Off the Beaten Path: The Sinking of the Islander and the Legend of its Lost Gold

In mid August of 1901, the SS Islander, a 240-foot luxury steamer deemed “unsinkable” and designed specifically for the Inside Passage, set sail from Skagway. It was the apex steamer of Southeast Alaska and a veteran of the region’s stormy and tricky passages. Several of the ship’s passengers were prospectors who’d struck it rich in the Klondike and were transporting large quantities of gold south. There were reports of widespread drinking aboard and claims made after the fact that the captain was inebriated. Early in the morning of August 15, as the Islander sailed down Stephens Passage, it struck an iceberg or rock. In less than 20 minutes the vessel, crammed to capacity with passengers and cargo (including $6 million of gold in 1901 dollars), sank into the frigid, inky ocean. The mountains of Admiralty and Douglas Islands loomed silent as the water roiled with chaos.

A few years ago, my little brother Reid and I were camped on the back side of Douglas Island in the general vicinity of where the Islander went down. We’d spent the day looking for tasty but elusive Sitka black-tail bucks… well, that’s not entirely true. Reid shot a nice buck after about 10 minutes of hunting and I’d spent the day looking at trees, communing with squirrels, and hoping one would suddenly morph into Bambi’s dad.

Still, it was a great day. Life doesn’t get much better than wandering the woods, having a campfire and enjoying a clear November night with my brother. We sat in the darkness on a point near the ocean, talking and listening to the sound of waves gently lapping on a tidal flat.

Suddenly, I heard voices. We were five miles from the nearest trail or road and it had been dark for hours. Maybe our older brother Luke had taken the next day off work and was hiking out to join us? Odd, that he’d be talking to himself though. I shrugged it off. It was probably just some critters or my imagination.

“Did you hear that?” Reid asked. “It sounds like people talking.”

We listened and again I heard what sounded like people talking. It appeared they were coming our way. “Yeah, there’s people coming. It’s weird they can find their way without headlamps. Maybe it’s Luke?”

Reid shook his head and I suddenly got the creeps.

Of the 180 or so aboard the Islander when it went down, 40 are thought to have died that early August morning. An Inventory and Survey of Historic Shipwreck Sites, a report prepared by the City and Borough Juneau Community Development Department in 1992, states, “It was said that a life boat which was designed to hold over forty persons left the ship with only seven survivors in it. Most of the ship’s passengers and crew were left to fend for themselves in the frigid waters. Many people drowned as they slipped off makeshift overcrowded rafts, including Captain Foote. Others went down with the ship or were pulled down by suction as the ISLANDER submerged.”

Reid and I listened to voices come nearer. I fought the urge to put out the fire, grab my rifle and hide behind a beached log. Instead, we waited and strained our ears trying to make out what our visitors were conversing about. Then, they became silent. A few minutes passed. It felt we were being studied. It might have been irrational, but I wanted to get into the darkness where we weren’t illuminated by the fire.

“Well, maybe we should put out this fire and good to bed. Those voices were probably just carrying across the water from somewhere.”

“Let’s not think about it,” Reid said.

Our tent was pitched in the cover of an old growth forest above a small stream. During the daylight, if you look carefully, you can find evidence of an old Tlingit village or camp nearby. We both lay awake for some time, waiting for the rustle of branches, the snap of a twig or the sound of steps approaching. Right before I was about to punch the clock, an eerie moan-shriek erupted above the tent. I knew it was the song of a porcupine, but I was weirded out enough to not mess with my little brother. The porcupine continued its moan-shrieking long enough for me to climb out of the tent to look for it with a headlamp. It stopped and even though I couldn’t find it, I politely asked it to shut-the-hell-up so we could get some sleep. Once I was back in the tent, it started up again.

The Islander is best known for its legendary cargo of gold and the Herculean effort and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars salvage companies spent trying to find it. Many of the passengers were rumored to be carrying large amounts of gold. One recovered body was reported to have 50 ounces of gold on it. The dead were mostly forgotten as the imagination of the public and salvage companies turned to thoughts of lost treasure.

Dozens of companies tried to penetrate its hull and searched for gold without any luck. In the 1930s a team, using two barges equipped with giant wenches and steel cables, inched the Islander to the shores of Greens Cove, on Admiralty Island. Once there, according to the City of Juneau and Borough reports, “The ship was literally dug up with shovels and the debris was sluiced. A poke of gold reportedly weighing 17 pounds was found in a washroom. The safe contained between $7,000 and $8,500 in Canadian currency and coins. The salvagers were very close mouthed about what they found. It has been estimated that it cost $200,000 to beach the ISLANDER and that they only got $50,000 for their effort.” The Forest Pride, one of the barges used to bring the Islander ashore, was wrecked in Greens Cove as well.

People are still searching for the Islander’s lost gold. Its bow broke off in the salvage process and lies decomposing on the ocean floor. Some believe that is where the gold, rumored to be worth between $260 and nearly $800 million in today’s market, waits to be found. Ocean Mar, a Seattle based salvage company, fought a court battle for years over the rights of who owns any potential gold. In 2012 they were granted permission to begin work; the salvage, if fully committed to, could cost “$3 million to $4 million.”

Last summer I camped in Greens Cove with 10 teenagers and a counselor. I was leading a kayak expedition from Juneau to Pack Creek, Admiralty Island’s famous brown bear viewing observatory. I didn’t know what I’d signed up for, but quickly realized I was supposed to be in charge of some sort of interpersonal wilderness foray, where victims (kids) are forced to talk about their hearts, souls and other spooky things.

It was raining and the no-see-ums apparently hadn’t eaten all summer. My initial relief in getting 11 inexperienced kayakers across Stephens Passage had long since passed. They looked at me with a mixture of disgust and hatred—who was this evil man that led them into this wet and buggy wilderness, and then abandoned them to an equally cruel woman who was trying to teach them how to feel? One boy confided he’d rather be waterboarded than have to do another trust exercise. I told him never to trust anyone, even himself, and not to worry, life would only get more strange and uncomfortable the older he got.

“You think this is weird? Wait till you get a girlfriend. Man, if I were you I’d run away right now and live with the bears,” I suggested.

He told me he’d miss baseball too much.

In the morning, we walked through the rain to where the Islander had been hauled ashore. A giant ship lay in the intertidal zone that was apparently the Forest Pride. We walked along the wreckage, hoping for answers but only finding rotting wood and barnacle-encrusted steel. All those shattered dreams and lost lives, and all that remained of the Islander was a few rusty steel ribs. Nearby, in a flooded creek, a blue heron hunted baby sculpin and salmon fry.

• Bjorn Dihle is a writer based out of Juneau. This column is an excerpt from a piece in his upcoming book, “Haunted Inside Passage.” He can be reached at bjorndihle@yahoo.com.

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