Until her tragic sinking in 1901, the SS Islander was a 1,519-ton, steel, twin-screw steamer, built in Scotland in 1888, and owned and operated by the Canadian Pacific Steam Navigation Company. She plied the difficult waters of the inland passage of the Pacific Coast, from Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia, in the south; to Skagway, Alaska, in the north. She and her fellow ships played an important role in the history of the Klondike and were vital to the survival of many isolated coastal communities. The ships provided supplies, transport and, importantly, communication with the outside world.
Such are the potential perils of the inland passage of the Pacific Coast that the findings of the Court of Inquiry into her sinking stated that the Islander was in thoroughly seaworthy condition when she left Skagway on the evening of August 14, 1901. She was a total wreck eight hours later, resting in 110 metres of water after striking drifting ice near Juneau, Alaska. In total, 40 lives were lost.
Following the accident, the Vancouver Daily World reported that after striking the ice, the evacuation effort was calm and collected and the Islander's officers and crew "acquitted themselves nobly of their duty". Upon recovery of the victims' bodies, the inquest in Juneau concluded that the deaths were accidental, with no one at fault.
The subsequent official inquiry may well have reached similar conclusions had not new information been uncovered by a diligent King's Council. The Commission of Inquiry began in Victoria on Wednesday September 4, 1901 and initially the witnesses were mainly crew members whom the commission refused to allow to be cross-examined. The Commission recessed at lunch on Friday, stating they would meet again on the following Tuesday afternoon, September 10th, to pronounce a verdict, should no further witnesses come forward.
On Monday September 9, 1901, King's Council E.V. Bodwell acknowledged receipt of his instructions to appear at the inquiry on behalf of the government. He immediately won an adjournment to allow time to produce new witnesses from among the Islander's passengers. He also secured the right to cross-examine the conduct of the crew and to take other measures to ensure that the inquiry was not seen to be helping the company to "whitewash its officers."
The new witnesses painted a very different picture than what had so far emerged, testifying that the sinking was accompanied by confusion and chaos. Passengers in their cabins were not informed there had been an accident; the captain was alleged to have been inebriated; and half-empty lifeboats containing crew members left the ship, leaving passengers stranded on deck. Only after the inquest had finished, when the North West Mounted Police inquired into compensation for lost goods, was it discovered that not all of the crew members were licensed for their profession.
The final, three-page finding of the inquiry was, among other items, critical of the captain for not ensuring a proper quota of people per boat and for not realizing the imminent danger that the ship was in. However, a short handwritten paragraph was inserted into the document, stating that the loss of the Islander was not due "to the intemperance of the Master [Captain] or Officers."
Reports of lucrative amounts of gold on board the sunken ship led to many early salvage efforts and several lawsuits. The main portion of the hull was discovered in 1934, but the bow section, where the gold was located, eluded the latter-day 'gold rushers' until 1996.
Clipping. Vancouver Daily World. August 19, 1901. Library and Archives Canada. RG 18. Volume 217. File 714-737.
The Islander Story.
www.ssislander.co.uk/ (accessed September 30, 2005).
Library and Archives Canada. RG 18. Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Series A-1. Volume 218. File 815-853.
Library and Archives Canada. RG 12. Transport. Volume 1245. File 9704-199.