Tragic sinking of SS Princess — called first major maritime disaster on Lake Winnipeg

by Bruce Cherney

Seas said to be as high as mountains pounded the ship from stem to stern. The fury of the sea was compounded by a fierce wind driving the rain so hard that it seemed to bite at exposed flesh. With waves and rain lashing at her, Mrs. Sinclair clung desperately to her two children. While she fought to maintain her hold on her children and keep herself from being swept overboard, the storm was less kind to others who were picked up by waves and pitched into the turbulent water.  

The ship had already broken in half when she purposefully threw the smallest of her children into their only hope of survival — a small yawl that was just within her arms’ reach. Mate Alexander Joyce steadied Mrs. Sinclair as she threw her second child into the boat. Only when her children were safely in the wave-buffeted yawl, did she deem it her turn to board the boat. 

Joyce later said it was only by luck that a wave swept him toward the yawl, allowing him to obtain a handhold and climb into the boat to help others. 

With the help of wheelman George Starr — who had taken shelter in the yawl when the storm struck apparently to get some sleep — they were able to catch the davit (crane) that attached the small boat to the Princess.

With the yawl swaying less precariously in the wind because of the efforts of the two men, Mrs. Sinclair’s husband Joe made a dash across the deck, reached the boat and seized its axe which he planned to use to cut the falls (hoisting tackle) holding the boat fast. While struggling against nature’s fury, Sinclair raised the axe, chopped at the falls and severed them. The freed boat was then carried by waves clear of the deck. 

Sinclair’s ordeal was far from over as once his task was accomplished, he lost his grip and was abruptly lifted by a treacherous wave toward the stern of the boat. The brave man was nearly lost, but at the last second,with the sea about to swallow him, he was plucked up by the people in the yawl and pulled aboard.

On August 26, 1906, the steamer SS Princess sank off Swampy Island (today called Berens Island and a few kilometres directly west of Berens River), taking six people to a watery grave. The sinking was called by the newspapers of the day the “worst maritime disaster recorded in the inland waters of Western Canada.”

Three of the dead were Captain John Hawes, 60, stewardess Flora McDonald, 17, and cook Yoba Johnson, 20. Mysteriously, the two young women and the captain refused to be rescued although help was close at hand. 

“I tried to pull Flora McDonald across the cabin roof,” reported the vessel’s fireman George Freeman three days after the sinking, “but she said, ‘I am safe with the captain.’ Then the women began to sing Nearer My God to Thee. Such a heart rending scene I have never before witnessed. The waves swept around the captain and girls and still their song was heard.”

Chief engineer Arthur Poole reported that his last glimpse of the sinking vessel was when his lifeboat — a bigger boat than the yawl — was lifted above the crest of a wave. As the boat reached the apex of the wave, he had a “brief glance of the three clinging to the bow of the sinking steamer. Their insecure footing must have soon given away.” 

Miraculously, 16 others were saved, including the Sinclairs and their two children.

During a subsequent inquest, Coroner Dr. M.S. Inglis praised Mrs. (her first name was not given) Sinclair’s actions to save her young children on August 26. When Dr. Inglis heard that crew members may have panicked, he decided to adjourn the inquest until a later date to consider more testimony. “The evidence of James Sinclair and his wife who were passengers must be heard before this jury,” said the coroner. “They seem to be parties who can give us impartial evidence. Mrs. Sinclair seems to be the only one who held her head in the excitement of the wreck.”

The Princess had since 1881 plied the waters of Lake Winnipeg, carrying passengers to communities along the shores of the lake and collecting fish and timber as freight from northern ports for transportation to the south. At the time of the vessel’s demise, the Princess was the largest vessel on the lake.

The steamer’s received its royal name due to timely circumstances. 

Shipbuilders Jarvis & Burridge laid the vessel’s 160-foot (48.77 metres) hull at the foot of Lombard Street (in 1881 Lombard was known as Post Office Street) a short distance from the Red River into which she would eventually be launched, according to extensive coverage of the sinking in the August 30, 1906, Morning Telegram. An 1874 department of agriculture approved map clearly marks an extensive steamboat landing at the south foot of Lombard.

On June 27, a horse-drawn truck carrying the Princess’ giant boiler became mired in the mud near where the Canadian Pacific Hotel’s landmark hotel, the Royal Alexandra, had once stood. Despite the efforts of three teams of large Clydesdale horses, the truck remained fast in the mud blocking traffic on Main Street for three days. A house mover finally managed to free the obstruction by placing the truck on rollers. Once freed,  the boiler was transported to the shipyard.

