Is there a money pit on Oak Island?


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from www.HowStuffWorks.com.

Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: And we're going to start off this episode with a little personal anecdote. When my family was in Hilton Head a couple of years ago, I told my little, little brothers that they could each pick out a present to commemorate our trip. My brother who was seven at the time picked out this bottle with a map inside, and then was heartbroken to discover that it didn't really lead to a treasure. But of course, because he's a kid and not jaded, he decided it might be a real map after all and was just in code.

Sarah Dowdey: Fortunately though, treasure hunting does not end with children. Grown men and women lose their heads - sometimes literally, sometimes just go crazy over it. One possible treasure that has enchanted people for centuries is the Oak Island money pit, which is our subject for today.

Katie Lambert: What's in it? According to some people, perhaps the Holy Grail! Other think it's Marie Antoinette's jewels or Sir Francis Drake's loot. Perhaps it's Captain Kidd's treasure, or Inca gold, or the original Shakespeare manuscripts.

Sarah Dowdey: Even the secret of Atlantis. So naturally, it's booby-trapped, too, right?

Katie Lambert: Or is it, Sarah? Or is it? We're going to talk a little bit about the discovery of the Oak Island money pit.

Sarah Dowdey: That came in 1775 when a farm boy named Daniel McGinnis found something strange on an island in Nova Scotia's Mahone Bay. It was a place in the ground that looked sunken, as if something had been buried there perhaps. Above it, there was a tree with a tackle block, or maybe a sawed-off branch, depending on whose story you believe. McGinnis wondered what had been hidden away in this spot. Was it treasure? We know people like Blackbeard dig big holes and hide their treasure in it, so it's conceivable. He came back with some friends to try to figure out exactly was there.

Katie Lambert: Armed with shovels, they set to digging and digging, and then digging some more, but the mystery only deepened.

Sarah Dowdey: Much like the hole.

Katie Lambert: They dug down to a layer of stone, and at ten feet, they found this other layer of logs. At ten more feet, another layer of logs! So they have no idea what's going on. As one can imagine, they got tired. When they went back, no one wanted to come help them excavate this pit, so they left it alone. Of course, the legend had begun to percolate.

Sarah Dowdey: One of our famous themes, mysterious omens, reported sightings of a black dog near the site start to pop up after this. When we're getting supernatural reports, a legend is going to grow from that, right?

Katie Lambert: Always. A man named Simeon Lynds became interested in this spot in the next decade after hearing about it from our three farm-boy friends. They formed a group called The Onslow Company and started digging again. They made it to 90 feet this time, and they found logs every ten feet, clay, charcoal, a strange fiber that was later discovered to be coconut fiber - which makes you wonder, "Where did that come from?"

Sarah Dowdey: This is Nova Scotia, remember.

Katie Lambert: And they also found a stone tablet covered in mysterious letters, which disappeared sometime in 1918, 1919, or 1928, depending on which account you follow. Some thought it was ancient Coptic script, while others said it was just an inscription telling where the treasure was.

Sarah Dowdey: They also strike a chest. They're so happy, they figured, "We've got it now. This is the money pit," that they quit for the day, which infuriates me!

Katie Lambert: Sarah has asked me multiple times, "Why did they leave?"

Sarah Dowdey: I mean, get some lanterns, and keep going if you found a chest. Anyway, when they come back to the pit the next morning, they find it full of 60 feet of water, so way to go, guys. It's at sea level, and every time they try to drain it, it just fills up again.

Katie Lambert: They gave up, but came back after a time with a trickier plan. They said, "Okay, we'll dig another shaft that's parallel to the first one we started, and then we will dig sideways to get to the treasure." But that one filled up with water too, so they're kind of out of ideas at this point, and they quit. It's discovered that this water was a problem because there were tunnels going from somewhere in the bay to the pit. It was theorized that when that cipher stone was removed, some sort of air lock was broken, and the water rushed in. Perhaps it was a booby trap.

Sarah Dowdey: Forty years later, another group comes along determined. "This time, we're going to find the treasure." This is the Truro Company, and they used that first shaft, which is still full of water, and used an auger, which is kind of like a twisty screw, to see what they can pull out of the pit. They get clay, wood, links of gold chain - which also disappear later - but the water is still a problem.

Katie Lambert: So these excavations go on for years, and we also have our first casualty: death by ruptured boiler, which does not sound like a good way to go. We've got shafts full of water, all sorts of material in the ground, including gold, and a death on our hands. People figure that this must add up to something, and it must be something big. Enter another part: The Oak Island Association. They too are trying to figure out how to get around this water problem. Every time they dig, it fills up with water. They do manage to tunnel to what's now known as the Money Pit, the actual pit where everything's supposed to be, and it collapsed. Again, what kind of booby trap is this?

Sarah Dowdey: Eventually, we get yet another company, the Oak Island Treasure Company.

Katie Lambert: I like the very direct name. Before, it's association and the such-and-such company. Now it's just for treasure.

Sarah Dowdey: We're the company for digging treasure on Oak Island. They find a tunnel 500 feet from Smith's Cove to the pit, and it has a drain made of coconut fiber. Again, how did that get there? They also find some parchment and some kind of cement, so these seem like possible clues.

Katie Lambert: What would Nancy Drew do? We also have our second death, a worker who fell down a shaft. But the company runs out of money, so their investigations end. Don't think people stopped looking. When there's gold in question, they're not going to stop.

Sarah Dowdey: Or maybe Shakespeare's original manuscripts.

