If you read our articles regularly on Fridays, you might get the feeling that there was a lot of gold being hauled around in ships and, on various occasions throughout history, some of that gold ended up strewn across the bottom of the ocean. That conclusion would, with a few caveats, be correct. Virtually every society that valued gold moved it by ship up until relatively modern times.
There have been two periods in history when there was an even greater volume of gold and treasure moving back and forth across the high seas. When the Spanish conquered the New World they set to strip mining the South and Central Americas of their treasure, going so far as to enslave conquered natives, forcing them to work the silver mines. The other period in history where there was a lot of gold traveling by ship was the Gold Rush, when gold traveled from Alaska and California to the east coast of the U.S. Just about any ship that disappeared on that regular run would have been loaded with tons of gold.
Eleven years before the Titanic, a luxury liner called the SS Islander departed Skagway, Alaska on the 14th of August in 1901 for its regular run to Victoria, British Columbia. Called the Inland Passage, the Pacific coast of the great Northwest is a place of cold waters, tricky currents, rocky shores and lashing storms called mid-latitude gales. Yet it was a calm, clear night when the Islander, a ship renowned for its luxury appointments, departed for Victoria.
The Islander was 249 feet long, displacing 1,519 tons. She was driven along at her stately pace of 15 knots by twin steam-powered screws. Because the Islander was far and away the most luxurious of the steamers making the Inland Passage, she was filled to capacity with the wealthiest of the Gold Rush kings and in her hold was a volume of gold valued at $6 million in 1901 dollars. Eight hours later many of the people on board the Islander and all that gold would be on the bottom of the narrow Lynn Canal, just south of Juneau.
What exactly happened is matter of some conjecture. The official account is that sometime after 2:00 a.m. the SS Islander struck an iceberg that carved a 60 foot hole in the forward port quarter (front left) of the ship, including one of the coal bunkers. Being in a narrow channel, the crew tried to steer toward nearby Douglas Island. But so great was the weight of inrushing water that in just five minutes it pulled the bow of the Islander so far down that its twin screws and rudder were sticking up out of the water. Helpless, the ship was carried along in the strong southerly current for about fifteen minutes before plunging 110 meters through ice cold water to the bottom. Out of 168 passengers and crew, 40 lives were lost.
The official inquest concluded it was a tragic accident that was completely unavoidable. A second, more thorough inquiry painted a somewhat different picture. This second examination found that the captain had been in a state of near-total inebriation and the crew did not immediately alert passengers to the fact they were sinking, which cost several lives.
Unlike many shipwrecks throughout history, the location of the Islander was well known and at a depth that was within reach of the technology of the early 1900s. Attempts to discover and salvage the wreck began almost immediately. The ship was located in 1904 and the first serious salvage attempt was started in 1929, when a group came up with a plan to use cables to lift the ship during low tides and move it toward land. It took them two complete salvage seasons but, surprisingly, it worked. But when the ship was finally in shallow water the salvage crew discovered that 60 feet of the bow, including the mail and storage rooms, were completely missing. Worse yet, they could only recover about $75,000 worth of the missing gold.
Fast-forward almost seventy years to 1996, when with the aid of side-scan radar efforts to locate the missing bow section and original point of impact were successful. The salvage was tied up in court until 2012 when a pair of salvage companies working together pulled a chest off the bottom containing 1,200 ounces of gold. That long-lost gold is now up for sale for just $4 million—if you’re interested. While the current face value of the gold itself is roughly $1.5 million, its historical importance considerably jacks up the asking price.
The real mystery is where the rest of the gold, estimated at $16 million dollars, might be hiding. Some theorize it was hauled away in a salvage attempt in 1934, but most believe it’s still down there. The two Seattle companies that retain the salvage rights will continue to search the frigid waters for the rest of the treasure still sunken in their icy depths.