Not these teens.
Imagine going for a walk and finding a mystery that would endure for over two centuries. According to legend, this is what happened to teenager Daniel McGinnis in 1795. What would follow would be a 200 year long odyssey for buried treasure that would make The Goonies
Along the way, the Money Pit would earn its name as investors (including Franklin Roosevelt) sank dollar after dollar into the deepening hole that constituted the search that would claim six lives.
But long before all that, there was only Oak Island, fear of unexplained spook lights and the whispers of pirate gold.
Oak Island is a 140 acre island off the coast of Nova Scotia in Mahone Bay. The island itself is one of hundreds that lace the bay. And while in the eighteenth century most of them were sparsely vegetated with seagrass, oats and wildflowers, Oak Island was different. The island was studded with live oaks, trees more common to the humid delta regions of the Southern United States than to the colder climate of Nova Scotia.
At the time of Daniel McGinnis’ walk, it was taken for granted that the island had been favored by Captain William Kidd because of its well protected bay and the natural harbor on the ocean side, which allowed his ship to come and go completely undetected from the mainland.
It was said that Kidd and his crew had chosen Oak Island becasue of its distinctive vegetation. And since it was further north than his usual haunts, Kidd was relatively safe from pursuit there. Legend held that in 1720, large bonfires were spotted on Oak Island. Several fishermen who rowed over to investigate vanished without a trace. For decades afterward, locals stayed away from Oak Island, fearing the spook lights that had caused the fishermen to vanish.
All this was on Daniel McGinnis’s mind on the April day when he rowed out to Oak Island in search of pirate souvenirs. His hope was to find a knife or maybe a gold coin or two. Something he could sell for a little pocket change. He soon found evidence that the island had been inhabited, although not recently. His findings pushed him to look inland. Before long, Daniel found an old oak tree with a block and tackle hanging by a piece of rotting rope from the lowest branch. The pulley system hung over a circular depression that was filled with loose soil, as if something had been buried there.
McGinnis returned the next day with two friends: John Smith and Anthony Vaughn. The three boys explored the island. On the southern shore they found a boulder with an iron ring embedded into it that would have been the perfect place to anchor a ship. As they further explored, they found an overgrown road that ran the length of the island and led to the clearing with the strange depression.
Once there, they further explored the tree. It looked as if something heavy had been hoisted from the tree into the depression. The wood where the pulley hung was deeply scarred.
Encouraged, the boys began to excavate the depression, reasoning that they would find a pirate’s treasure and be home by nightfall
The first try.
However, they quickly found that their plans were not meant to be. Two feet down they came across a layer of flagstones that covered the Pit. They pried these up, and continued the excavation.
At ten feet down they came to a layer of oak logs that spanned the Pit. The logs were rotten, and had been caulked with ship’s putty. Subsequent carbon dating would place the logs to 1575, the era of Spanish Conquest.
The boys pried these up and continued to dig. At both twenty and thirty feet down they found more layers of logs. By now, they had spent several days excavating the shaft. At this point, the boys were unable to continue. They went home with the intention of someday returning to continue their excavation.
I bet this is what they were hoping for.
It took them nearly eight years, but the boys, now men decided to let a wealthy friend in on their story. The friend, Simeon Lynds, formed a company for the purpose of digging up the treasure. He called it the Onslow company, found a few investors and raised the capitol for another excavation. In 1803 workman once again began to dig down the shaft.
The second try.
At the thirty five foot mark, workmen uncovered a layer of coconut fiber, presumably transported from the west Indies, some two thousand miles away.
The workmen again uncovered a platform of logs every ten feet until they reached the ninety foot mark. Each level was sealed with something different. Some layers with coconut fiber, some with ships putty, some with coal.
At ninety feet, they broke through a layer of brick-hard putty and encountered an inscribed stone. The inscriptions were in a type of hieroglyphics that no one had ever seen, on a stone unlike anything that existed in Nova Scotia.
