A century old mystery may soon be solved in the frigid depths off Alaska’s coast. The SS Islander, a 240 foot liner operated by the Canadian Pacific Navigation Company, sank on August 15, 1901 while en route from Skagway, Alaska to Vancouver, British Columbia. Approximately 40 people perished in the sinking including the highest government official of the Yukon Territory. The steamer was purportedly carrying 6 tons of gold which led to a series of salvage efforts beginning only weeks after the ship’s sinking. Not until 1934, though, were any successful attempts made due to hazardous working conditions and primitive salvage equipment. The 1934 expedition used a process similar to that employed on the Swedish Vasa shipwreck to raise a 175 foot section of the ship and beach it on shore. The tremendous efforts expended to float the ship are documented in Sunken Klondike Gold written by the expedition’s official photographer, Leonard Delano. Unfortunately for the salvors, only $75,000 in gold dust and nuggets was found – not even enough to cover the expedition’s costs. Either the 6 tons of gold was never aboard or it had been stored in the Mail and Storage Room in the bow of the ship which wasn’t recovered.
Eight decades later another group, Ocean Mar, Inc., has returned to (hopefully) complete the salvage of the ship. Ocean Mar began its efforts in the early 1990s, but were stymied by legal wranglings with another salvage company – Yukon Recovery LLC. A federal court finally resolved the dispute in June of 2012 and the state of Alaska issued Ocean Mar, Inc. a work permit for the site this week, nearly 111 years to the day since the ship’s sinking. The permit extends through December 31 and the Alaska State Museum will serve as a repository for salvaged artifacts. If recovered, the melt value of the gold alone would be worth more than $300,000,000.00 in 2012 dollars. Ocean Mar has a salvage agreement in place with Salvage Association of London whereby Ocean Mar would pay Salvage Association 25% of any recovery in order to pay off any insurers’ claims.