The SS Islander left Skagway at 7:30 p.m. on August 14th, 1901. Nothing unusual there. This impressive CPR vessel had been built in Scottish shipyards back in 1888 specifically for the inside passage run. At 240 feet, it was longer than the SS Klondike. For its time, the ship was luxurious.
As a Canadian flag vessel, she often carried a large share of the gold bullion that had been checked through the Gold Commissioner's office in Dawson.
At 7 p.m. on the night of August 14th, 1901 the Islander left Skagway and headed south for Vancouver with a crew of sixty-two and over eighty passengers. She also carried a substantial cargo of gold.
By midnight, the passengers were snug in their beds as the ship sailed gently through still waters - unusually still for the stormy inside passage.
Sometime after 2:00 a.m. on August 15, while sailing in the narrow Lynn Canal south of Juneau, she struck what was reported to be an iceberg. Investigators later found that she had struck heavy ice that punched a large hole in the bow. Captain Foot tried to steer the stricken vessel to nearby Douglas Island but it was hopeless. Like the Titanic, the Islander had a mortal wound. She would not float for long.
Within five minutes, the tremendous weight of the water filling the ship's forward compartments had forced her bow underwater. The stern, rudder and propellers were raised completely out of the water. After drifting for about fifteen minutes in a strong southerly outbound tide, the Islander began her final plunge to the bottom.
Sixteen crew and twenty-three passengers went to an icy grave that had claimed so many lives over the years. But many survivors, including Charles Ross, gave an account of the sinking.
He and his wife were in bed when he felt the shock. He leapt up, but an officer passed by and told them there was nothing the matter. A few moments later he heard something like chopping, going on above, and went on deck.
The largest and best lifeboat was in the water with eight of the crew on board, The lifeboat, said Ross, would have carried forty people. He hurried to his room and told his wife there was danger.
Dressing quickly, they went on deck to witness the lifeboat leaving, not thirty feet away. Ross said he called to the men to return but they would not. They stood on the water-covered deck and put on life preservers, but the vessel went down so quickly they had no time to jump.
Ross was in the water for almost four hours before they rescued him, nearly dead from cold. The body of Mrs. Ross was found floating in the wreckage.
Other survivors reported that a 'whoosh' of escaping air and steam from the boilers blew the wooden upper works from the sinking ship. Debris rained down on the passengers.
Then the Islander slipped to her final resting place in 175 feet of frigid water, taking sixteen crew and twenty three passengers to their deaths.
Among the victims were Mrs. James Ross and her daughter, the wife and child of the Yukon's Commissioner and Charles Keating, a multimillionaire and Director of the Commerce Bank of Canada, and the ship's Captain, H.B. Foot.
No sooner had the Islander sunk than efforts to find the shipwreck began. Finally, in 1934, an ingenious engineering feat resulted in raising part of the wreck.
However, when cleared of muck, the ship would yield just seventy-five thousand dollars worth of gold nuggets and dust. Her reported tons of gold bullion lay undisturbed on the bottom of Lynn Canal.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin