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Oak Island In Nova Scotia's Mahone Bay

It has been the focus of “the world's longest and most expensive treasure hunt” and “one of the world's deepest and most costly archaeological digs” as well as being “Canada's best-known mystery” and indeed one of “the great mysteries of the world.” It may even “represent an ancient artifact created by a past civilization of advanced capability”. The subject of these superlatives is a mysterious shaft on Oak Island in Nova Scotia's Mahone Bay. For some two centuries, greed, folly, and even death have attended the supposed “Money Pit” enigma.

Briefly, the story is that in 1795 a young man named Daniel McInnis (or McGinnis) was roaming Oak Island when he came upon a shallow depression in the ground. Above it, hanging from the limb of a large oak was an old tackle block. McInnis returned the next day with two friends who-steeped in the local lore of pirates and treasure troves-set to work to excavate the site. They soon uncovered a layer of flagstones and, ten feet further, a tier of rotten oak logs. They proceeded another fifteen feet into what they were sure was a man-made shaft but, tired from their efforts, they decided to cease work until they could obtain assistance. However, between the skepticism and superstition of the people who lived on the mainland, they were unsuccessful.

The imagined cache continued to lie dormant until early in the next century, when the trio joined with a businessman named Simeon Lynds from the town of Onslow to form a treasure-hunting consortium called the Onslow Company. Beginning work about 1803 or 1804 (one source says 1810), they found oak platforms “at exact intervals of ten feet”, along with layers of clay, charcoal, and a fibrous material identified as coconut husks. Then, at ninety feet (or eighty feet, according to one alleged participant) they supposedly found a flat stone bearing an indecipherable inscription. Soon after, probing with a crowbar, they struck something hard-possibly a wooden chest!-but discontinued for the evening. Alas, the next morning the shaft was found flooded with sixty feet of water. Attempting to bail out the pit with buckets, they found the water level remained the same, and they were forced to discontinue the search. The following year, the men attempted to bypass the water by means of a parallel shaft from which they hoped to tunnel to the supposed treasure. But this shaft suffered the same fate, and the Onslow Company's expedition ended.

Again the supposed cache lay dormant until in 1849 another group, the Truro Company, reexcavated the original shaft. Encountering water, the workers then set up a platform in the pit and used a hand-operated auger to drill and remove cores of material. They found clay, bits of wood, and three links of gold chain-supposed evidence of buried treasure. The Truro Company sank additional nearby shafts, but these, too, were inundated with water, and work ceased in the fall of 1850. Other operations continued from 1858 to 1862, during which time a workman was scalded to death by a ruptured boiler.

The Oak Island Association followed and attempted to intersect the “tunnel” that presumably fed water to the pit. When that 120-foot shaft missed, another was sunk and, reportedly, a three-by-four-foot tunnel was extended about eighteen feet to the “Money Pit” (as it was then known). However, water began coming in again. A massive bailing operation was then set up when suddenly there was a loud crash as the Money Pit collapsed. It was later theorized that the imagined chests had fallen into a deep void and that the pit may have been booby-trapped to protect the treasure. The Association's work was followed in 1866 by the Oak Island Eldorado Company but without significant results.

Decades elapsed and in 1897 the Oak Island Treasure Company (incorporated four years earlier) apparently located the long-sought “pirate tunnel” that led from Smith's Cove to the Money Pit. They drilled and dynamited to close off the tunnel. Subsequent borings were highlighted by the discovery of a fragment of parchment upon which was penned portions of two letters (possibly “ri"). They also found traces of a chalk-like stone or “cement". In this same year Oak Island's second tragedy struck when a worker was being hoisted from one of the pits and the rope slipped from its pulley, plunging him to his death.

After that company ran out of funds, most of the moveable assets were sold at a sheriff's sale in 1900. The new century brought continued searches, with the digging of innumerable drill holes, shafts, and tunnels-so many that “The entire Money Pit area has been topographically demolished, changing completely its original appearance and rendering old maps and charts useless”. In 1965 there came yet another tragedy when four men died in a shaft after being overcome either by swamp gas or engine fumes.

