The SS Islander…


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November 2020
by dal

 

The SS Islander Treasure Hunt

In 1996 Crayton Fenn (Forrest’s nephew and Skippy’s son) and his then business partner, Bob Mester were planning a trip to find the gold laden bow of the SS Islander off the southern tip of Douglas Island in Alaska. The search team consisted of five folks. I was lucky to be one of them.

But let’s start at the beginning-

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The S.S. Islander

In August of 1901 the Islander was making its last run for the year between the entrance to the Yukon Gold fields at Skagway and points south down to Canada and the mainland USA.

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Skagway Alaska

At the beginning of the 20th century the Yukon Gold rush was in its prime and Skagway was the portal from which all gold prospectors started toward the goldfields.

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Prospectors heading to the Yukon Gold Fields during the “rush”.

By mid August many of the men wanted to take their findings and head to a secure bank and good hotel. No one wanted to spend the winter trying to stay unfrozen and fed in the Yukon. Prospectors would typically abandon their claims for the winter and head down to Victoria, Seattle or San Francisco til they could return the following spring.The inland passage along Alaska’s coast was the only exit route from Skagway and the Islander was the best of the fleet of passenger vessels plying those waters. Even though it was mid August it would not be long before the passage was thick with ice and everyone would be stuck in Alaska til spring.

8e

Many of those boarding the islander had been successful in the goldfields and were traveling with heavy bags and suitcases weighed down with freshly unearthed gold nuggets and sparkly panned dust. Additionally, the ship was transporting two shipments of gold ingots, one for the Bank of Canada in Victoria and another shipment bound for the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco. Mounties were on the vessel to guard the gold and keep the peace. The atmosphere on board was said to be celebratory and joyful…but that mood would not last for very long.

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In the early dark morning of August 15th the 240ft ship was plying the deep, cold waters between Admiralty Island and Douglas Island, a few miles out of Juneau. A route it had sailed dozens of times before, under the watchful command of Captain Foote. But that particular morning an uncharted, deadly iceberg from Taku Inlet was about to silently cross the Islander’s dark path. There was no avoiding a deadly meeting. The resulting jolt was staggering, waking everyone on board. The damage severe. Their boat was taking on water and sinking fast.

Immediately after the ramming Captain Foote turned the Islander toward Douglas Island and gave the engines full forward steam in a futile attempt to get his sinking ship as close as possible to land. But the distance was too far, the breach from the ramming too large and the islander sank in a matter of minutes about a quarter of a mile off shore. Sixty or more passengers lost their lives. Some went down with the ship. Others were sucked under while trying to swim away. It was later repeated that some passengers, unwilling to leave their gold behind, jumped from the ship, suitcases in hand, never to be seen again. Gold fever does horrible things to people. 

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Based on the ships manifest it was determined that millions and millions of dollars in gold went to the dark bottom along with more than 60 passengers and crew.

A small contingent of about 20 made it to shore on makeshift rafts and walked all night to Juneau to report the terrible disaster and recover from their ordeal. Everyone on board lost all their gold and belongings inside the sunken hull of the Islander.

The exact location of  the ill-fated Islander and her gold was not known. It was dark. Navigation was by the stars. Currents were strong. The crew could only guess the approximate location of where she sank.

But with millions of dollars in gold known to be inside the Islander, interest in recovery was keen. Many tried. Many failed. After a few years the shipwreck’s position on the bottom was discovered. But the depth, the swift currents, the significant tides and the lack of technology stopped every salvage attempt. The Islander rested…untouched…taunting and luring would be salvers… for over three decades before someone finally came up with a workable plan on how to salvage the Islander and get the gold.

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In 1934 a house moving company out of Seattle planned on using barges, cables and Alaska’s dramatic tides to move the islander to the beach where the gold could be easily and comfortably removed. Their plan was brilliant in its simplicity.

