The SS Islander was a 1519 ton, steel hull, schooner-rigged twin-screw steamer, built in Scotland in 1888, and owned and operated by the Canadian-Pacific Navigation Company. She was built especially for the Inside Passage to Alaska and was reputedly the most luxurious steamer engaged on that run.
On August 14th, 1901, the Islander departed Skagway, Alaska for Victoria, British Columbia, filled to capacity with passengers and carrying a cargo of gold bullion valued at over $6,000,000 in 1901 dollars. (gold was worth around $ 20 per ounce). At today’s prices, at $2,000 per ounce, that translates into a staggering $600,000,000.
Sometime after 2:00 am on 15 August, 1901 while sailing down the narrow Lynn Canal south of Juneau, the SS Islander struck an iceberg and within five minutes, her bow was underwater and her stern, rudder and propellers completely out of the water. She sank within 20 minutes. Fifty ounces of gold were recovered from one body and another lucky passenger was reportedly carrying 600 ounces of gold dust when rescued. Some estimate upwards of 480,000 ounces may have been on board.
Reports concerning the substantial value of the ship’s cargo led to many early salvage attempts and also several lawsuits. No sooner had the Islander sunk than efforts began to locate the wreck. The first attempt to locate the Islander was a failure. In 1902 Henry Finch, an experienced diver with 40 years’ experience, dragged the bottom of the Lynn Canal for the wreck. He located the hull but was not able to proceed with an actual salvage attempt.
In the 1930’s a salvage company raised about two-thirds of the Islander’s hull. According to the 1992 report, it cost an estimated $200,000 to beach the remains, and the salvagers got about $50,000 in returns. About 60 feet of the ship’s forward section snapped off during the raising and remained under water.
The ship was believed to be transporting “hundreds of pounds of gold” from the Klondike to Seattle and San Francisco. The gold would likely be “single gold bars and boxes of gold bars” buried under as much as 8 feet of silt. Theodore Jaynes and his company, Ocean Mar Inc., had been fighting since the 1990’s for salvage rights to the vessel.
In June 2012 after a court ruling the state of Alaska issued a permit allowing for archaeological work at the site. In a 2007 filing, Ocean Mar said its research had indicated that at least six tons of gold bullion in 25 to 30 wooden boxes was stored in a passenger cabin. It also said it had found what it believed to be bullion boxes near shore, no deeper than 200 feet.
In 2016, twelve-hundred troy ounces of Alaskan Gold Rush gold recovered in 2012 from the 1901 shipwreck of the SS Islander was offered for sale for $4 million exclusively through private treaty by Fred N. Holabird from Holabird Western Americana Collections LLC. Holabird is acting as the exclusive agent for the salvors.
The ship sank in 20 minutes, claiming the lives of 40 among the 107 passengers and 61 crewmembers reported aboard.