The SS Islander…


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-


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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…



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.


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.


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.


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…


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…








The Submarine I-52

MAY 2020
by dal


This is not a post about Forrest’s Treasure Hunt..
although it is related in several ways. 


This is a story about an adventure that Crayton Fenn (Forrest’s nephew, Skippy’s son) and I participated in several years ago.

A new book has been published about the expedition to find the Japanese WWII submarine I-52 by Dave Jourdan.

Crayton and I were both part of the crew and Dave weaves a fascinating story about the history of the submarine and the expedition to find it.

You can read more about the author, Dave Jourdan and about the book and the expedition, HERE.