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Two barges were positioned over the top of the Islanders hull. Cables attached to powerful winches would be dragged under the shipwreck to form a cradle. They would wait for low tide and cinch the cables tight. Then, wait for high tide to lift the barges and the Islander off the seafloor. They would then make a run toward Admiralty Island. Stopping only when the Islander again grounded in shallower water. Wait for low tide…again cinch the cables tight and await high tide when they would again run toward shore…repeat, repeat, repeat…twice every day with the rhythm of the giant tides until they could set the islander flat on the beach. Execution of their plan took over two years to accomplish. Sometimes they were only able to move the Islander a few feet before grounding…sometimes hundreds of feet…

In 1936 the Islander hull finally rested on the beach of Admiralty Island….fully exposed…open for inspection and salvage…

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You can see that the Islander’s bow has broken completely off in the photo

But there was a problem. The bow was missing from the hull. It had evidently fallen off when weakened by the cables while lifting…and guess where the gold had been stored…

The moving company claimed only one leather pouch of gold dust found in a restroom…gross gain $50,000. Not even enough to cover food expenses for their crew for two years.

In 1996, sixty years after the hull had been dragged to the beach, the precise location of the bow was still unknown…It was presumed to be resting on the bottom in over 350 ft of water, somewhere between Douglas and Admiralty Island…Further, the story of the Islander, it’s tragic wreck and the millions of dollars in gold had all but been forgotten. There had been wars and Statehood, earthquakes and Soviet threats…distractions from the Islander treasure. Search and salvage technology had advanced significantly. But no one had located the Islander’s bow.

That’s when Crayton and crew decided to gear up…

Crayton’s plan involved advanced side-scan sonar to search the bottom for the bow and once located, using an ROV around the bow to photograph it for our claim that would be sent to the Maritime Courts. Treasure hunting involves guts, skill, luck, research, financing and a few lawyers.

munson

We hired a shallow draft workboat not unlike this Munson Boat out of Petersburg, AK. And moved it up to our worksite. Our gear was shipped up from Seattle.

sss

I can’t remember how many days we were out surveying that bottom but it was more than a few. Side-scan sonar is rather tedious work. You plug along at just a few knots per hour towing gear behind you trying to keep the gear at a constant speed, direction and elevation off the bottom. These days electronics do all the computation and keep the gear in place but in ’96 it was all manually operated from a winch operator on board the boat who was informed by the side-scan operator whether to go up or down on the gear. The gear consists of a towfish that emits sound signals toward the bottom and that signal then returns to the gear and is measured, That “echo” signal is used to draw a picture of what’s on the bottom. Hard things reflect the sound differently than soft things…tall things send back a different signal than things that are short…

On board the vessel the operator is looking at the read-out from the sonar and interpreting what he sees. If you’ve ever had to look at a pregnancy sonogram and try to figure out what the heck you were looking at…it’s kinda like that…to most of us, a side-scan read-out is just a weird picture…but to an expert…it’s clear and easy to see a baby…or in our case an anchor, a cable, a fish, a shipwreck…a bow.

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Side Scan Sonar image showing the bow of the Islander resting on the sea bottom.

Soon after finding the disconnected bow and anchoring over it we deployed the ROV to take pictures. 

In order to claim a found wreck you have to prove that you found it, typically with photos or video. You have to identify it, provide it’s precise location and you have to demonstrate that you are capable of salvaging it.

So after we had photos, the claim was filed in Alaska Maritime Courts and then we went home and waited…

Of course the problem with all this is that your claim is a public record…so anyone can see it. Your claim not only has photos of the wreck but also it’s precise geographic location…so anyone who wants too can now head over to your wreck.You’ve done all the work to find it but any thief or pirate not concerned about a few trespassing laws can head over there under cover of darkness and grab whatever they want…

In the case of the bow of the Islander we were not terribly concerned about pirates stealing anything because the bow was too deep to easily poach…On the other hand it’s not exactly a populated place and a lot of work can be done under cover of darkness in a remote location…We fretted. But as it turned out…piracy would not be our issue…

The courts were a much more substantial problem for us…

Soon after our claim was filed another salvage outfit challenged our claim. They purported to represent the company that insured the Islander in 1901. The insurance company had paid out…I have no idea how much…nor do I know if it was just hull insurance or if they also made good on the gold that was lost…They also claimed that they had never “abandoned” the Islander…or its bow and it was rightfully theirs. The courts upheld their claim…denied ours.

deniedIt took years to get through the legal system but eventually we lost the battle…and the Islander. I don’t even think we got a thank you for finding it.

A few years ago the folks that won finally got round to salvaging the bow…and this little snippet will explain the rest…

fgy

Well….not “all the rest”…because I cannot help but note that the Islander was supposed to be transporting some $63 million in gold that day in 1901…yet the salvage company…only reported $1million…

What happened to the rest?

