Great Escapes

02.27.14

Treasure Hunt to Discover Oak Island’s Mysterious Booty

Since 1795, explorers—including our 32nd president—have traveled to Oak Island in search of a mysterious buried and booby trapped treasure. So far, none have successfully reached it.

For more than 200 years, treasure hunters have been lured to Oak Island, a lush, 140-acre piece of land off the coast of Nova Scotia, where a hole dubbed the “Money Pit” promises a bounty of hidden wealth—if they can reach it.

This tireless stream of explorers—including Franklin Delano Roosevelt—has come fully armed with gold-detecting, water-pumping, and earth-scanning machines. But, so far, the millions poured into this quixotic search for buried treasure have yielded no gold, just a handful of tantalizing clues that are convincing enough to inspire new followers to come and try their luck…until they, too, unfailingly blow through their financing and return home empty-handed.

The only thing that has yet to run dry is a complex system of booby-trapped water tunnels that flood the shaft every time explorers seem on the verge of a discovery. They have proven a deadly opponent in the quest for treasure—so far, six explorers have perished while digging on Oak Island.

Exactly what they're searching for is uncertain. The rumors circling the riches run the gamut of the world’s unsolved mysteries and unfound treasures. Buried below may be the lost crown jewels of France; Elizabethan-era manuscripts that prove William Shakespeare’s works were written by Francis Bacon; Incan treasure from Peru; or a cache of riches hidden by the Knights Templar. The most widely spread theory is that the infamous Scottish pirate Captain William Kidd buried his wealth under the soil of Oak Island before his execution. Both he and terror-of-the-sea Blackbeard made deathbed proclamations of buried treasure, though neither was known to have visited Nova Scotia.

Some of the more imaginative speculations have verged on conspiracy theories: that the system was designed by Leonardo da Vinci, served as an underground UFO base, or was a holding pen for African slaves.

What has become an endless and deadly odyssey began in 1795, when a teenager named Daniel McGinnis spotted strange lights coming from the island slightly offshore from his home. Traveling there, he noticed an indentation in the ground that had been cleared. His curiosity was probably piqued by rumors of extraterrestrial activity that had been circulating the island and its neighbors, paired with the recent “Golden Age of Piracy” and rumors of buried treasure. So, the next day, he returned with two friends and began digging. They realized they were tunneling into a man-made shaft, but only hit upon a stone slate and then wooden platforms buried deeper and deeper underground. After a few weeks of on-and-off digging, the group gave up.

Nearly a decade later, the three young men (two of whom had since bought land on the island) joined forces, with the backing of businessmen, intent on finishing the excavation they had started. Digging deeper, they found oak-log platforms at ten-foot intervals, along with layers of charcoal, putty, and the fiber of coconut husks—despite there not being a coconut tree within 1,000 miles. Then, 90 feet down, they hit stone. It was a flat tablet with a mysterious engraved message that would lure treasure seekers for a century until it was lost in 1919.

The abstract shapes and symbols were deciphered to read: “Forty feet below two million pounds are buried.”

“They claim to have seen a severed human hand, threechests, the handle of a pickaxe, and a human body slumped against the cavern wall.”

A few feet deeper, they hit something else but decided to call it a night. "Some supposed it was wood, and others called it a chest,” a researcher later wrote. “This circumstance put them all in good spirits and during the evening a good deal of discussion arose as to who should have the largest share of the treasure."

But their good luck was not long-lived. The expedition was short-circuited after they dug into soggy ground between 90 and 100 feet underground. When they returned the next day to continue digging, the shaft had unexpectedly been flooded with seawater, even though the pit lay 500 feet from the shore.

For decades, explorers struggled to cap an endless flood of water that prevented access to the shaft. Then, in the mid-1800s, workmen made a strange discovery: what appeared to be a beach was actually artificial, and water was flowing out from the shore instead of in. When the beach was excavated, they found that it was actually a disguised—and complex—system of drains that kept filling the Money Pit with water at an estimated rate of 1,000 gallons a minute.

But continuous discoveries of relics kept the hope alive that a treasure trove lay just beyond the diggers’ reach. At 98 feet, one company of treasure hunters drilled into what was described as layers of oak, a large space of “metal in pieces,” then more oak, and more metal, leading them to believe they had—finally—hit upon two chests of coins.

Any celebration of these findings was quickly quashed as the shaft continued to flood and delay the work. Water plagued the explorers, who built dams and adjacent shafts in attempts to halt or circumvent its flow and spent tens of thousands of dollars on water-pumping devices.

