S.S. Islander’s Forgotten Gulf Ferry Service

CVA – SGN 54: Canadian Pacific Navigation Co. steamer “Islander”. 189-?

The Islander is today known by some as a gold-laden ship that was sunk by an iceberg off the Alaskan coast in 1901. But what seems to have been forgotten (1) is that prior to that unhappy event, it served as the principal ship for transporting Vancouverites to Victoria and Victoria residents to the Lower Mainland. In short, the Islander was a very early B. C. Ferry. The circumstances around the Islander’s sinking have also been forgotten.

The Islander was built in Glasgow, Scotland at Napier, Shanks & Bell shipwrights for the Canadian Pacific Navigation Co. (2) The Islander was designed by the great BC ship captain, then the head of CPN, John Irving (1854-1936). The steamship was finished by 1888 and began its lengthy journey from the U.K., across the Atlantic, around South America at Cape Horn and up to California, from San Francisco to Victoria, and to Vancouver at the end of December. What a Christmas gift to the recently incorporated City of Vancouver!

The Vancouver World described the steamer (somewhat incongruously) as both a “Gulf of Georgia Greyhound” and a “Floating Palace”. It’s status as Greyhound of the Gulf was established in it making the Victoria-Vancouver sailing (from harbour to harbour) in just over 4 hours. (Today, all told, the trip from city to city takes about the same time, when one factors in driving to/from ferry terminals) (Vancouver Daily World, 31 Dec 1888).

Royal BC Archives. Item B-02257 – Part of the interior (dining saloon?) of the SS Islander. 1901

As for its palatial features, according to the World, the dining saloon could seat 76, with the CPN’s monogram carved into the wood of each chair. The linen, silver and plateware were apparently among the best money could buy. The state rooms were fitted out with electricity, a call bell, a lavatory, and “an abundant supply of water”. There were four (four?!) bridal state rooms. The cabins could sleep a total of 130 people. The upholstery throughout the Islander was of “the most recherche [desirable?] description” and the ceilings were “elaborately ornamented with carved work and lincrusta of beautiful design”. Finally, “life boats, preservers, and all such appliances are to be found in suitable places should they be wanted.” (This sentence makes it seem as though any passenger who would insist on having such things handy was just the tiniest bit gauche!) (Vancouver Daily World, 31 Dec 1888).

Royal BC Archives. Item A-06316 – Central staircase aboard the SS Islander. ca1890.

I should pause to remind you that the principal function of the Islander for most of its sailing year was to provide ferry service between Vancouver and Victoria. There would have been no need on that run for cabins, much less for state rooms (bridal ones or otherwise!) I can see why the ship would be so outfitted for the 60-hour Vancouver-Skagway trip, but, that service was offered only from July through September (at least in the earliest years of the Islander’s Alaska runs starting ca1892). So why have a “floating palace” of a ferry including cabins and state rooms instead of offering a somewhat more basic ferry ship with serviceable seating areas (comparable to what is provided today on Gulf ferry runs)? I don’t know. Perhaps the sea traveller of the late Victorian period could not conceive of an ocean journey (no matter how brief) having anything less than cabins and seemingly first-class service.

The Islander would depart Vancouver at 1pm, arriving in Victoria a little after 5.00pm. Travel back to Vancouver was a little less convenient, departing Victoria at 4am and arriving in the Terminal City at sometime around 8.00am.

Sinking and Salvage

The Islander left Skagway, Alaska for Vancouver at 7.30pm on August 14, 1901. By 2.15am on August 15th, the ship was sunk, 20 minutes after having struck an iceberg off the coast of Juneau while travelling in dense fog. The lives lost included: Captain Foote, 16 of the 65 crew, and 23 passengers (two of whom were children) of 107. (3)

The findings of the inquiry into the sinking of the Islander included the following:

[W]e find that no special instructions had been issued by the master [captain] to the pilot, or person in charge of the deck, when he left the bridge, relating to the navigation or speed of the vessel in the event of falling in with floating ice — which was not unexpected in the locality through which the ship was passing. We think that Pilot Le Blanc is open to censure for his action in keeping the ship full speed — at the rate of nearly fourteen knots an hour — after having seen floating ice some ten minutes before the accident.