Crayton’s projects were full of interesting mysteries…and interesting characters…

Treasure hunting is always an iffy financial proposition but the fun is never iffy…

-dal

 

 

 

 

 

 

61 thoughts on “The SS Islander…

  1. Dal, this is such an incredible story, thank you so much for sharing. Forrest was spot on … He said your waters run deep, and after reading your stories, I see that was no fooling! I had no idea about this shipwreck , the gold or the lives lost aboard the Islander. Wonder what happened to the other 60+ million in gold?

        • A year ago I actually purchased a used wet suit…for the Thrill of the Chase. We were told the chest was not under water, but unfortunately some of us searchers don’t listen so well…WHAT? Did someone say something. Last winter the water was high…I did some crazy…well sort or crazy…maybe certifiable crazy, things. Nothing to dangerous. But if your not willing to go to the edge, or crawl to the edge, you may miss the Marvel Gaze.

  2. Thanks Dal for the story, how exciting to be the ones to locate the bow of the Islander. It appears that in some situations the “finder” does not always receive the prize….hmmm

    • That is… unless the “prize” is the “chase they sought and not the quarry”

      Treasure hunting… the fun is never iffy

  3. This reminds me…was there an old post of part of this back in the very early days? Or was it about the Lusitania? No, it was this, I think. Will have to go digging now……

    Always a great read read. Thanks, Dal.

  4. Dal
    I just noticed this storie here after finishing up some chores.
    If that’s treasure hunting, welcome to the Chase.
    Thanks for posting it. I feel a lot better about my financial investment now.
    Huge losses for those folks, left with nothing but an adventure and the story.
    I guess Forrest was right about life being a game of poker, as fate deals you those four cards and a joker, you have to play the game.
    I am almost satisfied.
    Thanks for the new topics. Sure Forrest would be pleased.
    GH

  5. Unclaimed treasure. It’s a wonderful story Dal. Very interesting indeed. Stories,such as this,make me want to grab my back-pack and head out West. I’ve always loved adventure such as this and watching the hiway in my rear-view always allots me time to think deeply about many things such as how much I wish Forrest Fenn were still around. I never got to meet him,but I bet he was a swell fellow.

  6. Hello Dal. The story of this adventure is enjoyable. It’s a shame you and the crew were denied. Did the insurance company have papers to prove their claim that they didn’t give up? Did the insurance company end their “claim” to the wreckage since their retrieval? It’s interesting about the difference of gold found.

    Thank you for posting this story. I would love to hear more adventures.

    • I never saw the papers but my understanding is that they had a paper trail that clearly demonstrated their relationship to the original insurance provider. I have not checked on the status of their claim but I can’t imagine that they would give it up. There is no point in doing that. It cost’s nothing to keep the claim active…and who knows what the next adventurer will figure out for them 🙂

  7. The stories of adventures oftentimes are greater than any value of the prize. The prize being the only thing that matters to some, even after the fact, for years beating themselves up for what they feel as incomplete. To be given a chance to find a treasure this day in age was the most awesome adventure a person could be given. Thanks again Dal and Forrest for making this happen, the feeling John Muir felt alone and deep in the wood in 1875 comes to mind….

  8. Thanks for the new story Dal! Love treasure stories! Give our best to Crayton.
    People who are being ugly to the Finder of Indulgence, and the doubters and skeptics should take a lesson in how to properly deal with losing.

  9. I find it doubtful that ALL of the gold was stored in the bow. Nautically speaking, It doesn’t make sense to place it there as ballast. The original salvage team may have been less than forthright about the results of their operation. There would, after all, be great incentive to misreport the truth of their haul, to avoid taxes or other claims against the find. I imagine this rational urge to live by the rule “finders keepers, losers weepers,” happens with many a treasure find.

      • Yeah, I realized that was way too much gold literally right after I posted it.
        In my defense, I was doing my “little boy happy dance” at the time, so I was under some pressure.

    • I think we’re looking at closer to 5 tons of gold in 1996 values, If I’m doing the math correctly, this would be a solid volume of approximately an 8×8 foot cube of pure gold. Placer gold, being impure, would increase the volume..

  10. Great story! I can’t help but wonder if someone else might do some side-scan echoes for the rest of the treasure. Of course, if the courts step in, taking all your efforts away, what’s the sense?

    • The cents Suzy_S is in the satisfaction of knowing with certainty that you’ve accomplished something significant unmatched by others. I bet dal and that team feel a great deal of satisfaction in finding that treasure during an age when things weren’t so easy.

