The Sinking of the Steamship Islander

Compiled by Bruce Baker, Board Member

Fishing Admiralty Boaters entering Green Cove on the north end of Admiralty Island’s Glass Peninsula have seen shoreline wreckage described as that of the S.S. Islander. She was a luxurious 240-foot passenger ship built in 1888 at Napier, Shanks and Bell Shipyard in Glasgow, Scotland. She was powered by two steam engines. Her steel compartments could be sealed off in the event of a leak, supposedly protecting her from complete flooding. The lounges featured upholstered furniture, thick carpets, beautiful drapes, and several pianos. The state rooms too were elegant, with stained glass scenes from along the route of the Canadian Railway.

At 7:30 pm on August 14, 1901, the Islander departed Skagway, bound for Victoria, B.C. with approximately 180 crew and passengers. Many were prospectors returning south from Canada’s Yukon gold fields. It’s reported that there was plenty of partying and that drinks flowed freely. This resulted in speculation as to whether alcohol may have influenced performance of the ship’s officers. However, a jury was later unable to place responsibility.

At about 2:00 am on the 15th, there was fog in Stephens Passage as the ship sailed at about 15 knots between the west side of Douglas< Island and north Admiralty Island. There was debate as to whether the ship had struck an iceberg or a rock. Despite the sealable compartments, witnesses said that the vessel stayed afloat for only 20 minutes. There were reports of boilers exploding. However, an English engineer at the time was quoted as saying, “What really happens is that, as the ship sinks, water rushes into the furnaces and steam is generated in great volume, issuing with a violent roar from the funnel and any openings in the stokehold. The boilers do not burst. The noise is terrifying to laymen . . . probably a violent eruption of air from the ship’s hull does most of the damage, with the boilers providing ominous sound effects.”

Passengers stuck in their cabins because their doors had become jammed shut on impact were freed by stewards with axes. Passengers with gold aboard besieged the purser’s office to claim their loot. Panic prevailed on deck where some lifeboats had been lowered partially full and others got hung up. One lifeboat was reported to leave the ship with only 20 percent of its design capacity. Many people drowned though a good number made it to Douglas Island. The steamers Flosie and Lucy rescued survivors and recovered some of the dead. Later, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Rush and smaller patrol vessels combed over 70 miles of shoreline. Considerable debris was found. Numerous trunks and suitcases were found on beaches. Most of the bodies were said to be accounted for.

With reports of gold on board, talk of salvage began almost immediately, but the depth of the wreck exceeded the limits of available diving equipment. It wasn’t until 1921 that the wreck was reported in 300 feet of water. It was later viewed from a diving bell, and in 1934 a monumental salvage attempt was undertaken. By cradling the Islander on cables run between two barges and using extreme tide cycles for lifting, the vessel was moved to the beach in Green Cove. Not enough gold was found to pay for the massive salvage effort, and it is speculated that most of the gold was in the bow, which broke off during salvage.

In 1996, Ocean-Mar of Seattle is said to have spent at least five weeks with sophisticated modern surveillance equipment, recording every aspect of the bow section and sidescanning the debris field, between the original point of impact and the final resting place. As recently as 2002, Ocean-Mar is said to have been interested in pursuing salvage of the bow section. The saga of the Islander’s gold seems a never ending one.


The wooden hull of one of the 1934 salvage vessels was abandoned at the Green Cove site, and its remains appear at low tide along with what little is left of the Islander. Some pottery remnants with the Islander name have been documented, and the steam gauge is said to be in the Alaska State Museum.

Sources:

1. September 1992 “Inventory and Survey
of Historic Shipwreck Sites” researched by Willette
Janes and issued by the City & Borough of Juneau.

2. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Agency’s April 4-12,
2006 on-line report, “Submerged Cultural Resource
Management on the Last Frontier: Reconnaissance, GIS
Mapping, and Biotic/Geochemical Characterization of
Threatened Shipwreck Sites in Southeast Alaska.”

3.Nick Messinger’s web site “The SS Islander Story.”