In 1966 a Florida building contractor named Dan Blankenship teamed up with MontrŽal businessman David Tobias to continue the quest. The partners began an extensive drilling operation, sinking some sixty bore-holes the following year alone, and, in 1968, enlisted a number of investors in what they named Triton Alliance. Unfortunately, mechanical problems, land disputes, the Stock Market crash of 1987, and other troubles, including the eventual falling out of the two partners, stopped their projected $10 million “big dig”. Once open to tourists, the site sank into neglect.

The Money Pit

Over the past two centuries, six men have died in the Money Pit on Nova Scotia's Oak Island, site of the world's most famous treasure hunt. Legend has it that when the Pit claims its seventh life, the treasure will be revealed. The Pit-which has lured FDR, John Wayne, and Errol Flynn to the hunt-has been variously rumored to hold the loot of Captain Kidd and Blackbeard, the crown jewels of France, and the Holy Grail. The hunt began in 1765 when a 16-year-old boy paddled over from the little Nova Scotian town of Chester to set game traps on uninhabited Oak Island, a small, peanut-shaped isle in Mahone Bay. In a clearing at one end of the island, he found an old ship's tackle block dangling over a curious clay chamber about 12 feet wide.

Undeterred by tales of hauntings and fired by legends of pirate treasure, young Daniel McGinnis recruited two friends - Anthony Vaughn and John Smith - to help him dig up the loot. After months of backbreaking work, all they found was a 13-foot-wide circular shaft dug through flinty clay, with thick oak platforms at 10, 20 and 300 feet. The dispirited boys soon abandoned their project-but never forgot about the treasure.

In 1804, they told Simeon Lynds, a wealthy Nova Scotia doctor, about their discovery on Oak Island. Dr. Lynds, who was familiar with old legends about buried pirate loot, quickly formed the first treasure company. Within days, teams of workers armed with shovels and pickaxes descended on the island. The diggers, led by Daniel McGinnis and his two friends, eventually broke through eight oak platforms, three of which were sealed with ship's putty and coconut fiber. Below that, much to Dr. Lynds' dismay, lay 60 feet of water.

Weeks of bailing with buckets and crude pumps failed to lower the level. The next year, Dr. Lynds' crew sank another shaft, close to and parallel with the pit, and at 100 feet they started burrowing toward the "treasure." They had to scramble for their lives, however, when water suddenly burst into their shaft and filled it to the same level as the water in the pit. The quest left Simeon Lynds practically penniless.

Some say the loot is buried in a water-filled pit dug by the notorious pirate Captain William Kidd. Others suggest it might have belonged to the Vikings or some other group of pre-Columbian explorers-perhaps even Egyptians or survivors from the lost continent of Atlantis. One theory holds that the fabled treasure was once the property of Spanish conquistadors who had stolen it from the civilizations of Central and South America. Another suggests that agents working for the king of England buried the fortune then sailed away and forgot about it. Whatever its origins, the quest to find the lost treasure has cost numerous lives and vast personal fortunes.

In 1861 a new organization came to the island and began an ambitious bailing project to drain the pit. Steam pumps were used to assist with the work until a boiler burst and scalded one worker to death. Rumors spread quickly that the Money Pit was protected by a long-dead pirate's curse. Work resumed a decade later, but the treasure remained as elusive as ever. Splinters of wood brought to service by auger bits hinted that loot-filled chests or casks lurked below. Spirits soared when workers hauled up a torn piece of parchment with the letters "v" and "i" on them.

In 1955 a group of wealthy oil-men from Texas began work on the island. They sank several holes into the area and found what they thought was an enounous cavern at 180 feet. Frantic excavation attempts were unsuccessful because the chamber kept flooding-more proof, argued some, that the spirits guarding the island would never allow the treasure to be disturbed.

Ten years later, the Money Pit claimed four more lives, including a famous Canadian stunt driver named Robert Restall. Restall and three co-workers were apparently overcome by gaseous fumes while working in a nearby access pit, fell into the water and drowned. New hunters came and went, almost on a yearly basis, sometimes spending huge sums in their quest to conquer the Money Pit. Cranes and bulldozers and other heavy equipment was brought over to expedite the search. In 1965 American geologist Bob Dunfield built a causeway connecting the island to the mainland.

Despite decades of rumor and speculation, the curious Oak Island hole remains as much a mystery today as it did more than two centuries ago when young Daniel McGinnis paddled over to investigate. While some people still believe in the treasure, others suspect it might be a hoax, perpetrated by generations of writers and treasure-hunters trying to raise investment capital.

