new book tells of search for sunken klondike treasure

When the SS Islander sank early in the morning of August 15, 1901, she took 65 passengers with her. In the end, 111 passengers survived, so the loss of life wasn't as great as the infamous tragedy of the Princess Sophia 17 years later.

When the SS Islander sank early in the morning of August 15, 1901, she took 65 passengers with her. In the end, 111 passengers survived, so the loss of life wasn’t as great as the infamous tragedy of the Princess Sophia 17 years later.

There were also 10 stowaways on board, who never stood a chance. Their deaths were never even included in the official tally of the dead.

Her loss and the determined effort to salvage the wreck more than three decades later are all part of the story revealed in the newly released book, Sunken Klondike Gold by Leonard Delano. This 166-page book, posthumously issued by Delano Publishing, includes 85 remarkable illustrations and photographs. Most of the photos were taken by Delano during the salvage efforts in 1933 and 1934.

The SS Islander was the pride of the Canadian Pacific Navigation Company as she steamed her way south to Vancouver. It was clear and calm as the passenger ship cruised through Stephens Passage off Douglas Island that night, 16 kilometres from Juneau, at a speed of 12 to 15 knots.

Just after 2 a.m. in the morning, the Islander struck something on the port bow with a shudder, and rapidly took on water. Ship’s Captain H.R. Foote ordered that they run her aground on the far side of the channel.

They never reached the shore. As the ship took on water, she started listing to bow, until her stern was out of the water and she no longer responded to her helm. As the boat sank, the “stifling cries” of one of the stowaways could be heard trapped beneath the forward deck, but he could not be saved. The Islander sank in less than 20 minutes.

The crew rapidly lowered the lifeboats, but in the ensuing confusion and frantic efforts to get away from the sinking ship, many of the boats, which were capable of holding 35 passengers, rowed away with a mere handful on board.

One lifeboat, containing seven crew members, left the sinking Islander, leaving behind women and children in the water.

One of those was the wife of Yukon Commissioner, James Hamilton Ross. She was seen clinging to a stanchion on the deck of the listing vessel while another passenger, Dr. Duncan helped her put on her life jacket. Her body, and those of her niece and Dr. Duncan were later recovered from the icy waters, but the remains of her infant child were never found.

The stern of Islander slowly rose into the air until it reached a 45-degree inclination, and then the damaged ship slid into the dark waters and was gone.

There was much speculation about how much gold was carried on the Islander when she went down. Millions of dollars in gold were being shipped out from the Yukon every month in the summer.

J.W. Dumbolton claimed to have lost 123 kilos of gold (worth over $55,000 in 1901 currency), along with his partners, Bailey and Griffen. Other witnesses placed the total value of gold on board at around $3 million.

The question was: could the gold be recovered?

Thirty-two years after the sinking of the Islander, Frank Curtis, a house mover and ship salvor from Seattle, assembled the resources and a crew to undertake the recovery of Islander’s gold. The author, Delano, was a junior crew member and official photographer for the venture.

The Islander lay in 107 metres of water. Using a modified wooden hulled barge called the Griffson, anchored over the wreck, the crew began the tedious task of running numerous cables underneath the hull at regular intervals along its length. In this deep water, they employed a spherical steel diving bell with a pair of mechanical arms on it to inspect the work at the bottom and trouble-shoot problems.

And there were plenty of problems. Wind, ice, snow, tides and storms impeded the recovery. Frequent mechanical breakdowns and technical problems frustrated them. The equipment used for this salvage operation bore none of the sophistication of that developed during and after the Second World War.

There were frequent injuries to crew members.

Eventually, however, enough steel cables were strung under the hull of the wreck to support its weight. Using numerous specially built steam-powered windlasses, and taking advantage of the tides, they were able to move the submerged hull toward Admiralty Island a few hundred feet at a time.

When they got it close enough to shore, they left the Griffson to rest at anchor in a sheltered bay for the winter, with the derelict hull lying below in 23 metres of water.

The salvage crew returned the following spring with a second vessel, a barkentine called the Forest Pride. The two vessels were tied together over the wreck by a system of massive timber trusses for the final move to the beach.

The framework between the two ships suspended the remains of Islander while providing structural support and eliminating the possibility of the boats capsizing. Unfortunately, the bow section was missing from the hull.