We would also condemn the custom apparently in vogue in coast waters in leaving the bridge of any steamer at night, and more especially a passenger steamer, in charge of only one officer. (4)

Victoria Daily Times. 23 Oct 1901.

There was a substantial quantity of gold that went down with the Islander stemming from mining activity in Alaska at the time. Attempts (and fantasies) at salvaging the gold began to be considered almost as soon as news of the sinking hit the press. Some of the gold was recovered in 1934, but it wasn’t until 2012 that all legal entanglements (not to mention logistical ones) were cleared away and a substantial quantity of gold was salvaged from the wreck of the Islander.

VPL 42429 Maritime Museum model boat. The Islander, 1967. Province photo.


(1) In contemporary accounts I’ve read of the S.S. Islander, it is noted that she was designed specifically for runs north and south through the inside passage. But no mention is made of her principal function: as the Gulf of Georgia Ferry.

(2) CPN was incorporated in 1883 and endured until 1901 (shortly before the wreck of the Islander) when Canadian Pacific Railway acquired the firm and made it an important part in the basis of CPR’s marine division (later to be known as Canadian Pacific Steamships Ocean Services, Ltd). In 1960, after job action was initiated by employees of CP Steamships, B.C.’s W. A. C. Bennett government decided to create a crown corporation called BC Ferries which has serviced BC’s coastal transportation needs since. CP Steamships got out of the passenger ocean transport business and focussed on container and other forms of ocean cartage.

Paddle-wheelers, the Premier, Yosemite, Princess Louise, and R. P. Rithet were among the ships that filled in for the Islander when she was on Alaska service, was engaged on excursion runs with private groups, or was in dry dock for servicing.

The Charmer would take over the Gulf Ferry run from the Islander after its sinking. Later, the CP Steamships would name their BC coastal ships Princess of _____ (e.g., Vancouver) to contrast with then names of their international ships (the Empress ships).

(3) The children lost in the sinking were the 1-year-old child of Mrs. J. H. Ross and her 15-year-old niece. Mrs. Ross, the wife of Yukon Governor Ross, also perished. It was thought that Mrs. Ross and the two children died in their cabin, possibly (hopefully) still asleep.

(4) The S.S. City of Seattle, only 3 months after the Islander incident, had a very narrow escape near where the Islander was sunk.

Early in the evening she had run among a number of small icebergs, and she was coming down the [Gastineau] channel under a slow bell. The weather was rather dirty [foggy], and it being hard to see any distance, the steamer was almost upon a small berg before it was seen.

The helm was immediately thrown over, and the steamer slipped past only a few feet away from the dangerous floating ice-mountain.

There are four men always on watch at night on the City of Seattle.

The Province. 2 Nov 1901.

One is forced to ask, in light of the Islander Inquiry recommendations and this experience of the City of Seattle later, whether the Islander might not have dodged its grave had it been operating under a ‘slow bell’, instead of going “hell bent for leather” at top speed, and had there been more than just a single set of eyeballs on the bridge watching for icebergs!

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4 Responses to S.S. Islander’s Forgotten Gulf Ferry Service

  1. Bobby says:

    Sea travel – scary as always!!

  2. Reilly Burke says:

    Fascinating read! The included link (www.coinworld.com/news/precious-metals/recovered-ss-islander-treasure-up-for-4-milion-dollars.html) describing the salvage of the Islander’s gold cargo in 2012 appears to be broken.

    • mdm says:

      I’m pleased you enjoyed it! Re Broken link: Thanks for letting me know.

    • mdm says:

      I’ve checked the links. If it was the one attached to “2012” that you were referring to, it still seems to function for me. Let me know if it was another link that you were referring to.

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