The Alaska Office of History and Archaeology estimates there could be as many as 3,000 shipwrecks lining the state’s 44,000 miles of coastline.
Now, the multi-million-dollar mystery behind one of those wrecks may finally be answered, when a Seattle-based company attempts to salvage the remains of the SS Islander, which sank in 1901 while carrying Klondike gold rushers – and, reportedly, lots of their gold -- from Skagway to the city of Victoria in British Columbia.
A federal judge in April declared that Ocean Mar, Inc. and its president, 62-year-old Theodore Jaynes, could move ahead with plans to survey and possibly salvage the more-than-century-old shipwreck.
The decision ended more than a decade of legal wrangling over the salvage rights to the ship, and could finally answer the question of just how much -- if any -- gold remains on the sea floor where the SS Islander sunk in Southeast Alaska.
But there’s more to this story about how a luxury ferry -- built in Scotland and considered “unsinkable” by some -- found its way to Alaska, and then to the seabed off of Alaska’s Admiralty Island.
Along with the ship, about 40 people met their fate on an August night at the beginning of the 20th century.
A 1992 report by the Community Development Department of the Borough of Juneau recounts in detail the life and sinking of the SS Islander.
Built in 1888 in Glasgow at a cost of about $200,000, the 240-foot-long vessel was a model of late 19th-century luxury, built specifically for northern waters.
Like the more famous Titanic, many presumed the ship to be “unsinkable,” constructed with airtight compartments that could flood individually without the entire ship sinking.
The Islander operated during the peak of the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890s, plying the waters of Southeast Alaska as the region saw a huge influx of hopeful prospectors seeking their fortunes.
The treacherous waters of the Alaska Panhandle, combined with the heightened shipping traffic, claimed more than a few vessels.