Pit of Oak Island
Oak Island off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada.
digging was found by two young men in 1795. They believed
that pirate treasure was buried there, but could not dig
deeper than 25 feet to find it.
attempts (above) dug the pit to 93 feet, but it flooded
with what was believed to be a man-made drainage system
designed to keep out intruders.
have been spent and a number of lives lost trying to see
if treasure is at the bottom of the pit.
|In 1959 four
men were killed when the pit filled with carbon-monoxide
fumes from a pump.
|In 1970 a
video camera was sent down into the pit and a photo was
taken that some people interpret as showing chests and
a severed human hand.
|No work has
been done on the pit recently as it is tied up in legal
One can only wonder
what would have happened if young Daniel McGinnis had chosen
to go exploring somewhere else on that fateful day in the summer
of 1795. If he had, perhaps nobody else would have walked the
woods on the eastern end of Oak Island for the next ten years.
In that time, the clearing McGinnis found might have been reclaimed
completely by the woods. In a forest, the thirteen foot-wide
depression in the ground might never have been noticed. Thick,
leafy branches might have obscured the old tackle block hanging
from a branch directly over the pit. Without these markers,
there would have been nothing to indicate that this was the
work of man. And there might have never been the two-hundred
year long treasure hunt that cost several fortunes and many
But McGinnis did
see the clearing and the depression and the tackle block. Visions
of pirate treasure did fill his head. He did return later with
two friends, John Smith, age 19, and Anthony Vaughan, age 16.
And together, with picks and shovels, they did start perhaps
the most famous treasure hunt of modern times.
three must have thought they were on the verge of discovering
the treasure of Captain William Kidd. Stories that the captain
had buried a treasure hoard on an island "east of Boston" had
been circulating since the 1600's. Legend had it that a dying
sailor in the New England Colonies confessed to being a part
of Kidd's notorious crew, but he never named an exact location
for the hidden booty.
The island McGinnis,
Smith and Vaughan were on was one of 300 small isles in the
Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada. It was peanut-shaped and about
three-quarters of a mile long and 1,000 feet wide.
Cutting away the
smaller trees, the three young men started digging in the depression.
After two feet they hit a floor of carefully laid flagstones.
This type of slate was not found on the island and the group
figured it had been brought there from about two miles north.
Below the stones they saw that they were digging down a shaft
that had been refilled. The walls of the shaft were scored with
the marks of pick axes, more evidence that this structure was
the work of men.
At the ten foot
level they hit wood. At first the group figured they'd hit a
treasure chest, but quickly realized that they had found a platform
of oaken logs sunk into the sides of the shaft. Pulling up the
logs they discovered a two-foot depression and more of the shaft.
Continuing to dig, they finally reached a depth of twenty-five
feet. At that depth they decided they could not continue without
more help and better planning. Covering the pit over, they left.
One thing the three were sure of, though, was that something
must be at the bottom of the pit. They concluded that nobody
would have gone to the trouble of digging a shaft deeper than
25 feet unless he had something very valuable to hide.
Not much more was
done with the pit until around 1802. While stories differ, it
seems likely that the three spent the previous years searching
for a financial backer to provide assistance for a more sophisticated
dig. Simeon Lynds visited the money pit that year, was impressed
by the story, and formed a company to support the excavation.
The work was started
in the summer of 1803. After cleaning out the old pit, the crew
started digging downward. Stories have it that they struck another
oak platform at 30 feet below the surface. As they continued
to dig they found something every ten feet: charcoal, putty,
stones or more log platforms. Finally, at the 80 or 90 foot
level, depending on which historical account you read, a flat
stone, three feet long and one foot wide, with strange letters
and figures cut into it, was found. At 93 feet deep, the floor
of the pit began to turn into soft mud. Before the end of that
day the crew probed the bottom of the shaft with a crowbar hoping
to find something. They hit a barrier as wide and as long as
the shaft. The group speculated that they'd finally reached
the treasure vault and went to bed with the expectations that
tomorrow a fortune would be theirs.
Returning the next
day, the crew was shocked to find that overnight the pit had
filled with 60 feet of water. Bailing was useless. As soon as
water was removed from the pit, more flowed in to take its place.
An attempt was made to dig another shaft nearby and get at the
treasure by running a tunnel underneath the pit, but the new
shaft flooded as soon as the tunnel got close to its objective.
Another attempt to
find the treasure wasn't made until 1849. A new corporation
was formed to finance the dig. This group wasn't much more successful,
running into the same flooding problems that occurred back in
1802. They did manage to use a drill to probe what was below
the money pit floor. A platform was constructed in the shaft
just above the water level and the drill operated from there.
