Haines: The Other Skagway
Monday, July 3, 2017
I awoke around two in the morning as Seabourn’s Seabourn Sojourn made her way up North America’s deepest fjord. I peered out my curtains at the blue-tinted surroundings of Lynn Canal, which connects the towns of Haines and Skagway with Juneau. Another cruise ship, its lights burning brightly, was making its way down from Skagway. The faintest wisps of smoke were visible from its funnel. I stepped out onto the balcony in my pyjamas. I knew the wind would be there – it always is in Lynn Canal – but its ferocity still caught me off guard.
In October of 1918, the worst maritime disaster in Alaska (and British Columbia) occurred here, as the Canadian Pacific steamer Princess Sophia made her way south. Travelling from Skagway to Juneau at the end of the season, she was running late and being driven hard through a snowstorm. Her captain, Leonard Pye Locke, couldn’t see the bow of his own ship through the raging blizzard. Quite possibly, he relied instead on an old technique that other mariners would later report seeing him (and many other sea captains) use to navigate Lynn Canal at the time: he would sound his ship’s whistle, then shuffle back and forth gently on his feet, counting the seconds until the whistle’s return began to echo and reverberate back.
In doing this, he was determining where, exactly, in Lynn Canal he was – and how close his ship was to the shoreline. All while running at 16 knots through a blinding storm with reduced visibility.
Things didn’t work out well for the Princess Sophia. She ran aground on Vanderbilt Reef, just north of Juneau, with such force that she high-centered herself. Completely out of the water and battered by the storm, a flotilla of rescue ships stood by for two days, unable to transfer a single guest from the stricken vessel. It was thought, at the time, that the safest place to be was aboard the ship on the rocks.
That assumption turned out to be false. Around five in the evening on October 25, 1918, the storm intensified. Princess Sophia was lifted clear off Vanderbilt Reef, but not before the rocks opened her keel up like a tin can. She sank in minutes, taking with her an estimated 350 souls to the bottom.
I wrote a book about the sinking in 2015, primarily because the incident has both fascinated and horrified me ever since I learned about it a decade ago. It’s not something you see in too many cruise line brochures (for obvious reasons), but I think it’s appropriate to mention it here. The Princess Sophia is as inexorably linked with Lynn Canal as the Klondike Gold Rush is with Skagway.
Speaking of, you may be interested to know we’re not in Skagway today. On its Alaskan itineraries, Seabourn has chosen the nearby port of Haines instead of its more famous Gold Rush counterpart. And as much as I love Skagway (I really do), I think Haines is the better fit for Seabourn.
With a population of 2,500 people, Haines is a real, authentic, working Alaskan town. It will charm you with the friendliness of its residents, quirky businesses and pleasant, walkable streets; a sort of small-town Americana normally reserved for works of fiction.
The cruise pier is located in the heart of historic Fort Seward, while the modern downtown of Haines is an easy 10-minute walk away. While there are some very cool things in Fort Seward, like a bicycle rental shop and a distillery, you’ll probably want to walk in to modern Haines.
It’s Hammer Time
The first thing I found was the Hammer Museum – the first museum in the world dedicated to hammers. Opened in 2002, it has about 2,000 different hammers on display at any given time, and over 7,000 hammers in its total collection. The museum itself is dedicated to preserving the history of the hammer, and educating visitors about the evolution of the world’s first tool.
You’re reading this thinking, ‘A hammer’s a hammer, right?’ Wrong. I’m not a handyman by any stretch of the imagination, but I never knew that such a simple tool had such a complex history. Inside this little house-like building are hammers from various centuries and places around the world. There are hammers used on railroads, industry, blacksmithing, shipbuilding, and hammers for professions and needs that no longer exist in most parts of the world. It’s unlikely you’re going to need the Hitching Post Hammer – meant to mend the hitching posts that horses were tied to – anytime soon. There’s even a hammer personally signed by Tim Allen, star of the 1990’s sitcom, Home Improvement.
For $5, this is one of the most fascinating museums I’ve ever been to. It was surprisingly informative, and even displayed the exhibits with a degree of fun not found in most museums. Above a box of “sterilized tacks” from the 1930’s, a placard asks why the tacks were sterilized. There’s a rotating “Hammer of the Week” that’s housed