Oak Island mystery locked up tight for 200-plus years

As young Daniel McGinnis set out in the early morning hours of a summer’s day in 1795, a time so far removed from the modern bustle of Nova Scotia’s South Shore that the very idea seems fictitious, there was already a certain mystique that existed about tiny Oak Island.

Barely over a mile long, and half that distance in width, the green, shrouded isle, even in the closing years of the 18th century, had been the subject of frequent rumours.

Pale yellow lights, darting back and forth mischievously, had been reported on the islands. Some locals, of the more superstitious variety, claimed it to be evidence of restless spirits, the dead who had not quite passed into the next world. Others whispered of pirate activity and the possibility of buried treasure.

There had even been a tale circulating around Chester, perhaps myth, perhaps not, that two locals had gone out to investigate the lights on one fateful evening, never to return.

But unintimidated, and perhaps even intrigued by the prospect of adventure, young Daniel, barely 20 years of age, was out traipsing about the island when he happened upon a clearing in the midst of an oak tree stand.

Several trees had clearly been removed by the hand of man, but the area had been undisturbed for an extended period of time as new growth had begun to spring up from the decomposing remnants of the older stumps.

Taking a few more moments to investigate the area, McGinnis noticed that there was a visible depression in the centre of the clearing, about four metres in diameter, where the soil had obviously been disturbed, replaced and then allowed to settle.

A block and tackle, attached to an oak branch hanging from a nearby tree over the centre of the depression, further piqued McGinnis’ interest in the remote site.

Influenced by his surroundings, not to mention thoughts of treasure, McGinnis immediately became convinced that he had stumbled upon the locale of a long forgotten deposit of pirate bounty.

Hurrying back to shore, he was able to track down two friends, John Smith and Anthony Vaughan, and, telling them of his discovery, the trio returned to the island equipped with shovels to attack the hollowed plot of soil.

Almost immediately, their efforts led them to a clue that McGinnis’ interpretation of the pit might have had merit. Two feet into the depression, they struck upon a layer of intentionally placed flat stones.

Expanding the hole further revealed that a shaft, about seven feet wide and walled with clay, had been sunk into the surface of Oak Island.

Not wasting any time, McGinnis, Smith and Vaughan proceeded to drive manually downward until, after another 10 vertical feet, they chanced upon a platform of oak logs, ends firmly embedded in the walls of the shaft.

Prying the logs loose, and continuing onward, after much more effort, now more than 20 feet into the earth, they found another platform.

By this point, tired but wanting to pursue the matter further, the young men decided that they were going to require outside assistance.

Having been careful to secure the rights to the land, Lot 18 on the Oak Island charts, for a sum of five pounds from a Chester merchant, the trio began approaching locals about aiding in the dig.

But, even with the firm belief that they were on the trail of great wealth, a prize which would be shared with those who contributed muscle to the task, McGinnis and company could find no one on the shore in nearby communities willing to help with the undertaking.

Uneasy with the thought of incurring the wrath of the living or the dead who might be standing watch over the island, most local inhabitants chose to keep their distance.

And there, it seemed, the matter was content to rest for a time.

But early in the 19th century, a man named Simeon Lynds, a relation of Anthony Vaughan’s, visited from Onslow, Colchester County, and toured the island with a great sense of interest.

In the 15 or so intervening years, much of the original pit had filled in, but Lynds and the original diggers agreed that it was time to begin a second exploration. Under the banner of the Oak Island Association, and with help recruited by Lynds, the group quickly reached the platform encountered by McGinnis and his mates years earlier.

Delving even further, the team found more tantalizing clues of what may be beneath. After 10 feet, they found a series of charcoal and putty layers, then, just over the 50-foot mark, a stone slab, which appeared to have unidentifiable markings on it.

Around the 90-foot level, the digging team once again banged their implements against stone, this time uncovering a yellowish stone, about two square feet in size, with two lines of cryptic symbols cut into the down-facing side. The stone, clearly foreign to the area and later identified as Swedish granite, seemed to validate the time, money and effort invested by these first treasure seekers.

But, by the 90-foot level, the soil in the pit was increasingly moist. Using a crowbar to probe down to the 98-foot level, the crew discovered what was believed to be another hard platform.

Following a long day’s work, the digging team called it a night, intent on returning the next morning to reach the next level. But the island, unwilling to easily give up its secrets, had other ideas. In the overnight hours, salt water had flooded the shaft up to a depth of 30 feet, meaning that the crew had some 60 feet of brine to contend with.