The shipbuilders hurried construction, hoping to complete the vessel in anticipation of a visit to the city by the Marquis of Lorne, Canada’s governor general, and his wife, Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria. Word had reached  Jarvis & Burridge that the royal couple would be in town to take part in  the ceremony that would name the new CPR bridge after Princess Louise. They received confirmation that the princess would be glad to christen the steamer.

Downtown Winnipeg was decorated and arches were built to greet the royal couple. The steamer was decked out with American, French and British flags and her two paddles were painted with emblems and beavers. As Princess Louise and the Marquis of Lorne waited for the ship’s christening, a man approached the marquis and introduced himself. “I’se goin’ to be stoker on the craft,” he proudly blurted out. This interruption ended when aide-de-camp Captain Chater intervened.  

A mighty cheer arose from those on the riverbank, aboard nearby boats on the Red and on the steamer when just after six o-clock on August 2, 1881, the vessel’s shipyard supports were knocked out and the newly-christened SS Princess slid into the water.

Captain William Robinson said the  Princess would be capable of carrying 600 to 700 passengers for day-long excursions and had space for 75 first-class and 200 second-class cabins for regular trips. The speed of the vessel was estimated to be 17 mph (27.4 km/h). The ship was built of oak at a cost of $40,000.

In its first years, the Princess, owned by the Northwest Navigation Co., made regular trips from Selkirk to Grand Rapids along the northwest shore of Lake Winnipeg.

Although the Princess started out as a paddle-wheeler, eight years after its launch the vessel was remodeled into a propeller boat which necessitated the removal of most of the staterooms to make room for more fish and timber freight than passengers. At the time of the sinking, the Princess was reported to have 26 staterooms.

Captain Robinson, the major shareholder in the Northwest Navigation Co., used the vessel to haul lumber from his mill at Fort Alexander as well as fish from other locations along the lake. The remodeling cost $40,000 and included new timbers “which under the engine and boiler were two feet of solid oak.”

During the inquiry following the disaster, ships’ carpenter Daniel Munro said only the rotten planks were removed and replaced.

Ironically, the Princess on that fateful day in August was not on a regularly scheduled trip, but was engaged in a special excursion from Selkirk to Warren’s Landing on the lake’s far northeastern shore and then a return trip south to Selkirk.

Pursuer Pauxton, a stenographer in the employ of the Dominion Fish Co. and aboard the City of Selkirk when the survivors were picked up, wrote a front-page article on the sinking for the August 30, 1906, Morning Telegram. He had immediate access to the survivors to write his account.

After the vessel passed Georges Island  at 6:30 p.m., Saturday, August 25, on its southbound journey, a wind arose out of the west, piling up waves. As the vessel progressed, the wind grew stronger and the sea rougher. Three hours past Georges Island and en route to Swampy Island, the Princess began to take on water.

Mate Joyce of Selkirk in another August 30 front-page story said the crew was unable to keep the ship from taking on more water even though the pumps were employed.

The captain then decided to turn around to reach the safety of the leeside of Georges Island, approximately 65 kilomtres to the north-northwest of Swampy Island.

“A terrific gale was blowing from the west and it was intensely cold with frequent rain squalls and a tremendous sea,” said Joyce. It proved to be too difficult to reach Georges Island,  “so we put the Princess before the wind and made for the beach on the east side of the lake which at that time we figured to be about 10 miles (16 kilometres). How far we ran I cannot say. It seemed to be an eternity though I believe it was only about an hour.”

Joyce’s account of running before the wind to the east shore, indicates the wind had switched from the west into a nor’wester which other passengers and crew also reported to be the case.

Long-time Gimli fisherman Robert Kristjanson, whose father Ted operated a maritime museum in the community until his death a few years ago, said blows from the west and northwest are the deadliest types of winds in that area of the lake. 

“The sea can be monstrous there because it comes into shallower water that can stand on end during a storm,” Kristjanson said.

Swampy Island marks the spot where the lake opens up into the wider and deeper north basin. Kristjanson, who has extensive experience captaining a whitefish boat in the north basin of the lake, said this contributes to winds being magnified by a funnel effect and thus waves double in intensity during a storm.

A contemporary newspaper said waves towering to a height of 25 feet (7.62 metres) were battering the vessel.

Water leaking into the boat began to reach the necks of the firemen Freeman and William Booth below deck manning the engines and pumps. The inflow of water snuffed out the fire in the boilers causing the engines to stop — the vessel was dead in the water and floundering. Joyce said they were about 12 miles (19.3 kilometres) north of Swampy Island on Sunday when the engines died.

Some would later claim that the vessel had struck a rock, but Joyce, who had sailed Lake Winnipeg for years and was familiar with its many hazards, said there was no evidence of such an occurrence.