  11. Dal,
    DENIED is one of most disappointing words in the whole of language. I enjoyed your story immensely, but my heart sank with your hopes of recovering gold as an insurance company claim-jumped your team’s legitimate find.

  12. Great story Dal. I enjoyed reading it very much. I’m kind of surprised that Clayton didn’t at least get a finder’s fee. If most of the gold was indeed stored in the bow, then there very well could be a ‘yellow brick road’ between the original sinking location and where the bow was found.

    Pinatubocharlie

  13. Dal I never get tired of hearing about your adventures! You are one interesting guy and I hope that our paths cross again. Remember if you ever are traveling through south central PA you have an open invitation at our house…………….providing we are home! LOL
    Take care my friend.
    Tom

  14. Great story. Thanks Dal.

    Living in Victoria myself, I have an awareness of the Klondike history.

    Marshall Seymour “Klondike” Cunningham was born in Virginia around 1878. Around 1896 he became the first white man to cross over the Chilkoot Pass in the Yukon (that amazing picture of humans acting like ants to a hummingbird feeder). He made his living by building boats and ferrying prospectors to the gold fields.

    By 1898 he had left for Montana and partnered up with Hans Behring (a geological surveyor) and they bought the 9 Quarter Circle Ranch together in what is now Taylor Fork in the Gallatin Valley.

    Cattle ranching was their business and Walter Cooper of Bozeman (Gary Cooper’s uncle) was busy chopping down the pine trees to make railway ties right next door, proving grazing land for those animal. But the end of the first world war meant the collapse of the beef market and Cunningham converted the ranch into a dude ranch, one of the first in all the Rocky Mountains.

    • Muset – Love that.ranch!:

      https://www.ninequartercircle.com/

      If I had found Forrest’s treasure at Baker’S Hole, on Memorial Day Weekend of 2019, I would have planned to have the Chase Victory Party there, that late August, so Shiloh could fly Forrest into their private airstrip to attend. We could have celebrated Forrest’s 89th birthday, while we were at it.

      Really enjoyed your awesome story, Dal. Did Skippy’s son, Crayton, see it?

      • You might be able to find a copy of “West To Rising Sun” by Julius Butler on Amazon. Julius spent his childhood summers at Big Sky and then the 9QC Ranch and ended up partnering with Cunningham for the dude ranch business.

        The book is intended as a promotion for the area as well as a nice youth story. The inside covers are hand painted images of the ranch.

        The story begins in an airplane around 1930 searching for the 9QC landing strip in difficult flying conditions.

  15. I have been researching similar lost treasures since Indulgence was found. Experts say that there are billions of dollars in lost loot in the world’s oceans waiting to be discovered. Seems there is always someone ready to cash in on somebody else’s hard work. This story reminds me of the quote: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”

  16. Dal,
    Weren’t you on another ship searching for treasures? I recall it was with Clayton off the coast of Ecuador? I received so much information, I’m not sure if I dreamed it up? Would love another adventurous story! Thanks in advance.

    • Trail-
      We spent 5 years searching and documenting shipwrecks from the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries off the coast of Uruguay. We had an agreement with the Uruguayan government to split the find. We also retrieved several bronze canons from shipwrecks for the Naval Museum. We helped look for lost airmen when Air Force helicopters went down over rough seas. We worked with underwater archeologists from Oxford to salvage artifacts and document Lord Admiral Nelson’s favorite ship of the line, the Agamemnon. In other words we worked not only our own claims but also worked with the gov’t and the military there as well as the Brits. In the end we left with nothing when the gov’t in Uruguay changed and the new gov’t no longer honored our agreement. We ran as fast as we could out of the country fearing they would seize our research vessel. It’s a good tale. Plenty of guts and lots of adventure and some of the most fun shipwreck diving I’ve ever done. The gov’t kept all our finds and documents…we were lucky to get out…I love Uruguay…but it’s no lie that you have to be very cautious partnering with SA governments.
      It wasn’t just us…they also screwed their own salvage folks out of millions after they recovered the giant Nazi emblem off the WWII Pocket Battleship, Graf Spee. We helped on that project as well…
      You can read about my buddy Hector Bado and his work on the Graf Spee here:
      http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4702832.stm

      • Dal,

        Thanks for sharing these hunt stories.