Unsure what it meant, John Smith took the stone home and built it into his fireplace. He was careful to face it outward so that the inscription could be seen – on the off chance that someone might decipher it someday.
At ninety eight feet, the workmen heard the sound of a large, hollow vault. Encouraged that they were near the end, the workmen decided to knock off for the night. It was late on a Saturday, and since no one would work on the Sabbath, it would be Monday before anyone returned to the excavation.
But the treasure was not meant to be. On Monday the workmen returned to the shaft – only to discover that the Pit had filled with water back up to the level of 30 feet. Workmen tried to bail the shaft – first with buckets and then with a pump. But the water level remained the same. In defeat, they halted the excavation.
Two years later, in 1805, McGinnis, Smith and Lynds tried again. They dug a Pit running parallel, but ten feet deeper. The hope was that if the Money Pit had struck a natural spring, thaen they would bypass it and dig up underneath the treasure to retrieve it.
Unfortunately, the workmen made a fatal error and dug the second shaft too close to the first one. When the group tried to tunnel over to the first shaft, the pressure of the water collapsed the wall between the two. Three men were drowned and the new shaft filled with water to the same level as the Money Pit. By now the treasure seemed further away than ever. In disgust, the group gave up.
The booby (trap) prize.
As it turned out, the Onslow Company had triggered a sophisticated booby trap laid out by the Pit’s original designers. As they excavated the shaft, they inadvertently unplugged a 500 foot waterway that had been dug from the Pit to nearby Smith’s cove by the shaft’s designers. Part of the reason that the pumps would not pump the water out was that as quickly as the water was removed, it was refilled by the sea.
Eventually excavators would discover a very complex system of channels created by the Pit’s designers to keep diggers away from the secret of the shaft. But none of this was known to the treasure hunters in 1805.
The third try.
A half-century later, a new group of treasure hunters made a try at the Money Pit. Calling themselves the Truro company, the group was formed by Dr. David Lynds, a relative of Simeon Lynds, and Anthony Vaughn, the youngest of the original three teens who had started the search for the Money Pit. By now, McGinnis had died and Smith chose not to be part of the new venture.
By now both shafts had collapsed, and the company had to start again. They dug a new shaft in the spot where the original shaft had been. At a depth of eighty six feet, things appeared dry, and the group was convinced that they had avoided their predecessors’ misfortunes.
As had happened before, on Sunday the group stopped working to attend church. By two o’clock that afternoon, when workmen returned to the shaft, they found it filled with water to a depth of thirty feet. Once again, attempts to bail out the Pit proved futile.
However they were undaunted. Since they were unable to dig their way to the treasure, they decided that they would drill down and find out if there was actually something there.
The results of the core sample were as follows: At 98 feet the drill went through a spruce platform. The it encountered four inches of oak and then 22 inches of “metal in pieces.” Next 8 inches of oak, another 22 inches of metal, four inches of oak and another later of spruce.
The Truro company concluded that the oak/metal/oak sample was from two treasure casks filled with coins. When they brought the core sample up, there were three links from what looked to be a fine gold watch chain in the sample.
This was all the proof the Truro company needed to continue their search. The following spring they attempted to sink a parallel shaft into the earth just as the Onslow company had. Predictably, this shaft also flooded. At this point, the workmen noticed that the water filling the shaft was sea water, which rose and fell with the tides. In a belated moment in which all persons involved were probably smacking their foreheads into the palms of their hands, most everyone realized that the shafts of the Money Pit always flooded to a depth of thirty feet: Sea level.
Around the same time, the workmen also noticed that at low tide, there was water flowing out of the beach. Which led to a shocking discovery: The beach was artificial.
The shocking discovery.
If a pirate did hide something here, his ghost is probably going HAHAHAHA!
What the Truro company discovered was a diabolically clever plan worthy of One-Eyed Willie.