“We took soundings all along but there were no signs of rocks or shoals,” he added. “I seem to remember distinctly that the boat seemed to stop in her mad race with the wind.” 

At the time, Joyce said the sounding showed that the Princess was in eight fathoms of water.

“About 4:15 a.m. Sunday the boat gave a sudden lurch and the smokestack went straight down through the bottom of the hull,” wrote Pauxton. “At the next lurch the hull broke in two and the deck house floated off.”

It was at this time that the Sinclair family entered the yawl and with two others made their escape from the sinking vessel.

In the lifeboat —  bigger than the yawl — was chief engineer Arthur Poole, deckhand William Hope and eight other crew and passengers, four of which had been rescued as they clung onto the wreck.

The 16 survivors’ ordeal did not end when they made their escape in the two small boats. Joyce reported that they could make little headway in the “tremendous sea.”

Mrs. Sinclair was said to have had her eight-month-old baby under one arm as she frantically bailed water out of the yawl and prayed for “Almighty God’s” mercy.

“Never did we need divine aid more than at that critical period,” said Poole during the coroner’s inquest. “It was an awful moment and the worst that I had in my many years experience on Lake Winnipeg.”

Joyce said they put the tiny yawl before the wind and ran for about an hour and a half until they reached the west side of Swampy Island. 

The lifeboat was later found to have landed safe and sound further up the shore.

The survivors from the lifeboat lit a fire. This provided some warmth from the bitter cold, but they needed food to stave off hunger as they had not eaten since the storm had begun to rage on Saturday evening. Their food was fish that had washed ashore from the wreck — the vessel had 410 boxes of fish in its hold when it went down. They also spotted a tin ice box which held some salted beef and pickles, all of which they quickly devoured.

On Monday morning, the storm calmed enough to allow the boats to leave Swampy Island. The two boats managed to reach the comparative safety of Cox’s lighthouse on a small reef to the east of Swampy Island and just a few kilometres from Pigeon Point. The lighthouse keeper was John Thomas.

Poole and firemen Freeman and Booth stayed behind to search the beach for other survivors. They found no one alive, but recovered the body of 18-year-old Joe Aaranson, a shore hand and passenger picked up at Poplar Point where he lived. The bodies of Captain Hawes, McDonald, Johnson, passenger Loftus Gudmanson and deckhand Charles Greyeyes of Selkirk, who was reported to have gone through the hole created when the smokestack penetrated the hull, were never recovered.

The three men who had undertaken the beach search and found Aaranson’s body were later picked up by the lifeboat and taken to Cox’s lighthouse. Poole said the survivors had their first good meal at the lighthouse. “We practically ran him (Thomas) out of house and home besides drawing liberally on his stock of dry clothing.”

At 5:30 p.m., a boat went out to meet the City of Selkirk to deliver the news of the sinking, but Captain John Thorburn, seeing the survivors standing near the lighthouse, guessed what had happened. The captain lowered a boat and ordered the survivors be brought aboard for transport to Selkirk.

The Morning Telegram said when the survivors reached Selkirk, “a gloom was cast over the whole town as this is the first accident of the kind that has ever happened on Lake Winnipeg.”


Immediately after the sinking was reported, a search party left on the City of Selkirk to look for survivors. Aboard the steamer to take part in the search was George Heisey, whose fiancee was Flora McDonald, one of the two women last seen clinging to the wreckage of the Princess.

Rumours had already been circulating in town that Hawes, Johnston and McDonald had somehow escaped the wreck. Many thought that they could be drifting in the lake or had made land where they could sustain themselves for days on fish and berries. Small pieces of the wreck reported scattered along the shore by survivors reinforced the rumours.

Captain Robinson added to the speculation by saying that the three could still be clinging to the wheelhouse which had floated away when the vessel went down.

Those that survived the wreck thought otherwise. In fact, it turned out to be a futile search as no other survivors would ever be found.

From the outset of the inquiry into the sinking of the Princess, questions arose about the conduct of Captain Hawes and his crew and the seaworthiness of the vessel.

Captain Hawes, an Englishman by birth, came to Selkirk 15 years prior to the sinking. He had seven years experience sailing on Lake Winnipeg, he was familiar with the Princess, having travelled aboard the vessel several times, but had only been its captain since the start of the 1906 navigation season. He was also called “an old salt water captain, having formerly been with Hudson Bay’s Company ships trading between Liverpool and Fort Churchill.”

His widow told the inquiry that her husband had feared going on the Princess into the north basin of the lake, because “he was always afraid she would go to pieces.” The vessel “was not fit to stand the storms in the north end of the lake,” she said was her husband’s opinion of the vessel’s seaworthiness. Her son also told the inquiry his father expressed similar opinions while in his presence.

