What’s the scoop on the mysterious buried treasure at Oak Island?

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Dear Cecil: I need the true story on the buried treasure on Oak Island, Nova Scotia. From what I have read it was buried in a deep shaft beneath layers of wood, concrete, and other materials. As if that wasn’t enough, there are also booby-traps, with two different underground streams flooding the shaft whenever someone tries to dig up the treasure. Has anyone finally succeeded in getting the treasure out? Who put it in there so ingeniously? And how the hell did the owner ever expect to retrieve it? J.P., Washington, D.C.


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

The short answer to your letter, J.P., is no, beats me, and good question. Despite the loss of at least six lives and the expenditure of millions of dollars, virtually nothing of value has ever been recovered from Oak Island, the setting for one of the most famous and certainly one of the most bungled treasure hunts in history. Although searching continues sporadically, the site has been so thoroughly blasted, tunneled and flooded out that the chances of anything substantial being found are remote. Which is too damn bad. There was almost certainly something there at one time, and even if it wasn’t necessarily doubloons and pieces of eight, the cache as a whole nonetheless had enormous historical interest which is now lost forever.

What is now called the “money pit” was first discovered in 1795 by three boys. While exploring the island one day, they noticed a huge oak tree with a big forked branch from which hung an old tackle block. Directly beneath this was a shallow depression in the earth. Recalling the local legend that pirates had buried treasure in the area, the boys immediately commenced digging. About two feet below the surface they found a tier of flagstones. When they removed it, they saw they had uncovered an old shaft that had been filled in with loose dirt. Ten feet down they found another obstruction, this time a platform of oak planks. They patiently pried this up, only to find additional platforms at the 20 and 30 foot levels. (Some accounts differ on these details.) Recognizing that they were onto Something Big, the boys decided to knock off until such time as they could get more help.

In 1803 or 1804, the boys, now men, let a well-to-do friend in on the secret. He rounded up some investors, hired laborers, and began digging anew. Every 10 feet the searchers found additional wooden platforms and/or layers of coconut fibre, putty, charcoal, and so on. At 80 or 90 feet — nobody is quite clear which — the workers found a flat stone about three feet by 16 inches marked with mysterious characters. At 95 feet somebody jabbed an iron bar three feet into the earth, which had become very soggy, and struck something solid. But rather than keep digging, the men decided to knock off for the day.

Big mistake. When they came back the next morning, they found the shaft filled with 60 feet of water. Bailing proved fruitless. A primitive pump was equally unhelpful. So the following spring the men decided to sink a parallel shaft, on the off chance that the water was coming from an underground spring that they could bypass. The workers dug down 110 feet without incident, but shortly after they started tunneling horizontally toward the money pit water burst in and flooded the second shaft to the same depth as the first.

The search was abandoned until 1849. A new company then returned with more money and another crew. Having consulted with the surviving veterans of the original search, the workers re-excavated the money pit down to 86 feet. Predictably, it flooded again, so they began drilling with an auger. At 98 feet the auger went through a layer of wood, dropped a foot, and then went through more wood, 22 inches of loose material, wood again, 22 more inches of loose material, two last layers of wood, and finally clay. When the drill was brought up workers found three small gold links like those of a watch chain. Hot dog, the searchers exulted, buried treasure!

The following spring the searchers dug another parallel shaft, which flooded like the others. After efforts at pumping failed, they discovered (somewhat tardily, in my opinion) that the water in the shaft was sea water, which rose and fell with the tides. They concluded that the original builders had dug a special flood tunnel from the money pit to the sea as a booby trap. Upon checking a nearby beach, they found an elaborate network of stone channels buried under tons of coconut matting between the high- and low-tide lines. Five feeder channels converged on a main tunnel, which then headed inland. The matting evidently acted as a giant sponge to keep the channels filled with sea water.