Whomever had created the Money Pit had also devised a way to forever safeguard the treasure. A drainage system, consisting of five channels that spread like the fingers of a hand from the Money Pit to the sea. Each channel was filled with a filtering system of coconut fiber, rocks and eel grass to keep silt and salt out while still allowing water to flow into the Pit.
Armed with this information, the Truro company reasoned that the answer was simple: block off the sea, pump out the Pit and dig down to the treasure.
To do this, the company planned to build a dam around the beach at Smith’s cove.
Amazingly, when workers began construction, they found the remains of an older dam. One that possibly had been built to hold out the sea water while the channels were being built in the island.
Construction on the dam was nearly complete when a storm knocked it down.
Plan B was to block off the channels. However the company failed to find them after sinking numerous shafts inland. Discouraged and disheartened, the company gave up.
The bottom drops out.
The next attempt to retrieve the treasure was made by the Oak Island association in 1861. First they cleared the Money Pit down to a depth of 88 feet. Then they sank a second shaft to the east of the Pit in the hopes of intercepting the channel that filled the Pit with sea water. The new shaft was dug to a depth of 120 feet without encountering the channel and then abandoned. A third shaft was dug to the west of the Money Pit down to a depth of 188 feet. Then they attempted to dig over to the Money Pit.
Again, water began to flow in – both to the west Pit, and the Money Pit. Attempts at bailing out the water seemed to be working – when suddenly water rushed into the shafts and the bottom of the Money Pit dropped by fifteen feet. The Oak Island Association was left scratching their heads and wondering why.
One theory put forth was that there was a chamber below the Money Pit. Years of drilling, floods, excavation and more floods weakened the chamber leading to it’s eventual collapse. Another theory was that the Money Pit collapsed into the western shaft – scattering the goodies at the bottom of the Pit into both shafts.
Over the next few years, various groups tried unsuccessfully to excavate the Money Pit. One man was killed when a steam pump exploded from the strain of pumping water from the shaft. By this point, approximately 37 holes had been dug into the area surrounding the Money Pit. Since few – if any – records were kept by the various treasure hunters excavating the Pit, many treasure hunters were left combing over previously hunted ground.
In 1866 the place where the channel met the Money Pit shaft was discovered – but by then it was too late to plug the hole. So many boreholes and shafts had been dug around the Pit that the water would divert into the honeycombed area and seep into the Pit through a dozen different directions. At one point dynamite had been used in an attempt to close the channel.
A second find in 1866 further fueled the spirit of discovery. A language professor in Halifax translated the inscription stone that sat in John Smith’s fireplace. According to him, the inscription read: Forty feet below, two million pounds are buried.
What lies beneath.
In 1893, Frederick Blair formed a new search party, the Oak Island Treasure Company. The group was able to dig down to 111 feet – where they briefly found the mouth of the channel — temporarily blocked with Rocks. The water eventually worked its way through the rocks, but not before Blair’s company was able to take another core sample.
At 126 feet, wood was struck and then iron. This was probably part of the material that fell during the crash of the Pit. On previous drillings, the wood was encountered at 122 feet and the iron was missed completely, Which may have indicated that the material was lying in a haphazard way due to the previous collapse
At 130 and then again at 160 feet, more layers of the putty were found similar to those discovered by McGinnis, Smith and Vaughn.
In the gap between these layers, a cement vault was discovered. The vault itself is 7 feet high with 7 inch thick walls. Inside the vault, the drill first struck wood, then a void several inches high and an unknown substance. Next a layer of soft metal was reached, then almost three feet of metal pieces, then more soft metal.
When the drill was brought back up, a piece of velum was stuck to the auger. The fragment had a set of letters written on it in India Ink. The letters spell out either “vi,” “ui” or “wi.”
A second tunnel.