Once safely on shore, the recovery began. Stripping away the collapsed and rotting debris, they uncovered an intriguing collection of artifacts: a wooden carpentry plane, a kerosene lamp and a selection of camera lenses. Numerous bottles of alcohol were found, with their drinkable contents intact!

The ship’s bell, a metal nameplate, dinnerware and cutlery, and a pair of knee-high leather boots were also recovered.

Most important, they found gold.

Gold was sluiced out of the debris left in the bottom of the hull. One large mass of gold was found in a plugged urinal, and $6,000 in gold was recovered from the ship’s safe. One photograph shows armed members of the crew standing guard over two strong boxes recovered from the debris.

But the bulk of the gold was never found. It is believed that most of the noble element that was on board remains in the lost bow section, along with the bodies of the stowaways, or lies scattered on the bottom of Stephens Passage.

The narrative of the recovery operation in this account was inconsistent, and would have benefitted from a good editing job, but captured in the text and the excerpts from Delano’s diary is the flavour of the adventure as viewed by the young photographer.

The technical language used in some places will be foreign to most readers; however, a short list of definitions is included in an appendix at the end of the book.

In this story, the real treasure seems to be the impressive collection of stunningly detailed photographs taken of the men, machines and the engineering work they undertook to raise the hull and bring it ashore. The photos are well reproduced, and where the text fails to make clear what was going on, the images succeed admirably.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer living in Whitehorse. His book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is now available in stores throughout the territory.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dawson the dog sits next to the Chariot Patrick Jackson has loaded and rigged up to walk the Dempster Highway from where it begins, off the North Klondike Highway, to the Arctic Circle. (Submitted)
Walking the Dempster

Patrick Jackson gets set for 405-kilometre journey

Liberal leader Sandy Silver speaks outside his campaign headquarters in Dawson City following early poll results on April 12. (Robin Sharp/Yukon News)
BREAKING: Minority government results will wait on tie vote in Vuntut Gwitchin

The Yukon Party and the Liberal Party currently have secured the same amount of seats

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
YUKONOMIST: The Neapolitan election

Do you remember those old bricks of Neapolitan ice cream from birthday… Continue reading

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Exposure notice issued for April 3 Air North flight

Yukon Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley has issued another… Continue reading

Crystal Schick/Yukon News file
Runners in the Yukon Arctic Ultra marathon race down the Yukon River near the Marwell industrial area in Whitehorse on Feb. 3, 2019.
Cold-weather exercise hard on the lungs

Amy Kenny Special to the Yukon News It might make you feel… Continue reading

Today’s Mailbox: Rent freezes and the youth vote

Dear Editor, I read the article regarding the recommendations by the Yukon… Continue reading

Point-in-Time homeless count planned this month

Volunteers will count those in shelters, short-term housing and without shelter in a 24-hour period.

The Yukon’s new ATIPP Act came into effect on April 1. Yukoners can submit ATIPP requests online or at the Legislative Assembly building. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News file)
New ATIPP Act in effect as of April 1

The changes promise increased government transparency

A new conservancy in northern B.C. is adjacent to Mount Edziza Provincial Park. (Courtesy BC Parks)
Ice Mountain Lands near Telegraph Creek, B.C., granted conservancy protection

The conservancy is the first step in a multi-year Tahltan Stewardship Initiative

Yukon RCMP reported a child pornography-related arrest on April 1. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press file)
Whitehorse man arrested on child pornography charges

The 43-year-old was charged with possession of child pornography and making child pornography

Team Yukon athletes wave flags at the 2012 Arctic Winter Games opening ceremony in Whitehorse. The postponed 2022 event in Wood Buffalo, Alta., has been rescheduled for Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, 2023. (Justin Kennedy/Yukon News file)
New dates set for Arctic Winter Games

Wood Buffalo, Alta. will host event Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, 2023

Victoria Gold Corp. has contributed $1 million to the First Nation of Na-cho Nyak Dun after six months of production at the Eagle Gold Mine. (Submitted/Victoria Gold Corp.)
Victoria Gold contributes $1 million to First Nation of Na-cho Nyak Dun

Victoria Gold signed a Comprehensive Cooperation and Benefits Agreement in 2011

Most Read