An attempt to build a cofferdam to keep the sea out failed. The searchers then dug a couple shafts in between the beach and the money pit in an effort to block the main tunnel. No luck. Finally they decided to dig another parallel shaft back at the money pit. God knows what they expected to accomplish, but the result was another fiasco. The workers got down to 118 feet and began to tunnel toward a point directly underneath the money pit. Before they got there, though, there was a tremendous crash and a massive cave-in. Apparently the bottom of the money pit had collapsed into the new shaft, scattering whatever goodies had been stored there. Later — it starts to get a little intricate here — some came to believe there had been a large open chamber beneath the stash, and that it might have fallen another 40 or 50 feet farther down.

Things got even more scrambled in the succeeding decade. Several more shafts were dug — there have been 37 to date, by one count — along with a number of tunnels and boreholes. These succeeded mainly in destroying the structural integrity of the original pit. The workers also kept very poor records of their excavations, greatly complicating matters for later searchers. At one point workers dug out the money pit to the 108-foot level, and then began digging sideways. One laborer felt the earth give beneath his feet, and when he probed with a tool, found a large cavity below. But incoming water prevented him from exploring further.

Work ceased in 1867 but resumed in 1893. In 1897 diggers working in the money pit found a 2-1/2-foot-wide tunnel at 111 feet filled with stone, gravel, and sand, through which seawater flowed. They believed that this was the original pirate flood tunnel. Efforts to block it were, as usual, unsuccessful. Later, while drilling in the pit, searchers found oak and iron at 126 feet, iron at 138 feet, cement (possibly manmade) at 153 feet, and iron again at 171 feet. At one point the drill went through several feet of what seemed to be loose metal in pieces. (Cecil has his doubts, frankly.) A tiny piece of parchment with parts of the letters “ui,” “vi,” or “wi” written on it in India ink was also found. Evidently the money pit was much deeper than anyone had previously supposed.

But getting to the treasure remained as problematic as ever. At one point red dye was dropped into the money pit. Instead of seeping into the ocean on the north side of the island where the stone channels had been found, it came out at three places on the south side, indicating the existence of a second flood tunnel.

More attempts followed in later years. Even Franklin Roosevelt invested in one venture in 1909. (It turned up nothing new.) In 1931 a shaft was sunk to a depth of 163 feet in the general vicinity of the money pit, whose original location by this time had been lost, but all that was found were various tools, an anchor fluke, and other odds and ends.

Finally in 1936 a semi-retired American businessman named Gilbert Hedden decided to get serious. He ran power cables out to the site and installed modern pumps and other equipment. He then re-excavated the 1931 shaft to a depth of 170 feet and found — zip. The next year he dug a new shaft a short distance away down to 125 feet. The discovery of debris from previous expeditions convinced him that he had now found the site of the original money pit, but nothing even remotely treasure-like turned up. Hedden abandoned the search, concluding that in all the digging and flooding and whatnot over the years, the treasure had sunk down to 160-175 feet below ground and no doubt was thoroughly scattered about. That is, if there were ever any treasure at all.

Ah, but hope springs eternal. Over the last 50 years searchers have continued to sacrifice their money and in some case their lives in pursuit of Oak Island’s chimerical riches. In 1965 three or four men (accounts vary) were killed in an accident.

Since 1971 exploration has been conducted by a Montreal-based outfit called the Triton Alliance, which has been operating on the theory that the Money Pit was some sort of pirate savings bank, with side tunnels containing the loot of individual buccaneers leading off from the main shaft. I know of no evidence to support this view, but as of early 1985 they were still at it. What is going on today at the site I frankly don’t know; a spokesperson for the Alliance declined to answer any questions.

The area around the Money Pit today is basically a huge mess of abandoned shafts and boreholes. The precise location of the original pit is no longer known. (The oak tree with the old tackle block disappeared long ago.) The stone tablet with mysterious markings discovered in 1804 disappeared sometime in the early 20th century after kicking around for years; typically, no photos or rubbings have been preserved. After it was gone someone claimed the markings meant, “forty feet below two million pounds are buried.” It’s a shame, but we’ll probably never know for sure.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.