After efforts to bail the pit failed, much to the chagrin of the eager backers, the project was put on hold.

For many years, the island remained largely unapproached, until 1845 when the Truro Company was formed. Bringing in some improved drilling technology, by 1849 the workers at the site had unearthed samples of oak and a chain, the likes of which possibly could have come from a watch or an officer’s epaulet.

But during the same venture, a hint of skullduggery was afoot on Oak Island, the likes of which would have made pirates envious. A foreman with the company named Pitblado was spotted by one of the Truro Company’s investors pocketing an unidentified object that had been brought up from the pit by the pod auger used in drilling.

When approached, Pitblado supposedly claimed he would produce the object in question at the next meeting, a gathering which he failed to materialize for.

Instead, Pitblado left his position with the Truro syndicate soon after, and it was rumoured he had approached one Charles Archibald, the manager of an ironworks in Londonderry, Nova Scotia, with his own ideas about recovering the treasure.

Unfortunately for Pitblado, the proposition fell on deaf ears and, along with the pocketed trinket, the former foreman faded into the mists of Oak Island myth.

In the meantime, the Truro Company continued its work, and concluded that the flood water in the pit rose and fell with the daily changes of the tide, meaning that it had to be coming in through a tunnel.

The nearest, most likely culprit pointed to Smiths Cove, a protected portion of the coastline, located some 500 feet away from the pit.

When workers were dispatched to investigate the cove, they found five box drains, each less than a foot in diameter, which appeared to feed into a central tunnel running in the direction of the pit.

The natural course of action, the crew deduced, was to cut off the source of water to the pit. With lots of digging, not to mention a few small explosions, the company hoped they would be able to circumvent the flooding system.

For a time, it seemed to be working, as water levels in the pit began to drop. But all of the subsurface turmoil did little more than to make the area around the pit unstable, particularly in combination with a series of shafts sunk around the original pit in the hope of draining the flood water.

And, sure enough, while taking an evening supper break, workers heard a thunderous crash and, rushing to the site, discovered that the bottom, treasure and all apparently, had fallen out of the famed Oak Island pit.

Following the incident, operations ceased on Oak Island by 1865, but the treasure, even if it was now buried under up to hundreds of feet of mud and debris, was not forgotten for long.

The Oak Island Eldorado Company formed one year later, with a combination of both new and old investors intent on excavating the treasure, safely and quickly, by completely cutting off the Smiths Cove flooding system. The plan involved the construction of a massive, 12-foot-high seawall around the nearly 400-foot perimeter of the cove, which would then be pumped clean, completely removing the source of seawater.

The engineering behind the project, however, was less than sound. Constructed upon a clay and wood foundation, the base of the wall was swept away by a storm early in its formation.

By 1867, the Eldorado Company was out of funds, having accomplished little, save for doing some additional exploration of the flooding system, which confirmed that Smiths Cove was, indeed, the source of the seawater in the Money Pit.

Over the next 30 years, the focal area around the now fabled Oak Island pit was the scene of little activity. Elsewhere on the island, however, some intriguing discoveries were made, only adding to the lure of the island.

While doing some plowing, an ox, belonging to Sophia Sellers, stumbled into a significant hole that had opened up between the Money Pit and Smiths Cove. Further investigation revealed that the ox had fallen into what appeared to be an air shaft, which would have been used in the construction of the flooding system.

Meanwhile, an ivory ship’s whistle and a copper coin, containing strange markings and apparently dated 1713, were found near the island’s shoreline.

These factors, as well as stories tracing the now 100-year-old history of the treasure hunt, helped to inspire several New England investors to get on board with a new project in 1893.

Returning to McGinnis’ original pit with specialized drilling equipment, the group, headed up by Frederick Blair of Amherst, were able to sink a drill to a depth of 153 feet, at which point they made a major discovery, perhaps the most significant yet in the history of the island.

The drill, it would seem, passed through approximately seven inches of cement, then five inches of wood, coconut fibre and what appeared to be a piece of parchment before dropping several inches into unidentified metal pieces, and then dropping several feet to another cement level.

Here, Blair and his investors had concluded, was a vault that was at least seven feet in height, and unquestionably contained a wooden chest, written records and a treasure for the ages.

The minuscule piece of parchment, which was brought to the surface intact on the auger, was examined and appeared to be marked by the letters “vi” or “wi,” and contemporary experts agreed it had been written with a quill and India ink.

However, after failing to find a way by which to permanently terminate the flood of water into the pit, efforts to fully crib the passageway below the 113-foot level failed in a swamping of salty Atlantic brine.

