Prologue to Ladies and Escorts

SS Princess Sophia
Cabin 17
25 October 1918

If found, please deliver to:
Miss Elizabeth Hadley
1618 Barclay St. Vancouver, BC

My Dearest Elizabeth,

It greatly distresses me that this may be the last communication you will ever have from me. I am grateful for the affection and respect you have bestowed upon me, despite the difference in our ages.

On the afternoon of the 23 October, I embarked on the voyage from Skagway back to Victoria, hoping to meet you there, but that evening the ship hit a rocky reef at full speed. We are grounded hard on the rocks in rough seas, fog and rain. I am writing this in my cabin, but we have been advised to remain in the public areas in case of a rescue. The electric lights are still on, but it is feared the generator may soon be submerged and all power will be lost.

Several ships have come by and rescue attempts have proved useless due to high winds and seas, I fear the ship will soon sink, and due to the angle we are lying at, the lifeboats cannot be launched. Chances of survival are, in my opinion very low, although, as is my nature, I remain hopeful.

I plan to put this letter in a metal flask I have with me and throw it into the sea. Chances of it being found seem greater than if it goes to the bottom with the ship. The flask is sturdy and watertight, so it should survive,although I most likely will not.

Lizzie, I have left my will, properly inscribed, with my solicitor, Jan van Holgren, at his office in Howe Street. I have left the bulk of my modest estate to you, with a few pounds to each of my surviving relatives. I hope this will be of some small comfort to you.

I have something else, a great secret to confess. I spent the greater part of the summer prospecting for gold in the area in and around Thomas Bay, Alaska.  The gold rush is long over, and to my knowledge at the time, no significant quantity of gold was ever found there.Nevertheless, as a geologist, my examination of the rocky terrain in the area led me to believe it was a likely spot for veins of gold to be found.

I rented a small gas boat of some charm, called Scurry, with an Easthope engine, a sleeping cabin and coal stove for heat and cooking. Behind it I towed a canoe for shore excursions.

In any case I found no gold, but did find a curious cave, high up behind a long narrow lake. I had portaged the canoe up to the lake looking for a suitable stream to pan for gold. The cave entrance was hidden by brush, and I found it only by accident when an animal of some sort ran out as I approached.  I pushed aside the brush and found the entrance, just big enough for a stooped man to enter, perhaps four feet high and three wide.

Inside it was pitch dark except for a bit of diffused daylight right at the entrance. Fortunately, I had a British Army electric torch which I obtained from an outfitter in Skagway. Although not extremely bright, it threw a decent beam.  Once inside, the cave opened out into an area perhaps ten feet wide and as much as thirty feet deep. At the far end it tapered down. There were some signs of human habitation, I could see a blackened area surrounded by stones where there must have been a fire. There was one blackened and battered saucepan, half buried by the fire, which, while old, was clearly of modern manufacture. I pulled it out of the dirt and examined the bottom.  There was a faintly stamped makers imprint, square and filled with Chinese characters. Underneath were the letters BCCHK 1896.

I searched the cavern for further artifacts and found only few bones,whether human or not could not be easily determined. Suddenly a low moan arose from deep inside, like a large animal in great pain. A cold sweat of fear came over me, and my heart raced.  I felt an urgent need to get outside. As I scrabbled for the entrance, I tripped on something partly buried in the gravelly dirt of the floor. My foot was caught on a small protrusion of what appeared to be leather, cracked and worn with age.Instinctively I pulled at it with my right hand and it came loose from the dirt. It was a pigskin bag, closed with a knotted thong of hide. It was heavy and rattled when shaken. I took it with me as I hastened away from the place.

Once outside in the sunshine, I ran for a few hundred yards until I was at the edge of the lake where the canoe was. I sat on a rock to recover. The fear gradually subsided and my heart returned to normal. After a few minutes I started to open the leather bag. The thong was tight, but I managed to loosen it and extract the contents.

Inside was a carved sandalwood box a bit larger than a cigar box. It had tarnished brass hinges and a brass hasp held closed with a matchstick. It was intricately carved with ornate patterns, seeming to represent flowers and leaves. It looked Asian to me, but I couldn’t say what country. I had seen a similar box once in the Batavia but did not ask its origin.

I started to pen the box with care, as it seemed fragile and I did not want to destroy it. As I did so an overwhelming feeling of trepidation and terror came upon me, and I closed the box. After a few minutes I tried again and caught a glimpse of something shiny inside. But the feeling of terror was even stronger, and I closed the lid. This time I put the box back in the bag and tied it with the thong. I wanted to return it to the cave, but fear prevented me.

Although I have been in combat during the war, even wounded, I never felt the sort of fear that this place, and that box occasioned. Some 50 feet up the slope toward the cave, I spotted a boulder with a flat top which overhung in such a way as to form a deep recess, sheltered from rain. I placed the bag under the rock and made a pile of stones in front of it to hide it from view. My plan was to return another time, armed, and with at least one other person, and open it then. I marked the location by lining up three large rocks about a yard apart in a line pointing at the location, and about five yards away. They also point the way to the cave beyond.

I ran back to the beach, jumped in the canoe, and paddled back to where Scurry was anchored across the bay. I got under weigh and headed for Petersburg. The next day I recounted the story, without mention of the box, to a fellow in the hotel bar there. He told me that Thomas Bay was known as the Bay of Death. It was considered by the locals to be haunted, and few would venture there. The place was the scene of a massive land slide which wiped out a large Indian village in 1750. He also told me of crazed prospectors coming out of the area in terror, who reported being chased by hairy creatures with long claws. He called it the Devil’s Bay and vowed he would never go there.

I decided to abandon the box, and my gold prospecting, to come home to you.  Because of bad weather, it took me several weeks to get to Skagway. The Princess Sophie was due to leave the same day, and I just managed to book a ticket in time. At the time that seemed lucky, I fear it was not.

Lizzie, I can’t tell you how important you are in my affections, and how It sorrows me that I will never see you again. I’m praying that you will get this letter, which I will now go on deck and throw overboard in the sealed flask. The lights are flickering now, and the groaning of the ships plates as they grind on the rocks below are getting more strident. I must get up on deck.

With all my love,

Jakob B. Holcomb

The Princess Sophia was lost with all hands on that day, at 5:50 P.M. confirmed by stopped watches found on some of the bodies.  More than 300 passengers and crew perished.The only survivor was a small dog, believed to belong to a wealthy couple aboard, that was able to swim to a nearby island and recovered a few days later. It remains BC’s largest maritime disaster.