SS Islander, Green Cove

SS Islander, Green Cove

by | Jul 3, 2021

The remains of SS Islander and the salvage barge Griffson are in Green Cove on Stephens Passage, a waterway that separates the north shore of the Glass Peninsula on Admiralty Island from Douglas Island, about 86 miles (138 km) northeast of Sitka and 12 miles (19 km) southeast of Juneau, Alaska. The Glass Peninsula is about 43 miles (69 km) long and attached to Admiralty Island by a narrow isthmus with a portage trail 0.8 miles (1.3 km) long connecting Seymour Canal and Oliver Inlet. The peninsula was named by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey for Commander Henry Glass of the U.S. Navy and who surveyed the area on the SS Wachusett in 1881. Stephens Passage is about 80 miles (129 km) long from Portland Island to Frederick Sound and was named in 1794 by Captain George Vancouver of the Royal Navy probably for Sir Philip Stephens.

SS Islander was a steel-hulled schooner-rigged steamship, 240 feet (73 m) long with twin propellers, built by Napier, Shanks, and Bell of Glasgow, Scotland in 1888 and owned and operated by the Canadian-Pacific Navigation Company. She was built specifically for the Inside Passage route to Alaska and was regarded as the most luxurious steamer engaged on that run. As a consequence, a passage to Alaska on Islander was favored by many wealthy businessmen, speculators, bankers, railroad tycoons, and later by those with a stake in Klondike goldfields. On 14 August 1901, Islander departed Skagway, Alaska for Victoria, British Columbia with 107 passengers and 61 crew. A large shipment of gold was also onboard sent as registered mail and owned by the Canadian Bank of Commerce. At about 2:00 am on 15 August, the ship was steaming at about 15 knots in fog between Douglas Island and Admiralty Island and struck a drifting iceberg that had probably calved from a glacier in Taku Inlet. The impact tore a large hole in the forward port quarter of the ship. The vessel stayed afloat for about 20 minutes, drifting in a strong southerly current, and then sank. About 40 people went down with the ship, including the captain, although that number may be higher due to a reported 11 stowaways on board who weren’t accounted for. Some survivors rowed lifeboats to Douglas Island, walking to the mining community of Treadwell to inform the world of the tragedy.

Almost immediately after the sinking, the amount of gold reportedly onboard led to recovery efforts. Within a few weeks of the sinking, the Canadian-Pacific Navigation Company sent the SS Haling to try and locate the wreck of the ship but was not successful. In 1902, the company hired Henry Finch and Sons, a diving and salvage business, who located the wreck by dragging a steel cable over the bottom of Stephens Passage. The wreck was at a depth of over 300 feet which exceeded the capability of available diving equipment. Finch came back in 1904 with a diving bell and a custom-made barge, and again was unsuccessful in recovering any gold, although he did note a large gaping hole in the bow of the ship. In 1934, Captain Wiley of Seattle teamed up with Frank Curtis, a professional house mover, and formed a salvage company. The sailing cargo ship Forest Pride was converted to a salvage barge, and in tandem with another barge called Griffson, were positioned on each side of the Islander. Cables were passed between them and under the sunken vessel and using extreme tide cycles for lifting, the vessel was moved to a beach in Green Cove; however, 60 feet (18 m) of the vessel’s forward section remained on the ocean floor. Griffson was abandoned at Green Cove, and the wreckage is visible at low tide along with what little is left of Islander. In 1993 and 1994, Ocean Mar Inc. determined the location of the bow section using side-scan sonar and executed a salvage contract in 1995, but got involved in a legal battle with Yukon Recovery which had also been planning for a recovery expedition. Eventually, Ocean Mar Inc. received a favorable court judgment to conduct the salvage, and in 2012 they recovered the contents of one box containing 1200 ounces (34 kg) of gold which was auctioned for $4 million to pay off expenses. Islander reportedly was carrying 10 to 12 boxes of gold which remain on the bottom of Stephens Passage. Read more here and here. Explore more of Green Cove here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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