Photo by Peggy Sturdivant
Kathleen Gerrald with the mysterious bowl.

At Large In Ballard: The Lost Princess

By Peggy Sturdivant

When I met Kathleen Gerrald she said, “I’m not sure how much information I can give you, but I can tell you my hopes and dreams.”

Her children are grown, her grandchildren are thriving and she’s reclaiming her time and interests since the long illness and death of her husband. Now she wants to go back in time and unravel a family mystery.

As the first granddaughter born in a long line of male children Gerrald acquired her grandmother’s most prized possession, a porcelain bowl. The bowl is puzzling, Japanese made, but in a Bavarian style, with gold inlay. Its provenance is the true mystery for Gerrald, and one that connects her grandfather with one of Canada’s worst maritime disasters.

The shipwreck and subsequent loss off life of the Canadian Pacific steamship Princess Sophia is one that is still researched and discussed as the 100th anniversary approaches. The tragedy arguably changed the course of history for the Yukon and Alaska. It’s Gerrald’s understanding that the delicate bowl came from the Princess Sophia. Finding out how, is her dream.

Between 1918-1919 Canada lost over 50,000 lives to the pandemic known as the Spanish Influenza. The Titanic had sunk in 1912; the Lusitania bombed in 1915. The world was at war, and a number of the passengers on the ship, we now know was doomed, were headed for the war. Looking back with 98 years hindsight the shipwreck’s significance was lost on the times…353 dead in the midst of a world war and a pandemic.

Despite her claim otherwise Gerrald knows a lot about the Princess Sophia, a Canadian vessel that sank in American waters. What’s lost is a photograph she recalls of her grandfather on the mast of the sunken vessel, the only thing above water after the vessel sank after a day and a half on the Vanderbilt Reef. Where is that photo? How did her grandfather become part of a salvage company that had as its primary duty that of recovering 100+ bodies trapped in the ship.

Gerrald notes the primitive means of diving in early November 1918; scant protection in waters always described as frigid. The particular horror of this shipwreck, during the last sailing south of the year from Dawson City in Yukon Territory, was that it wasn’t for lack of would-be rescuers. Decisions made are still debated. She’s read much of what’s available about the maritime disaster and is tracking plans for a large exhibition at Vancouver Maritime Museum to commemorate 100 years. She’s learned that a smaller exhibit may travel; another one of her dreams is for Seattle to be its American stop.

To unravel her family’s connection to the vessel she’s learning genealogical research and planning to visit the Seattle Room at the Seattle Public Library. These ancestors are buried in Mount Pleasant cemetery, noting their graves needed to be moved because “a tree was eating the headstones.”

How did her grandfather, Charles Brady Dawson of Ballard, come to salvage a shipwreck off the Yukon? What of the bowl? An accouterment from the vessel, a passenger’s belonging? What were the laws of salvage?

Who knows why we decide at a certain time in our lives to solve the riddles of the past? What opens in our lives that we fins ourselves as interested in the past as the present? Perhaps at a certain stage we dip into the past to help us decide what we want from the next chapters, especially after a loss, comes recalibration.

Gerrald tells me about “Secrets of the Dead” on PBS, the “Van Gogh’s Ear” episode. A woman who was curious found a definitive answer to a question about the artist. An ordinary woman. As letters and journals come out of attics and become accessible online the unanswered questions of generations can sometimes be answered, villages and relatives found. An armchair researcher can make new discoveries.

“I’m curious,” Gerrald says. She doesn’t expect to unlock a major mystery or uncover a family secret. But with the 100th anniversary of the loss of Princess Sophia she wants to place her grandmother’s bowl in its proper history. All help appreciated.

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