The drill seemed to bore through levels of oak, spruce and clay.
One sample recovered what appeared to be several links of chain
made of gold.
While the drilling
was going on, someone noticed that the water in the pit was
salty and rose and fell with the tide. This led to speculation
that the builders of the pit had conceived a clever trap designed
to flood the pit with water if someone got to close too the
The existence of
the flood trap was confirmed by the discovery that the beach
of Smith's Cove, located some 500 feet away from the money pit,
was artificial. Examination showed that the original clay of
the cove had been dug away and in its place laid round beach
stones, covered by four or five inches of dead eel grass, which
was covered by coconut fiber two inches thick and finally the
sand of the beach. At the bottom of all this were five box drains
that apparently merged somewhere well back from the coast into
a single tunnel that ran the distance to the money pit. The
system was apparently designed so that the filtering action
of the coconut fiber and the eel grass would ensure the drains
would never be clogged by sand or gravel from the beach. It
Attempts were made
to put the flood trap out of business by building a cofferdam
around the cove to by holding the tides back. Later, pits were
dug to intersect and plug the tunnel on its route to the money
pit. These failed, and this try at reaching the treasure was
given up in 1851 when the money ran out.
The next attempt
in 1861 cost the first human life. The searchers tried to pump
out the money pit using the steam engine-powered pumps. A boiler
burst and one worker was scalded to death while others were
injured. Further fatalities were barely avoided when the money
pit's bottom, weakened by attempts to get at the treasure by
digging up underneath from other shafts, collapsed. If there
were any treasure chests they were probably carried much deeper
by this crash. This dig did succeed in discovering where the
flood tunnel entered the money pit, but there was still no way
to turn off the water. By 1864 these searchers were also out
In 1866, 1893, 1909,
1931 and 1936 additional excavations were started. Extreme methods
were used including setting dynamite charges to destroy the
flood tunnel, building a dam to keep the water out of Smith's
Cove, and bringing in a crane with an excavation bucket. None
of these approaches recovered a single coin while costing the
backers a small fortune and one worker his life. One of these
efforts did manage to block off the flood tunnel from Smith's
Cove, only to discover more water was pouring in from the opposite
direction via a natural or man-made route from the south shore.
Drilling also indicated that there might be some kind of cement
vault at the 153-foot level. By this time the south end of the
island was full of old shafts, though, and it was increasingly
hard to tell were the original money pit was located. Searchers
often ran out of money just trying to figure out where the old
shaft had been.
In 1959 Robert Restall,
a former daredevil motorcyclist, took up the challenge with
the help of his 18-year-old son. By then the Smith Cove's flood
tunnel had become unblocked and Restall made it his first order
of business to seal it off. He had sunk a shaft to the depth
of 27 feet near Smith's Cove when tragedy struck. His son found
him laying at the bottom of the pit in muddy water. Climbing
down to help his father, the boy suddenly fell off the ladder
and lay next to him. Kal Graseser, Restall's partner, and workers
Cyril Hiltz and Andy DeMont climbed down to assist, but also
collapsed before reaching the bottom. Edward White, a visiting
fireman from Buffalo, New York, immediately suspected carbon
monoxide poisoning from the exhaust of a nearby gasoline pump
and descended the pit with a rope tied around his waist. He
was able to rescue DeMont, but the others died. In one day Oak
Island mystery claimed four more lives.
In 1965 Robert Dunfield
tried to apply modern open pit mining methods to the treasure
hunt. Using a 70-ton digging crane he dug a hole at the original
pit site 140 feet deep and 100 feet in diameter. The dirt was
carefully sifted for any treasure, but only a few pieces of
porcelain dishware were found. Heavy rains dragged the work
out for months and Dunfield ran out of money. The pit, and its
mystery designer, had won again.
In 1970 the Triton
Alliance was formed to continue looking for the treasure. Legal
battles between owners of different portions of the island resulted
in slow progress. A number of holes were drilled in an attempt
to locate the treasure and better understand the geological
nature of the island, but no gold was recovered. Little work
has been done in the area of the money pit itself as the soil
is unstable. Often caverns, thought to be natural, have been
found beneath the island. A video camera lowered down one borehole
into one of these spaces recorded an image that looked like
chests and a human hand severed at the wrist. The quality of
the images was so poor, though, that positive identification
Triton brought the
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in to survey the island in
1995 and render an opinion on whether there is something valuable
at the bottom of the pit. While their report is confidential,
people who have seen it say that its conclusions are "not discouraging."