        They underline the significance of the jurisdiction where the treasure is found. Those who embark on adventures, battling nature and logistic problems should be heroes.

        But Red Tape and greedy sharpies suffocate this spirit again and again. Thank God one famous Eagle Scout, Neil Armstrong, was operating within the jurisdiction of the USA, which still cherished the Thrill of the Chase, as it were.

        Unfortunately, I see many regulators operating outside their useful purpose, jealous of those that achieve without their help.

        Let’s hope this generation’s pioneers like Musk, Branson and many others will be able to continue to reach escape velocity before the gravity and friction of regulatory regimes impose terminal velocity.

  17. I loved this story! I want more! Thanks Dal, you’re a Golden Treasure yourself pal! If there ever was a short story that needed to be made into a documentary it’s this one! Also, I would totally zoom on down to Barnes & Noble and cough up $29.95 for the book too! 🙂

    Imagination sure is a blissful thing. 🙂

    P.S. I can’t help but think how closely related some of the details in this story are to The Chase, they seem oddly familiar, but then again, distant as well.
    IMO

    • Canyon-
      Not at that time. I first heard of Forrest a couple years later when Crayton and I were working shipwrecks off the coast of Uruguay. Forrest (Crayton’s uncle) offered to help us liquidate artifacts that we expected to retrieve on that project..

  18. Dal, what an exciting adventure, most especially when you have to save your own ass at the end.
    I bet there were some nail biting times but I’m sure the dives must have been an awesome experience as well as seeing the beauty of the country and it’s culture, thanks again for sharing!

    1Trailblazer

  19. There is always a place for a good story, Dal. I’ve learned quite a few things on this site of yours. Not least, there really is a way to ask people to “check themselves” without meanness. A fine skill to have indeed!

    NBD

  20. Thanks for sharing, Dal. It leaves one to ponder if the finder left anything from Indulgence behind for another to discover in the distant future. That’d be nice. It also be nice to partake in a libation with you after this damndemic passes us by. Meanwhile, take care.

    • I expect that Covid is going to be around for an unpleasantly long time yet (my
      guess is 2 or more years before it gets only about as much attention as measles now does.

      But regarding libations, I’m starting to think about planning a get-together to
      celebrate this treasure hunt (but don’t have details in mind yet).

      I expect that my personal “active interest” in BOTG searching for the trove won’t last another 2 years. I plan to search next summer, because I believe that one more search trip will probably put me in a relatively relaxed frame of mind about the whole thing. I honestly suspect that the real trove is still available to be found, but am running out of ideas about where else to search (after I do a more careful search where I last went looking for the trove). I have been looking for a weakness in my solve for years, and haven’t yet found any. So despite whatever skepticism I may see from others, I plan to go and “get it out of my system”, possibly in July or August. After returning home, I’d be in the mood to tell myself “No more searching. Enjoy the memories of the adventure. Have a party with other searchers.” So . . . please stay tuned if you’re interested in a get-together. And for all searchers
      still interested in continuing searching for the trove, good luck to all.
      As always, in my opinion.

  21. Dal – good story and well received

    Crayton and crew sound like a great bunch of adventurers who can def get things done, and hydro-graphic survey in the 90’s would’ve been no easy task either imho

    but i’m finding it hard to believe that Insurance companies and Financial backers would stoop so low as to secretly pocket $61million tbh ..perish the thought

    nope!! ..it’s obvious to me that they’ve accidentally left most of the gold back on the ocean floor, and that’s exactly where we’re gunna find it!!

    quickly.. you hire a boat, voxpops can supply the thermal flotation suit and i’ll bring us all a pair of warm cozy possum-skin gloves

    i mean… what could possibly go wrong??
    🙂

  22. Gold Fever!

    The more I read this story, the more I started dreaming of being Captain kid.
    It was a short dream. It’s turkey week with family and no corona stopping that.
    Marriage has not been easy for a treasure hunter. No more whining, just wishing I was traveling sooner than later.
    Just wishing you all a great turkey week.
    GH

  23. What happens if you don’t tell the government you found it? Totally unfair you didn’t get a penny from such an enormous find. I go out to Admiralty Island, Bear Douglas, for work in Juneau. Bears everywhere! I hope you enjoyed your time in Alaska, we are a fun lot of people.:)

    I refuse to ever dive for anything. I’m terrified of sharks. You’re a brave man Dal.

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