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.