Currently little work is being done on the island while disputes
between the owners of Triton are being settled.
In addition to the
money pit the rest of the island seems to be loaded with old
stone markers of various types. The most peculiar of these are
6 boulders that seem to be laid out in the shape of a cross
that is almost 900 feet long. Some wild speculation based on
the cross suggest that Oak Island might be home to the long
missing Holy Grail, but there is no real solid evidence to support
So, who built the
money pit? And did they really put some kind of treasure down
there? Was it Captain Kidd? Despite the legends it seem unlikely
that Captain William Kidd ever had the chance to bury a treasure
on Oak Island. He spent little time near Nova Scotia and certainly
not enough to construct the money pit. Kidd did bury a cache
of booty on Gardener's Island near the eastern end of Long Island
Sound, but it was quickly seized by the Governor of New York.
Blackbeard, who possessed
perhaps the most notorious reputation of all pirates, has sometimes
been mentioned in conjunction with Oak Island, but only because
he once boasted he had an underground cache for his treasure,
"where none but Satan and myself can find it." Certainly many
of the Oak Island treasure hunters would agree that this sounds
like the money pit, but the truth is there isn't any evidence
that Blackbeard conducted any operations north of Delaware.
In fact, it seems
very unlikely that any pirate could be responsible for such
a complex labyrinth as the pit. Pirates
buried treasure because it offered a quick way to hide and recover
their goods. A digging operation that must have taken several
months just doesn't seem their style.
George Bates, a land
surveyor in Nova Scotia, suggested that pirates had indeed built
structures on Oak Island, but not for the purpose of hiding
treasure. Bate's idea was that there was enough pirate activity
between 1650 and 1750 off the coast of Nova Scotia to warrant
several pirate groups getting together and building a dry dock
to maintain their ships. To do this they sailed their vessels
into Smith's Cove and built a cofferdam to seal the tiny bay
off from the ocean. The flood tunnel was used to then drain
the cove and leave the ship high and dry. The water flooded
down the tunnel into a large natural cave underneath the island.
A windmill located on top of the money pit extracted the water
so the cove could again be drained for the next ship.
The weakness of Bates
argument is that located on the other side of Nova Scotia, only
a hundred miles away, is the Bay of Fundy. The tides in the
bay drop at least 30 feet each day making it a huge natural
dry dock. Why would the pirates duplicate what nature already
Speaking of nature,
is it possible that the money pit is a natural phenomena, not
a cleverly designed vault? Certainly there are natural caves
under Oak Island and the depression found by McGinnis could
have been a sink hole. Unless all early accounts are completely
incorrect the descriptions of the platforms carefully placed
at 10-foot intervals seem to ensure that at least part of the
structure is man-made.
Some theories suggest
that the structures built on Oak Island may have been hundreds,
perhaps even thousand of years old when they were discovered
in 1795. They may have been built by Vikings visiting the New
World, or by the native Micmac people who lived in the region
before the Europeans appeared. Perhaps they were built by an
advanced civilization that we know nothing about. Indeed the
flood tunnel trap built into the pit in some ways reminds one
of the false doors and granite plugs found in Egyptian tombs
to prevent grave robbing.
If any of the above
theories were true why did McGinnis discover the pit in the
heart of a clearing? The trees around the money pit must have
been cut when it was constructed. Given the rate oak trees grow,
that meant someone had built the pit not more than fifty years
before McGinnis stumbled across it.
Who would have hidden
a treasure between 1745 and 1795? William Crooker, author of
several books on the Oak Island mystery, suggests that the pit
was built as a part of plot by King George III of England and
several of his close advisors. On August 12, 1762, British forces
captured the city of Havana, Cuba, from the Spanish. Havana
was a rich, important city where much of the gold from the New
World was shipped back to Spain. Two shiploads of the captured
booty, Crooker suggests, was taken by the Earl of Albemarle
to Oak Island. Previously the conspirators had arranged for
military engineers to come to the island and build what they
thought was a secret ammo dump complete with flood tunnels.
Albemarle arrived with the treasure in sealed boxes. The treasure
was placed in the pit, the pit was closed, and the engineers
departed still thinking they had built an ammo dump.
to England with the idea of retrieving the treasure later. Something,
perhaps the madness that afflicted King George toward the end
of his life, prevented getting the booty and it was forgotten
raises another possibility, though. Suppose there is no treasure
at all and the pit is simply an old ammo dump? We will only
find out for sure when someone comes along who is clever enough,
and rich enough, to beat the designer of the money pit and make
a thorough investigation of what lies at the bottom.
Lee Krystek 1998-2013