Later, iron, cement, and clay found deep below ground were all confirmed by labs to be man-made, and a piece of sheepskin parchment was pulled from 155 feet below with two letters: "vi," "ui," or "wi." Small gold chain links were said to be found as well, but they’ve since been lost.

In 1909, a 27-year-old law clerk named Franklin Delano Roosevelt landed on the island. He was an early investor in a dig led by American explorer Henry Bowdoin, who promised that with enough heavy equipment, the “$10,000,000 treasure” could be theirs. As a teen, FDR once sailed with a prep school friend to an island where they believed Captain Kidd had buried a chest. Now, at Oak Island, headquartered in what they called “Camp Kidd,” FDR helped Bowdoin and his crew alternately drill into the pit, dynamite it, and send in divers, according to a book called The Secret Treasure of Oak Island. In a black-and-white photo, a young Roosevelt stands on the island, a pipe hanging from his mouth. Their dig reached the depths of 149 feet, and they found nothing.

But FDR was not so easily dissuaded. He continued following the island’s storied treasure throughout his four tenures as president. In 1938, he wrote to a fellow explorer: “I wish much I could have gone up the coast this summer and visited Oak Island and seen the work you are doing—for I shall always be interested in that romantic spot. I hope that you will let me know how you have been getting on with modern methods—ours were, I fear, somewhat antiquated when we were there more than a quarter of a century ago.”

His treasure-seeking cohorts weren’t giving up either. A 1922 ad on the front page of the New York City Journal of Commerce titled “BURIED TREASURE,” made an ambivalent promise of a “Speculative venture, partly proven, requires $50,000 for half interest. If successful, will produce millions within year; otherwise possibly eighty percent loss.”

FDR wasn’t the only famous face at the time to seek Oak Island’s riches. Actor Errol Flynn investigated a search, and Statesman Mining Co., a company partially owned by John Wayne, arrived with equipment that was a blend between a digging machine and a drill. Polar explorer Admiral Richard Byrd and Vincent Astor never visited but were similarly fascinated by the story and corresponded with treasure hunters.

But, by this time, the Money Pit’s original location had been obscured by years of excavation, during which the shaft had sunk at least ten times. When new expeditions arrived, they were dealing with an area that had experienced multiple collapses and reopenings, along with an endless flood of water pumped into and out of the ground.

In these conditions, the digging proved dangerous. In one tragic incident in 1965, a man named Bob Restall passed out in the shaft and fell into the water. When his son and two workers tried to save him, they all drowned.

Today, a chunk of the island is owned by Dan Blankenship and his family. He has been digging there since 1965, after reading about the mysterious pit in Reader’s Digest. Now in his 80s, Blankenship claims to have charted out tunnels, corridors, and large, unnatural underground caverns. He has also speculated that there are a dozen systems set up to flood the Money Pit.

Back in 1971, it was his team of explorers that made one of the strangest discoveries yet. They had lowered a 237-foot tube of steel into the ground about 200 feet away from the Money Pit and inserted a camera down it until it emerged in a cavity near the bottom. Floating in the water, they claim to have seen a severed human hand, three chests, the handle of a pickaxe, and a human body slumped against the cavern wall. Divers and Blankenship himself went down, but were unable to explore due to the powerful current. Five years later, in a near-death experience, the hole began to cave in on Blankenship, who was hauled to safety by his son seconds before the shaft was blocked.

“Now I don't say I think I saw a human hand in there. I don't say that,” he told Smithsonian magazine more than a decade later. “I saw a hand. There's no question about it.”

He and his son David have continued to pursue Oak Island's enigmatic treasure—forming expeditions and soliciting funding to uncover the 200-year-old mystery they’ve come tantalizingly close to solving.

"I hope it's the Knights Templar. They had, what, 13 ships left England that's never been found?" the younger Blankenship recently said. "That's cool. It was loaded with gold."

In January, the History Channel launched “The Curse of Oak Island,” following two brothers—one a millionaire financier and the other a rugged explorer—who bought up part of the island’s land to resurrect the quest for the treasure. "[W]ill their luck be any different from the many explorers who sought treasure before them and failed?" the show teases. "Many men have taken on the hunt with the best of intentions, only to be left with decimated fortunes, broken spirits, and lost lives."

This week, as news spreads about a California couple who accidentally discovered canisters containing $10 million in gold coins, and a German man with a metal detector who dug up a trove of gold and silver thought to be the mythic treasure of an ancient king, the now-pockmarked Oak Island's tenacious explorers are surely crossing their fingers and hoping that, after 200 years of digging, they’ll be next.