Rupert Furneaux, author of The Money Pit Mystery, has advanced the most plausible theory. Considering the state of the block and rope discovered in 1795, the pit could not have been dug much earlier than 1780, placing the operation in the middle of the Revolutionary War. In 1778, the British garrison in New York was threatened by Washington's army, and capitulation loomed. The governor held the pay chests of all British forces in America, and it seems likely that, anxious for their safety, he ordered a detachment of Royal Engineers stationed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to conceal the loot.

Furneaux argues that only a treasure of immense value, such as the pay chests, would call for so complex a hiding place as the Money Pit. And the only group in the area with enough expertise was the British Royal Engineers. There is no record of the British army losing any great sums of money at the time-a scandal that would have led to the court martial of the general concerned. This may mean that, when the danger was past, the chests were recovered and the Money Pit is, in fact, empty.

Another theory advanced by author William Crooker suggests that British forces under King George III built the Money Pit to dump gold they had captured from Spanish-occupied Havana, Cuba, in the summer of 1762. Until a thorough geological and archaeological survey is undertaken, it seems certain that the secrets buried within the bloodstained Money Pit on Oak Island's will forever remain a mystery.

The Pit has now been explored to more than 200 feet, with little to show for it but several links of a gold chain and persistent rumors of a severed human hand and a preserved corpse deep inside. According to professional skeptic Joe Nickell, who has debunked mysteries from the Shroud of Turin to Jack the Ripper's diary, the shaft and the flood tunnel are natural features in the region's porous limestone geology. "Instead of asking, 'What might this fabulous treasure be?' we should be asking, 'What treasure?'" says Nickell. "If it sounds too good to be true, maybe it is." Or maybe not.

Over the years the fabled treasure has been the target of dowsers, automatic writers, clairvoyants, channelers, tarot-card readers, dream interpreters, psychic archaeologists, and assorted other visionaries and soothsayers, as well as crank inventors of devices like a “Mineral Wave Ray” and an airplane-borne “treasure smelling” machine-not one having been successful.

The more elusive the treasure has proved, the more speculation it has engendered. Given the “immense amount of labor” presumably required to construct the pit and the accompanying “flooding tunnel” that served as a “booby trap,” presumption of a pirates' hoard has begun to be supplanted by such imagined prizes as the French crown jewels, Shakespeare's manuscripts, the “lost treasure" of the Knights Templar, even the Holy Grail and the imagined secrets of the “lost continent” of Atlantis.

Doubts begin with the reported discovery in 1795 of the treasure shaft itself. While some accounts say that the trio of youths spied an old ship's pulley hanging from a branch over a depression in the ground, that is “likely an apocryphal detail added to the story later” and based on the assumption that some sort of lowering device would have been necessary in depositing the treasure. Nevertheless some authors are remarkably specific about the features, one noting that the “old tackle block” was attached to “a large forked branch” of an oak “by means of a treenail connecting the fork in a small triangle". Another account further claims there were “strange markings” carved on the tree. On the other hand, perhaps realizing that pirates or other treasure hoarders would have been unlikely to betray their secret work by leaving such an obvious indicator in place, some versions of the tale agree that the limb “had been sawed off” but that “the stump showed evidence of ropes and tackle”.

Similarly, the notion that there was a log platform at each ten-foot interval of the pit for a total of nine or eleven platforms, is only supported by later accounts, and those appear to have been derived by picking and choosing from earlier ones so as to create a composite version of the layers. For example the account in the Colonist (1864) mentions that the original treasure hunters found only flagstones at two feet ("evidently not formed there by nature") and “a tier of oak logs” located “ten feet lower down” (i.e., at twelve feet). They continued some “fifteen feet farther down,” whereupon-with no mention of anything further of note-they decided to stop until they could obtain assistance. James McNutt, who was a member of a group of treasure hunters working on Oak Island in 1863, described a different arrangement of layers.