Katie Lambert: Or Marie Antoinette's jewels. A young Franklin Delano Roosevelt even gets into the whole thing. All of these people dig, and dig, and dig until the island is basically Swiss cheese. In the meantime, four more people die, who drown, but they were poisoned first, perhaps by swamp gas.

Sarah Dowdey: In the 1930s, a man named Gilbert Hedden thought he'd found proof that this was Captain Kidd's treasure buried on the island. He thought this because he had found a book with a map in it, and Kidd's Treasure Island looked a lot like Oak Island. "Wow, how about that?" That's what he thinks. A lot of it matches up, but it turns out that the guy who wrote the book had drawn the map from memory. It wasn't the original map. The original map proved there was no way that Captain Kidd's island was Oak Island. Foiled again!

Katie Lambert: Yeah, foiled again. George the Sixth had become interested at the same time, so we've got some famous names going on here. Around the same time, there's also this story on the island of a wealthy foreigner who explored the bay with an ancient map. He was very secretive, and one day he disappeared.

Sarah Dowdey: I like to think he might be a ghostly specter.

Katie Lambert: A ghostly specter. We like those. This brings us around to the 1960s and a man named Dan Blankenship who between 1965 and 1969 spent an estimated $97,000.00 trying to excavate this island.

Sarah Dowdey: I think he's found a real money pit.

Think about that for a second.

Sarah Dowdey: And it's a loss.

Katie Lambert: Good one, Sarah. He teamed up with a guy named David Tobias, and a bunch of investors to form the Triton Alliance in 1969 to begin a $10 million dig. They figured it was time to get the professionals involved with professional equipment. They're convinced that there could be billions of dollars worth of treasure.

Sarah Dowdey: And maybe some cool archeological stuff too, as a side note. So they find cavities, which are kind of like small underground caves. Inside of them, they find little shards and bits of things: wood, charcoal, cement, iron, brass, china, clay. Interestingly, they do carbon dating on these artifacts eventually, and they're from different time periods. The wood is from the 1500s, as is the cement. The metal is from pre-1800s. Spanish scissors from the 1600s. Something strange here!

Katie Lambert: Strange mixture of items. In 1971, they took a camera down to one of these cavities underwater, and they saw wood, a pickax, and what was possibly a human head or a human hand, although people who have seen the video, some say, "Okay, it's pretty blurry, but I can see where there might be a hand," while others say there's nothing to see at all. We'll leave that up to you.

Sarah Dowdey: But nothing is easy with Oak Island and the Money Pit, so their problems, including some very nasty and expensive land disputes - because who wouldn't want to own Oak Island?

Katie Lambert: And then Blankenship and Tobias's partnership, they had a bit of a falling out, so that fell apart. Blankenship offered tours for a while on the island, and then they offered it up for sale. It looks like, for a while, Blankenship's new group was pursuing a new treasure trove license, but I couldn't find updated information. Oak Island has a site, www.OakIslandTreasure.co.uk, but I couldn't find anything that was quite up to the present. We're left with the question what is the truth? What kind of treasure might be there? Is there a treasure at all? Are these booby traps, or is it something else?

Sarah Dowdey: Joe Nickell writing for the Skeptical Inquirer thinks that the Money Pit is actually just a sinkhole. Trees could've fallen in, and ships' artifacts could've been sucked into caverns under the island. The caves, maybe they're a natural event too due to the interaction between limestone and water. The flood tunnels could also be a natural occurrence due to tidal pressure and other physical aspects on the island. Maybe it's not pirates' booty or this other great mystery. Maybe it's just science.

Katie Lambert: Science trumps again. What about that mysterious cipher? There's also a cross found in the '80s, this heart-shaped stone, all sorts of weird little things. Nickell says that these and some other artifacts have something to do with the Freemasons, that these things were either added sometime during all this treasure hunting, or that the whole thing started off with a Masonic ritual having to do with something called "The Secret Vault" allegory that we won't get too deep into. For perhaps what is a good final word, a woman who was married to one of the four drowned men, another was her son, told a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, D'Arcy O'Conner, in 1987, "I knew from the first day I stepped on that miserable island that there was no treasure there."

Sarah Dowdey: Katie and I are actually a little bit worried that we're going to become obsessed with the Money Pit because that reporter we mentioned, D'Arcy O'Conner, he goes on to write an entire book about the island.

Katie Lambert: That's considered basically the definitive book on the history of the island. Apparently there was a recent CBC documentary about Oak Island and the Money Pit which we haven't seen, but if you have, please email us at HistoryPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com because there are plenty of unanswered questions, as you've heard in this podcast. We'd like to hear what you think.

Sarah Dowdey: Plenty of Canadian listeners who can maybe answer them.

Katie Lambert: Fill us in, guys. And that brings us to our listener mail today, which is real mail, our favorite kind. We got a postcard from James in Katar that's really lovely. All sorts of boats and boat building on the front, and a wonderful stamp of a shore earwig. He said, "I heard you wanted postcards from around the world and thought, 'I live in a strange place. Maybe you want a postcard from the state of Katar.'" I definitely do. He said, "I do a ton of traveling, and I listen to all of your podcasts." He requested some history on the Middle East, so we'll see what we can do, James.

Sarah Dowdey: If you want to send us other topic ideas, you can find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. We're at MissedinHistory. If you want to learn a little bit more about pirates and maybe start your own treasure hunt, you can search for "How Pirates Work" on our home page at www.HowStuffWorks.com.

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