For 200 years, the promise of pirate’s payday buried deep in a pit off Nova Scotia’s coast has attracted schemers and dreamers from around the world. Every last one has gone home empty-handed. Is Oak Island cursed?
One legend makes the pit the hiding place for the plunder of Captain Kidd, who was hanged for piracy in 1701. Other theories favour the booty of Blackbeard and Henry Morgan, both notorious buccaneers; or the French crown jewels that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were said to be carrying when they attempted to flee during the French Revolution; or Shakespeare’s missing manuscripts. Whatever the pit may contain, few other treasures have been sought so avidly.
Using picks and shovels, divining rods and drilling rigs, treasure hunters poured about $1.5 million into the Money Pit. Despite more than 20 attempts, no one has yet reached bottom: each time a digging crew has seemed close to success, torrents of water have suddenly surged into the shaft to drown their hopes. Although it’s now known that the Money Pit is protected by an ingenious system of man-made flood tunnels that use the sea as a watchdog, no one knows who dug the pit, or why.
Just off the rugged southeast shore of Nova Scotia lies a tiny island fashioned somewhat like a question mark. The shape is appropriate, for little Oak Island is the scene of a baffling whodunit that has defied solution for over two centuries. Here, ever since 1795-not long after pirates prowled the Atlantic coast and left glittering legends of buried gold in their wake-people have been trying to find out what lies at the bottom of a mysterious shaft dubbed, hopefully, the “Money Pit.”
The long parade of searchers began one day 200 years ago, when Daniel McGinnis, a 16-year-old from Chester, N.S., paddled over to uninhabited Oak Island to hunt for game. On a knoll at one end of the island, he noticed an odd depression. Above it, on a sawed-off tree limb, hung an old ship’s block and tackle. McGinnis’s heart raced, for in the nearby port of LaHave, once a lair for pirates preying on New England shipping, he had heard many legends of buried treasure.
The next day, he came back with two other boys, Anthony Vaughan and John Smith, and began digging. Three metres down they hit a platform of aged oak logs; at six metres, another; at nine metres, a third. In the flinty clay walls of the shaft, they could still see the marks of pickaxes. As the work grew harder, they sought help. But no one else would go near Oak Island. It was said to be haunted by the ghosts of two fishermen who vanished there in 1720 while investigating strange lights. So the boys gave up, temporarily.
Later, McGinnis and Smith settled on the island. In 1803, intrigued by their tale, a wealthy Nova Scotian named Simeon Lynds joined them in forming a treasure company. Along with the oak tiers, they uncovered layers of tropical coconut fibre, charcoal and ship’s putty, plus a stone cut with curious symbols. At 28 metres, the diggers drove a crowbar 1.5 metres deeper and struck a solid mass. Lynds felt sure that it was a treasure chest.
But next morning he was amazed to find 18 metres of water in the pit. Weeks of bailing proved fruitless; the water level remained constant. Lynds assumed that this was due to an underground freshwater spring. The next year, his hired miners dug 33 metres down, off to one side of the Money Pit, then began burrowing toward it. When they were only a metre from it, gallons of water burst through. As they scrambled for their lives, the shaft quickly filled to the same depth as the Money Pit.
Beaten and almost broke, Lynds gave up. McGinnis died. But Vaughan and Smith never lost hope. In 1849, they took another stab at the Money Pit, with a syndicate from Truro, N.S. The results were dramatic.
At 30 metres down, just where the crowbar had hit a solid mass in 1803 a horse-driven pod auger (which picked up a sample of anything it passed through) pierced a spruce platform. After dropping through an empty space, it cut into 10 centimetres of oak, 59 centimetres of metal pieces, eight of oak, 22 of loose metal again, 10 more centimetres of oak and spruce and then into deep clay. To the drillers, this suggested an exciting prospect-a vault containing two chests, one atop the other and laden with treasure, perhaps gold coins or jewels. Moreover, the auger brought up something tantalizing: three links of a gold chain.
A second 34-metre shaft was dug in 1850. It also flooded. But this time a workman fell in and came up sputtering, “Salt water!” Then someone noticed that the water in the pits rose and fell like the tide. This discovery jogged Anthony Vaughan’s memory: years before, he had seen water gushing down the beach at Smith’s Cove-158 metres from the Money Pit-at low tide.
The treasure hunters stripped the sandy beach, looking for a hidden inlet of the sea. Under the sand, to their astonishment, they found tons of coconut fibre and eel grass on a stone floor that stretched 47 metres wide, the full distance between the high- and low-tide marks. More digging uncovered more surprises: five rock-walled box drains slanted in from the sea and dropped 21 metres straight down, converging on a line aimed at the Money Pit.
In effect, the beach acted as a gigantic sponge to soak up tidewater and filter it into a conduit. This conduit dropped 21 metres straight down, later exploration proved, then sloped back to a point deep in the Money Pit-all of it filled with loose rock to prevent erosion. This brilliant baffle was no natural obstacle; it was the work of a genius. As diggers neared the cache at 30 metres, they had unwittingly lessened the pressure of earth that plugged the mouth of the conduit.
Undeterred, the Truro crew built a cofferdam to hold back the sea. The sea promptly wrecked it. Next they dug 36 metres down and burrowed under the Money Pit. But while the diggers were at dinner, the bottom of the pit collapsed into the tunnel, then dropped even further-into a mysteriously empty space.