Blair became more convinced than ever that treasure was within his grasp. The Oak Island Treasure Company began sinking more shafts around the Money Pit. However all of them were unsuccessful due to flooding. Suspicious that there might be a second flood tunnel, the workmen dropped red dye into the Pit. Then watched the beach to see where it would come out. To their amazement, the dye came out on both sides of the island. There was indeed a second tunnel.
By the turn of the century, the Pit had yet to yield up its treasure. The original site was a quagmire, and the oak tree that had once pointed the way was long gone. Five men had lost their lives in pursuit of the treasure. But this did nothing to stop the interest in Oak Island and the Money Pit.
A link to Kidd? Maybe.
In 1936 a retired wealthy businessman named Gilbert Heddon was the next to make a serious attempt at the treasure. Heddon thought that if the second tunnel was blocked off, the quagmire would eventually dry out and the island would be safe to excavate again.
Heddon researched pirate lore to try and find the floodgate. During this attempt, he stumbled over a pirate map that he believed to belong to Captain Kidd. The map, he believed, pointed to the Money Pit as the location of a cache of Kidd’s gold. But ultimately, the map turned out to be a fake.
Tragedy strikes. Again.
In 1959, Robert Restall , a former circus performer, moved to Oak Island with his wife, Mildred and their two sons, Bobby and Rich. This was to prove a fatal choice on their part. In 1965 Restall was working in a twenty seven foot shaft, when he passed out from inhaling carbon monoxide that had collected there.
Seeing his father fall, Bobby rushed to his aid. He too, succumbed to the gas. Two other workman also failed to realize what was happening and met their untimely demise in the shaft.
Soon after the Restall tragedy, Bob Dunfield brought in heavy machinery to deal with the island. He first tried heavy bulldozers and cranes to block the inflow of water from the north channel. Then he attempted to do the same with the south. Although he failed to find the southern channel, he did discover an additional channel. One that seemingly went nowhere.
Dunfield theorized that the island contained a large, natural underground cavern.
After 1970, the rights to search the Money Pit have were held by Daniel Blankenship and Triton Alliance. Following up on Dunfield’s theory that there was a natural cavern under the island, Triton made several boreholes in search for the underground cavern.
In one attempt, now known as borehole 10X, a probable underground cavern was found. An underwater camera was lowered into the hole. The camera photographed what may be chests filled with treasure, as well as human remains.
An attempt was made to send divers into the underground cavern, but poor visibility and strong current made the attempt impossible. Since that time the hole had closed up and the Triton partnership has collapsed.
Despite this, Blankenship and the group who now owned the other half of the interests to Oak Island Tours received the proper legal documents to once again search for the treasure. New excavations have begun in 2008.
Skeptics who doubt the existence of the treasure have pointed out that all of the information listed above is merely the popular legend. In the way of facts, much of it is unverifiable due to a lack of physical evidence, contemporary accounts or primary sources.
Many elements of the story, they point out, are drawn from romanticized stories of pirate gold: from the cypher stone, to the tantalizing but inconclusive clues. Further, new elements seem to be added to the story any time there is a renewed interest in buried treasure. Many of them designed to draw in investors.
In 1995, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute undertook a two week survey of the island. Their findings indicated that the drainage system that exists on the island is natural, not man made. They viewed the footage taken in borehole 10X and found it to be inconclusive.
Despite this, there is no end to the belief in the buried treasure, or the theories as to what might be hidden at the bottom of the money pit.
Theories have ranged from the pirate hordes of Captain Kidd and Blackbeard to the missing crown jewels of France, to the Holy Grail, to the treasure of Rome brought to these shores by the Visgoths, to the secret treasures of the Knights Templar and the Freemasons. Only slightly more credible is the theory that the treasure is the missing back pay for British soldiers, hidden from American Revolutionaries in Nova Scotia.
Today, the island hosts tourism events, even as Oak Island Tours continue searching for the treasure. However, it’s doubtful that any gold found would ever equal the vast amount of money and resources that have been thrown into the Money Pit.