marine environment. The passenger accommodations were designed to offer a high level of comfort, reflecting the standards of luxury and convenience that were becoming increasingly important in maritime travel.

In 1901, the SS Cass was acquired by the Canadian Pacific Railway’s (CPR) coastal service. This acquisition was part of CPR’s broader strategy to dominate the coastal transportation routes of the Pacific Northwest. Upon joining CPR’s fleet, the vessel was renamed Princess May, aligning it with the company’s practice of naming its coastal steamers with the “Princess” prefix, signifying elegance and prestige.

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The Princess May quickly became an integral part of CPR’s coastal fleet, which was essential for maintaining connections between the mainland and the isolated communities of British Columbia, Alaska, and the Yukon Territory. These regions were experiencing rapid growth and development, partly fueled by the Klondike Gold Rush, which increased the demand for reliable transportation of people, goods, and mail.

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The ship’s robust design and advanced engineering allowed it to navigate the often challenging waters of the Pacific Northwest with relative ease. Its triple-expansion steam engine provided the power necessary to contend with strong currents and variable weather conditions, ensuring that it could maintain regular and reliable service.

The Grounding Incident of 1910

One of the most dramatic and widely remembered events in the history of the Princess May was its grounding on August 5, 1910. This incident occurred in the treacherous waters of Lynn Canal, Alaska, one of the deepest and longest fjords in North America. The area is known for its challenging navigation conditions, including narrow passages, strong tidal currents, and frequent fog.

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On the day of the incident, the Princess May was navigating through these difficult waters when it struck submerged rocks off Sentinel Island. The impact was severe, and the ship’s forward momentum caused it to be perilously perched on a rocky ledge. The bow of the vessel was lifted high out of the water, creating a dramatic and almost surreal image that captured public attention and was widely photographed and reported in the media.

SS Princess May grounded.
The steamer grounded in Alaska.

Several factors contributed to the grounding. Navigational errors played a significant role, as the crew misjudged their position in the foggy conditions. The limited visibility made it difficult to accurately determine the ship’s course and avoid hazards. Additionally, the strong tidal currents in Lynn Canal could have pushed the vessel off its intended path, compounding the navigational challenges.

The immediate response from the crew and Captain John McLeod was crucial in ensuring the safety of everyone on board. Demonstrating quick thinking and effective leadership, Captain McLeod organized the evacuation of all passengers and crew. Lifeboats were deployed efficiently, and despite the precarious situation, there were no casualties. The successful evacuation was a testament to the crew’s training and preparedness for emergency situations.

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The incident drew significant attention from the public and the media, not only because of the dramatic photographs but also due to the ship’s reputation as a reliable and elegant vessel. The images of the Princess May, with its bow lifted out of the water and the rest of the ship seemingly stranded on the rocks, became iconic representations of the dangers of early 20th-century maritime travel.

Rear view of the SS Princess May on the rocks.
A view of the ship from the rear, laying precariously on the rocks.

Salvage operations were initiated promptly after the grounding. The complexity of the situation required a coordinated effort to prevent the ship from slipping further into the water and to minimize environmental damage. Salvage experts and equipment were brought in to stabilize the vessel and prepare it for refloating. The process involved carefully removing water from the flooded compartments and sealing any breaches in the hull.

After several days of intense effort, the Princess May was successfully refloated and towed to safety. The ship sustained extensive damage to its hull and lower structures, but repairs were carried out effectively. The extensive work required to restore the ship to its operational condition was a testament to the expertise and determination of the salvage and repair crews.

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Once repaired, the Princess May returned to service, continuing its vital role in the coastal transportation network of the Pacific Northwest.

The Princess May After the Incident

After nearly three decades of service as a coastal passenger and cargo vessel, the Princess May was sold in 1919 to the Pacific Salvage Company. This transition marked a significant shift in the ship’s role and function. Instead of ferrying passengers along the rugged Pacific coastline, the Princess May was repurposed into a salvage and rescue ship. This new role highlighted the vessel’s robust construction and adaptability, allowing it to continue its service in a different but equally vital capacity.

The Pacific Salvage Company recognized the potential of the Princess May to assist in maritime rescue operations and salvage missions. The ship’s powerful steam engine and sturdy build made it well-suited for the demanding tasks of towing, rescuing distressed vessels, and recovering valuable cargo from shipwrecks. The conversion involved modifying the ship’s structure to accommodate salvage equipment, including heavy-duty winches, diving apparatus, and additional storage for recovered goods.

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During its time with the Pacific Salvage Company, the Princess May was involved in numerous rescue and salvage operations. These missions not only demonstrated the ship’s versatility but also contributed to maritime safety and the protection of valuable maritime assets.

SS Princess May on the reef.
The picture of the ship on the rocks has become one of the most famous images of a grounded vessel.

However, by the late 1920s, advancements in maritime technology and the introduction of more modern ships began to render older vessels like the Princess May less competitive. The ship’s age and the wear and tear from years of service in harsh conditions also contributed to its eventual retirement. In 1930, after more than four decades of varied and distinguished service, the Princess May was finally retired and scrapped.

The Princess May is remembered for its contributions to the economic development and connectivity of the Pacific Northwest. During its operational years with the Canadian Pacific Railway, the ship played a crucial role in facilitating the movement of people, goods, and mail between remote communities. This was especially important during the Klondike Gold Rush, where reliable transportation was essential for the influx of prospectors and supplies.

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The vessel’s story highlights the broader historical context of maritime innovation and expansion during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The transition from sail to steam power revolutionized global commerce and transportation, making distant regions more accessible and fostering economic growth. Ships like the Princess May were at the forefront of this transformation, embodying the spirit of exploration and progress that characterized the period.