Archives » April 11th, 2006

April 11, 2006

The Oak Island Money Pit

James Lileks today made a throwaway reference to the Oak Island Money Pit, and I followed his link, thinking I would find an amusing digression where I could spend thirty seconds and then move on with my life. What I found instead was a mystery that had me coming back all day, trying to dig deeper and find out more. I don’t know what it is, but this Money Pit has turned into one of those fascinating stories that grabs onto me every so often and won’t let go. So I thought I’d share the mystery with all of you, and get you hooked too. You’re welcome.

It seems that in 1795 a few teenagers were exploring a deserted island off the coast of Nova Scotia. There was nothing remarkable about it, just one of a hundred tiny islands that dot the shore of the Altantic. This particular one was known as “Oak Island”, because of the thick forest of oak trees that covered it, and local legends spoke of spooky lights that would flicker through the branches on moonless nights. The boys had gone out on a fishing trip, and had found themselves putting ashore and walking inland to see what secrets this place might hold. And in the center of the island they came across a clearing, about 15 feet across, with an old scarred oak tree looming over it. The tree looked like some kind of pulley had been attached to it, and when they examined the dirt in the middle of the clearing they found it to be loose. They had all read books about pirates and buried treasure, so they felt sure that something had to be buried here.

They returned with picks and shovels and set to digging. A few feet down they found a layer of flagstone that had been buried, and a few feet beneath that a layer of logs, seemingly laid down to prevent anyone from going any further. They definitely knew they were onto something now, and kept digging until they reached 30 feet and had uncovered two more layers of logs. By now the pit had gotten too deep for them to keep going by themselves, so they promised to keep the site a secret and come back when they were able to dig deeper.

It was about eight or nine years, according to the story, before they were able to return. Now in their 20s, they had secured financial backing and let a few local laborers in on the secret in exchange for a share of the treasure. This time they were able to dig much deeper, still running into layers of logs at regular intervals. Some of them seem to have been sealed with charcoal and putty, but each time the crew was able to break through and keep digging into the soft sand beneath. Finally, at 90 feet, the mystery deepened. At that level the diggers unearthed a large stone tablet with strange writing on it. They couldn’t dechiper what the stone said, but there was another layer of logs underneath it. And it was getting dark anyway, so everyone went home for the night. The next day, when they came back, the pit was filled with water. They tried to pump the water out, but the pit would just fill up again. They tried to dig a second shaft for drainage, but it collapsed. Frustrated, they gave up. After getting past every other obstacle the pit had to throw at them, they finally met one they couldn’t overcome. Their efforts wasted, they finally conceded defeat and left Oak Island and the mysterious hole behind.

That’s not the end of the story, though. In the mid 19th century, diggers returned to Oak Island with new technology to once again try to uncover the hidden treasure. And ever since then there have been dozens of expeditions, each one with larger and more advanced tools, trying to find out what is really buried under the surface. They haven’t found any treasure, but they have claimed to find an elaborate drain that pulls water from the ocean, which would explain the flooding. Was the pit boobytrapped to stop anyone from digging it up? They have drilled into the earth and hit alternating layers of cement, iron, wood, clay, and some kind of “loose metal”. Could that be a buried crypt containing a treasure chest full of gold coins? They have pulled up a piece of parchment with the letters “VI” on it, and some other shiny object that one of the workmen immediately pocketed and denied taking. And in recent years they’ve brought in modern-day drilling and excavacting equipment and torn up the landscape so much that no one knows exactly where the original pit was anymore. And through all of this they have found nothing. No treasure, no chests, and no hard evidence that they can point to that any of the artifacts that did come out, like the stone tablet or the parchment, really existed.

So what are we left with? Not much, but a bunch of legends. Some folks say that the Money Pit was definitely man made, with something buried at its center and a lot of carefully crafted booby traps laid to stop anyone from getting to it. Maybe it was a pirate’s stash of gold, or an ancient treasure brought over from Europe. Others say it’s all hokum and mish mash, and the boys probably just found some natural phenomena and let their imaginations run away with them. Everyone since then has just been chasing those old ghosts.

And the Money Pit is certainly not without its victims. Millions of dollars of investor’s money has gone into the fruitless search for the treasure, leading some to financial ruin. And six men have given their lives in its pursuit, four of them on the same day when carbon monoxide gathered in one of the shafts. But for all the effort that has been put into solving it, the mystery has only grown bigger over the years. And who knows? Maybe the lost treasure of Captain Kidd really is underneath that little island, kept safe for all these centuries just as its concealers intended.

Or maybe there are just a lot of fools in the world.