Alaska News

Gold recovered from 115-year-old Alaska shipwreck up for sale

Long-sought treasure dredged up from the seafloor wreckage of a gold-rush era ship that sank in Southeast Alaska more than a century ago has finally surfaced -- and it can be yours for the cool price of $4 million.

It's a story that brings Alaska's gold rush days to the present: a literal treasure chest containing 75 pounds of gold was discovered a few years ago from the wreck of the 240-foot SS Islander, a luxury steamship that sank in waters near Juneau on a journey from Skagway to Victoria, British Columbia, in 1901, while reportedly carrying gold rushers. After hitting what's believed to be either an uncharted rock or an iceberg, the ship sank in just 20 minutes, resulting in the deaths of at least 40 people.

In February, the gold that was recovered from the shipwreck went up for sale for $4 million, and the Alaska State Museum is getting an influx of new artifacts pulled up from the watery depths during the same recovery effort.

An effort in 2012 and 2013 to recover the gold and items from the ship, which went down in Stephens Passage, came after many years and previous failed -- or only mildly successful -- attempts.

Two Washington companies, Ocean Mar and MK Salvage Venture, worked together to resurrect the materials in a months-long effort that involved a massive claw pulling the 85-pound treasure chest -- among other items -- up out of the water. The first gold was found Labor Day weekend 2012.

Reno, Nevada-based gold sales and consulting company Holabird Western Americana Collections is the agent for Ocean Mar, working to sell the gold.

"It's a unique treasure and represents an incredible educational opportunity," said Fred Holabird, owner of the collector company.


Inside the chest were original leather bags, called pokes, weighing about 200 ounces each and full of gold that probably came from Nome and totaled about 1,200 ounces, Holabird said. When it sank, the ship could also have been carrying gold from Dawson, Yukon, or elsewhere.

With gold priced around $1,250 per ounce, the discovery is worth about $1.5 million at face value, but its historical significance means it is priced much higher, Holabird said.

In addition to finding pieces of the ship's hull, more than 1,000 historical artifacts were discovered in the process of recovering the gold. All of those, including textiles, clothing, a tool kit, and costume jewelry, will go to the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. Some of those items will be part of an exhibit when the museum reopens in June after construction.

"We need to protect these sites as much as we can because they're part of our collective history," said Addison Field, chief curator at the Alaska State Museum.

And it's not the end of the effort to find gold in the wreckage of the Islander.

The recovery of items and gold from the ship is an ongoing process, said Jed Powell, attorney for Ocean Mar. The companies plan to return and continue the search as soon as six months from now.

Many believe there is much more to be found, but there are varying accounts of just how much gold was on the Islander when it went down.

A report from Holabird cites records that say roughly 13,304 ounces of gold -- about 1,110 pounds -- were lost when the ship sank. That would be worth about $16 million today, and some of it was recovered in a salvage effort in 1934.

"Everybody hopes that there's tons," Powell said. "Whether the stories are true or not true, I don't know."

Correction: This article has been edited to reflect that Dawson is in the Yukon, not Alaska.

Annie Zak

Annie Zak was a business reporter for the ADN between 2015 and 2019.