His investors having doubts, Frederick Blair assumed full control of the company by the close of the year 1900, buying out the shares of his fellow investors.

But Blair would ultimately end up backing the investigations of New York engineer Henry Bowdoin, who pronounced in 1909 that, with his mining expertise, he could easily recover the treasure with the assistance of just a handful of locals.

Under the banner of the Old Gold Salvage and Wrecking Company, and with enough financial backing for a short-term project, Bowdoin set upon the task of retrieving what he initially believed to be the treasure of Captain Kidd.

While Bowdoin’s statement to investors implied he would attempt to cut off the flooding system, when it actually came time to begin the work, like so many of his unsuccessful predecessors, he chose to attack the Money Pit head-on.

After pumping out the pit, and clearing out the remnants of the last exploration a decade or so earlier, Bowdoin’s team had reached a depth of slightly over 110 feet, at which point he began drilling.

Passing through what appeared to be a cavern, to a depth of more than 160 feet, the drill met bedrock, and produced nothing of interest whatsoever.

Running low on funds, and low on patience after his initial, well-publicized boasts, Bowdoin left Oak Island by the end of 1909, not to return. In fact, the disappointed engineer went on to debunk Oak Island entirely, stating in a story published in Colliers magazine that there was little concrete evidence there was anything on Oak Island at all – a staunch about-face for a man who, just a few months earlier, estimated the treasure there to be worth about $10 million.

The departure of Bowdoin effectively marked the end of the “traditional” Oak Island era. Bowdoin’s comments made it difficult for Blair to find many other investors, and a series of low-profile explorers found no more success in the area of the pit than Bowdoin.

Finally, the First World War intervened and brought to a definitive conclusion the first real era of exploration on Oak Island. With more than 100 years of effort evidenced on the scarred surface, little more than a handful of artifacts and an abundance of theories had been rewarded to the hunters.

The search for treasure beneath Oak Island would begin its second era in the 1930s. Fuelled by the development of technologies during the Great War and, again, after the Second World War, a number of searchers committed to new, often increasingly extreme ideas on how to solve Oak Island once and for all.

But, despite the destructive efforts of treasure hunters such as Texan George Greene, or the thoughtful explorations of New Jersey-based businessman Gilbert Hedden, the exact nature and extent of the prize hidden by the island’s unique trappings eluded capture.

In the latter half of the 20th century, equally determined pursuers and investors, such as Dan Blankenship and David Tobias, as well as Fred Nolan, have continued the search to this very day, in hopes of recovering Oak Island’s fabled hordes, all without success.

Perhaps, as those early settlers in the area thought, there is indeed something supernatural active on Oak Island – a playful, omnipresent force content to keep the bounty just beyond the hands of those who have fought so hard, given up so much to glimpse upon it.

But, with a new century, the formation of the Oak Island Tourism Society, and a third era of exploration on the island seemingly on the horizon, perhaps the ghosts of visitors past will finally be quieted long enough to allow the true worth of Oak Island to be seen and enjoyed by all.

Sources: Oak Island Tourism Society; “Oak Island Secrets,” Mark Finnan; “History of the County of Lunenburg,” Mather DesBrisay; “The Best of Helen Creighton,” Rosemary Bauchman.

Written and researched by Patrick Hirtle.  – 2012


Blogging don’t pay, so I eat at affordable places like the evelyne saller center in downtown Vancouver B.C for $2.00 the cafeteria serves dinner, lunch, breakfast all meals are a full course meals and for only two bucks & where can you dine for a toony these days anyways. [note] Some may remember the evelyne saller centre as the 44, like I do.. 🙂

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First Nations, Blogger

Keith Ranville


During this maya end of time solar calendar days will we just experience a fatima sun experience? afterall the mayans were sun worshipers

With whats happening with the sun lately you would think this will happen during the last or ladder maya calendar days, however after the miracle of the sun back on october 13, 1917 there was somewhat prophetic tragedy’s that happened like wars, disease deaths.. messages from the sun would be something that I would be guessing to be happening around the day of the end of the maya solar calendar cycle days and maybe there will be tying times thereafter.

And another thing nasa sent out satellites to record the sun in stereo 2006 why was this?  they are trying to capture the king kong evidence that there looking for that may appear out of the sun sooner or later on?

I know in my heart and soul that the sun is more that a energy of gases its a entity as well I have experienced a anomaly coming out of the sun before. Visions should be on the menu in this times of the sun roosts


First Nations Researcher,

Keith Ranville