|The following is reprinted from The Best of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader.
The romance of searching for pirate treasure has been celebrated in dozens of stories since Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. But is there really any buried treasure to be found? Maybe so … on Oak Island.
In 1795, a teenager named Daniel McGinnis discovered an unusual, saucer-shaped depression on Oak Island, a tiny island off the coast of Nova Scotia. Next to the hole was an ancient oak tree with sawed off limbs. And, according to legend, a ship's tackle hung from the tree directly over the depression - as if it had been used to lower something very heavy into the hole. (Oak Island image: Oak Island Treasure)
McGinnis was certain he had found buried pirate treasure, and with the help of two friends he began digging for it. Within minutes they hit rock - which turned out to be a flagstone buried two feet below surface. They hit another barrier made of oak logs at 10 feet deep; another at 20 feet, and a third at 30 feet. McGinnis and his friends kept digging - but they never found any treasure and eventually gave up. Still, word of their discovery spread.
In 1803, a wealthy man named Simeon Lynds took up the search. The diggers he hired found another platform at 40 feet, and found several more deeper down. Finally, at 90 feet, the workers found a large stone with strange symbols carved into it. No one could decipher what the stone said, but the workers were convinced they were close to treasure and kept digging. (The stone was later stolen.) At 98 feet deep, their shovels struck what felt like a wooden chest. But the sun was going down, so they stopped for the night.
By the time the workers got back the next morning, the hole had flooded to the top with seawater. And it somehow kept refilling, even as the workers tried to bail it out. They never were able to drain the pit enough to finish digging.
Like McGinnis, Lynds had hit a dead end.
Lynds wasn't the last person to dig for treasure on Oak Island. In fact, so many excavations have been attempted that the precise location of the original hole - known as the "Money Pit" because so much money has been spent trying to solve its mysteries - has been forgotten because so many other holes have been dug nearby. Even young Franklin D. Roosevelt supervised a dig in 1909 (he followed Oak Island's progress even as president). And the search continues today. Some findings:
There's at least some gold down there. In 1849, treasure hunters sank a drill to the 98 foot level. Like Lynds, they hit what felt like a wooden chest. They dug through the top into what felt like "22 inches of metal in pieces (possibly gold coins)," through more wood, and into another 22 inches of metal. When they pulled the drill back to the surface, three links of gold chain were stuck to it. In nearly 200 years of digging, that's all the treasure that's been found.
In 1897, another group of drillers dug down to 155 feet. They pulled up a half-inch-square piece of parchment - but that's not all. They also hit what they thought was a heavy iron plate at 126 feet, but couldn't pull it up.
Money Pit inscription and cipher at The Active Mind
In 1987, an IBM cryptologist finally deciphered an engraving of Lynds' lost stone. The message read: "Forty feet below, two million pounds are buried."
Image: George Bates Maritime map set (The Oak Island Mystery)
Whoever dug the original pit went through a great deal of trouble to do it. In 1850, explorers resting on a nearby beach noticed that the beach "gulched forth water like a sponge being squeezed." So they dug it up - and discovered it was a fake. The beach was actually a manmade network of stone drains that filtered seawater and fed it into the Money Pit. The drains - designed to flood the pit whenever treasure hunters got close to the treasure - had been buried in sand to avoid detection.
The Money Pit may even be protected by poison gas. On August 17, 1965, treasure hunter Bob Restall blacked out and fell into the pit he had dug. His son and four others tried to rescue him, but they also blacked out and fell in. Restall, his son, and two of the workers were killed. The autopsy finding: death by "marsh-gas poisoning and/or drowning."
In 1977, the Montreal-based Triton Alliance, Ltd., a consortium of 49 investors headed by David Tobias, bought the 128-acre Oak Island for $125,000. They have spent more than $3 million digging for treasure.
During one drill, Triton's workers found bits of china, glass, wood, charcoal - even cement. But no treasure.
Perhaps the strangest incident associated with Oak Island occurred in 1971 when Tobias' partner Dan Blankenship lowered an underwater video camera into a water-filled cavity at the bottom of a shaft. On the monitor, Blankenship suddenly saw what looked like a human hand. Horrified, he called over three crew members, who later verified his story. Asked by Smithsonian magazine about the legitimacy of his hand-sighting, he answered, "There's no question about it."
WHAT'S DOWN THERE?
Oak Island's "treasure," if there is one, could be worth over $100 million. Among the many theories of what the Money Pit could be hiding:
1. The missing crown jewels of France.
The Nova Scotia area was frequented by pirates in the 16th and 17th centuries - when the jewels were stolen. The local Mahone Bay takes its name from the French word mahonne, a craft used by Mediterranean pirates.
2. Inca gold plundered by Spanish galleons and later pirated by Sir Francis Drake.
A carbon analysis of wood samples recovered from the area dated them back to 1575, around the time of Drake's explorations. However, there is no record of Drake ever having been to Nova Scotia.
3. Captain Kidd's buried treasure.
Some believe Kidd buried his treasure there before being extradited and later hanged by the British. Before Kidd was executed in1701, he offered a deal: "He would lead a fleet to the spot where he had hidden his East Indian treasure, if the authorities would put off his execution. The deal was refused - and Kidd's treasure has never been found." There is, however, no evidence that Kidd was ever near Oak Island.
Others have their doubts. Some feel that the Money Pit is merely an elaborate decoy and that the treasure is actually buried in a nearby swamp. Others think it's just a sinkhole. Many doubt whether pirates had the resources and engineering know-how to construct such an elaborate trap.
Similar Money Pits are rumored to have been found in Haiti and Madagascar, although these discoveries have not been confirmed by archaeologists.