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 lives.
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.
Undoubtedly, the 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.
Nineteenth Century Excavations
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 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
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 treasure.
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 worked well.
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
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 of money.
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
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
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.
Money Pit today.
(Courtesy of Bill Milstead)
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 was impossible.
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 this idea.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
Albemarle returned 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 about.
Crooker's theory 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.