But other witnesses disagreed. For example, Captain Robinson denied that the Princess was unseaworthy and insisted she was the strongest boat on the lake. “The condition of the vessel was good and anyone who knows anything about the wrecking of the boat in a storm knows that a rotten craft will not long withstand the fury of the waves.

“This boat withstood the angry waters for six hours in a heavy sea, thus showing she was seaworthy.”

He said Captain Hawes may have been experienced, but he shouldn’t have turned the vessel around to face the storm to get to Georges Island. Captain Robinson wondered why the captain had not instead sought refuge in the narrows  south of Swampy Island.

He said he believed everyone aboard the doomed vessel could have been saved if they had used the life preservers that were provided aboard the vessel. Captain Robinson said he was told that mate Joyce had asked the two women to put on life jackets a half hour before they drowned but they refused.

“I have time and again instructed those in charge of our boats not to guard against loss of property if life were in danger,” he insisted at the inquiry. “All that I can say is that I am heartily sorry that such a loss of life should have taken place on any voyage in one of the company’s boats.” 

Despite his assertion that property was not his primary concern, he did inform the inquiry that the boat’s loss would cost the company between $15,000 and $20,000.

Captain Hugh Cochrane of Selkirk, called a “master mariner,” told the inquest he had sailed on the Princess the previous summer and the vessel “had not leaked to any extent and had engines powerful enough to make headway against a heavy sea.” He called Captain Hawes a good seaman who was never heard to say the Princess was unfit for the North Basin.

John Leny, a marine engineer, had examined the vessel’s engines the previous summer and reported it had “moderately powerful engines ... in good condition.”

It was also reported that the vessel’s pumps were regularly tested and found to be in good operation. The pumps on the Princess were only abandoned when water came up to the necks of the men manning them.

Some speculated that earlier groundings on reefs at Black and Elk islands had weakened the vessel’s hull, but captains testifying at the inquiry said they were unprepared to make such a claim. 

Henry Stanley Dewar, who had served as engineer aboard the Princess that summer, was asked if he left the vessel because it leaked or was unseaworthy to survive a storm.

He simply answered  “No.”

One of the glaring inadequacies revealed at the inquiry was the lack of training for crew members in the case of an emergency. All the captains on Lake Winnipeg admitted in one way or another that their crews were inadequately trained.

It seems by the evidence given that even the experienced Captain Hawes was unable to cope with the emergency that afflicted his vessel. Testimony heard indicated that the captain had not ordered any of the crew to prepare the small boats aboard the stricken vessel, even as it was about to go down. The only thing the captain was heard to mutter was that “small boats could not stand such a high sea.”

Newspapers reporting on the inquiry’s proceedings wrote that Captain Hawes was not heard to speak to any of the passengers or crew during the moments of greatest peril.

Freeman told the inquiry that when it was realized the ship was about to sink, there was a free-for-all with everyone rushing madly for the boats.

It was said that Joyce turned to the passengers and crew when the Princess began to settle in its aft section and said: “Come on, boys, we’re going to lose our boats.”

“No evidence was given by the witnesses to indicate that any effort to save the women on board (Johnson and McDonald) had been carried beyond the bounds of mere advice,” reported the Morning Telegram on September 7.

Joyce said they could not return to the vessel for the captain and the two women nor seek out swimmers in the water after the yawl was launched,  because they had no control of the small boat and “the wind and sea simply carried us ashore, that was all there was about it.”

From the evidence heard, the coroner’s jury ruled that the vessel was seaworthy but undermanned, “being deficient of a second engineer.”

They censured Joyce, who had the deck watch at the time of the disaster, for not preparing the passengers and crew to abandon the sinking vessel, as well as for being in command of the “first” boat to leave the Princess.

The jury further speculated that the vessel had struck a rock, though there was little evidence that this had in fact happened or could have happened. No reefs or rocks are recorded on navigation charts in the area nor is any mariner familiar with such hazards in the area where the vessel sank, according to Kristjanson.

The cause of the sinking was never really addressed by the jury, whose members instead concentrated on recommendations to prevent future disasters. The jury recommended that all steamboats be fully manned before leaving port and that the Canadian government appoint “a thoroughly reliable man to inspect hulls apart from the machinery and that more care should be taken in granting master and mate papers.”

Extensive newspaper reporting in  1906 of the sinking of the Princess with the loss of six lives, first brought to public attention what had already been known among those making a living on Lake Winnipeg — a sudden storm could seemingly arise out of nowhere and its seas when whipped into a frenzy had the potential to create the  treacherous conditions to bring to grief any vessel whether it was a “staunch boat” or not.