In 1911 an engineer, Captain Henry L. Bowdoin, who had done extensive borings on the island, concluded that the treasure was imaginary. He questioned the authenticity of various alleged findings (such as the cipher stone and piece of gold chain), and attributed the rest to natural phenomena. Subsequent skeptics have proposed that the legendary Money Pit was nothing more than a sinkhole caused by the ground settling over a void in the underlying rock. The strata beneath Oak Island are basically limestone and anhydrite, which are associated with the formation of solution caverns and salt domes. The surface above caverns, as well as over faults and fissures, may be characterized by sinkholes.

Indeed, a sinkhole actually appeared on Oak Island in 1878. A woman named Sophia Sellers was plowing when the earth suddenly sank beneath her oxen. Ever afterward known as the “Cave-in Pit,” it was located just over a hundred yards east of the Money Pit and directly above the “flood tunnel”.

Today, of course, after two centuries of excavation, the island's east end is “honey combed with shafts, tunnels and drill holes running in every imaginable direction”, complicating the subterranean picture and making it difficult to determine the nature of the original pit. In suggesting that it was a sinkhole, caused by the slumping of debris in a fault, one writer noted that “this filling would be softer than the surrounding ground, and give the impression that it had been dug up before". Fallen trees could have sunk into the pit with its collapse, or “blowdowns” could periodically have washed into the depression, later giving the appearance of “platforms” of rotten logs.

The treasure seekers and mystery mongers are quick, however, to dismiss any thoughts that the “shaft” and “tunnels” could be nothing more than a sinkhole and natural channels. Why, the early accounts would then have to be “either gross exaggerations or outright lies,” says one writer. For example, what about the reported “pick marks found in the walls of the pit"? We have already seen-with the oak-limb-and-pulley detail-just how undependable are such story elements. Then what about the artifacts (such as the fragment of parchment) or the coconut fiber (often carried on ships as dunnage, used to protect cargo) found at various depths? Again, the sinkhole theory would explain how such items “worked their way into deep caverns under the island”.

Assuming the “shaft” is a natural phenomenon, there still remains the other major piece of the Oak Island puzzle: How do we explain the presence of such cryptic elements as the cipher stone allegedly discovered in the pit in 1803, a large equilateral triangle (made of beach stones and measuring ten feet on each side) found in 1897, or a megalithic cross which Fred Nolan discovered on the south shore in 1981?

Some artifacts are actually suspicious, like the links of gold chain found in the Pit in 1849. One account holds that they were planted by workers to inspire continued operations. Other artifacts are more suggestive, like the cipher stone which disappeared about 1919. Its text has allegedly been preserved, albeit in various forms and decipherments. For instance zoologist-turned-epigrapher Barry Fell thought the inscription was ancient Coptic, its message urging people to remember God lest they perish. In fact, the text as we have it has been correctly deciphered. Written in what is known as a simple-substitution cipher, it reads, “Forty Feet Below Two Million Pounds Are Buried". Most Oak Island researchers consider the text a hoax, but as Crooker observes, an inscribed stone did exist, “having been mentioned in all the early accounts of the Onslow company's expedition.”

Other artifacts that appear to have ritualistic significance are the stone triangle and great “Christian Cross” as well as “a handworked heart-shaped stone". Crooker notes that “a large amount of time and labor” were spent in laying out the cross, but to what end?

The independently wealthy Gilbert Hedden of Chatham, New Jersey, who carried out the treasure search from 1934 to 1938, and Professor Edwin Hamilton, who succeeded him and operated on the island for the next six years. Hedden even made it his business to inform King George VI of England about developments on Oak Island in 1939, and Hamilton corresponded with President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt directly associated with the mystery. (Roosevelt actually participated in the work on Oak Island during the summer and fall of 1909.) Other notables involved in Oak Island were polar explorer Richard E. Byrd and actor John Wayne.

In any event, the evidence indicates a strong Masonic connection to the Oak Island enigma. Others have noted this link but unfortunately also believed in an actual treasure of some sort concealed in a man-made shaft or tunnel. Only by understanding both pieces of the puzzle and fitting them together correctly can the Oak Island mystery finally be solved. Although it is difficult to know at this juncture whether the Masonic elements were opportunistically added to an existing treasure quest or whether the entire affair was a Masonic creation from the outset. The solution is perhaps an unusual one but no more so than the saga of Oak Island itself.

Joe Nickell. The Secrets of Oak Island. Skeptical Inquirer. Volume 24.2, March / April 2000.

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