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Stranger than Fiction: A Modern Day Treasure Hunt

Pirate treasure, Spanish riches, the Holy Grail and precious objects belonging to the Knights Templar are all rumored to have found their final resting place on a small island off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Photo provided by Wikimedia

This aerial photo shows the Oak Island excavation site in August of 1931, with workers standing in the middle, cabins to the far right and Mahone Bay in the background.

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Rocks and sand beaches surround the exterior, lush forests and brush fill the interior, but this tiny island is much more than dirt and trees.

Despite the unassuming appearance, Oak Island, Nova Scotia, is filled with mystery, intrigue and tragedy. But mostly, it’s filled with hope of discovering riches beyond compare.

DISCOVERY

The story began in the summer of 1795 when 16-year-old Daniel McGinnis saw a strange light from an island not far from his parents’ home in Nova Scotia. His curiosity kicked in and he began exploring the island, trying to find the light.

The light was coming from Oak Island, a 140-acre island in Lunenburg County, just off the southern coast of Nova Scotia.

One of about 360 islands in the Mahone Bay, Oak Island is located just 200 meters from shore, connected to Nova Scotia by a causeway and gate.

As young McGinnis explored he came across a strange circular depression in the ground, about 13 feet in diameter. Beside the depression was a tree whose branches had been sawed in a way that looked as if they had been used as a pulley.

McGinnis was curious about the depression and the tree so the following day he came back, with friends John Smith and Anthony Vaughan.

It was common at this time for pirates to frequent the area of Nova Scotia as only 200 nautical miles separated present day Nova Scotia from colonial Boston, so pirates often sought unpopulated wilderness areas to restock on natural resources.

In fact, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic states the “Golden Age of Piracy” occurred between 1690 and 1730, ending about 65 years prior to McGinnis’ discovery.

Stories had been circulating the area since the 1600s about buried pirate treasure. Legend has it that Captain Kidd buried his treasure on an island east of Boston, and many believe this Oak Island could be that island.  

McGinnis, Smith and Vaughan started digging in the depression with shovels and found aged oak logs and pickaxe marks in the clay, indicating the depression was man made.

Unfortunately McGinnis and his friends needed more resources to continue digging, so the project was abandoned for eight years.

In 1803, Simeon Lynds, the grandson of a pioneering family who settled in Nova Scotia, joined McGinnis, Smith and Vaughan.

Lynds recruited Col. Robert Archibald, Capt. David Archibald and Sheriff Thomas Harris and together the group established the Onslow Company, whose main goal was to recover the Oak Island treasure.   

They returned to the circular depression in summer of 1804, which was now being called “The Money Pit,” and began to dig.

FIRST EXCAVATIONS

After digging 2 feet deep the team found a layer of carefully laid flagstones. This is a material not found on Oak Island so when the team hit this surface they knew this was definitely brought here by someone.

At a depth of 10 feet the team hit wood and optimistically assumed it was a treasure chest, but after further investigation they realized it was a platform of oak logs.

They decided to pull up the logs and keep digging until they reached another oak platform at a depth of 30 feet.

Further digging revealed there was a layer of something every 10 feet, including charcoal, putty, stones and oak logs.

At a depth of 90 feet — which is about the same as three two-story houses below the surface — they found a flat stone, 3 feet long and one foot wide, in which strange letters and figures were carved.

This stone was curious and the team wanted to know what the symbols meant, but were unable to find someone to translate.  

It wasn’t until about a half century later, in the 1860s, that someone was able to provide a credible translation.

Although this translation remains disputed, James Leitchi, Dalhousie University professor of language, decoded the translation to say, “Forty feet below, two million pounds are buried.”

Leitchi used a technique called simple substitution cipher where certain symbols match up with certain letters in a given alphabet.

FLOOD GATES

The Onslow Company dug 8 feet deeper and the bottom of the pit started turning into soft mud, which prevented them from digging deeper. Before calling it quits for the day, the team probed the bottom of the pit with a crowbar, hoping to find something in this attempt.

And they did. They hit a barrier as wide and long as the pit, which was at this point 98 feet deep and 7 feet in diameter.

Hoping they had finally reached the treasure vault the team decided to head home in hopes that the following the day the treasure would be theirs.

When they returned the next day they were shocked and disappointed to see the pit had filled with 60 feet of water. They attempted to bail the water but as quickly as the water was removed, more flowed in.

It was as if the money pit was booby trapped to thwart every excavator’s attempt to go deeper and find the treasure.

In the fall of 1804, the group sought a way to overcome the ever-flooding pit, hiring Carl Mosher and his mechanical pump to help remove the water.

The pump worked wonders, and the team saw the water level slowly drop to a depth of 90 feet, just 8 feet short of where they had left off.

As if doomed — or cursed — it was then the water pump failed and the pit was filled with water again. With little remaining hope the team called it quits.

In 1849 — still more than a decade prior to professor Leitchi’s decoded translation of the engraved stone that conjured up dreams of “two million pounds” of fortune buried in the unruly mud — a new corporation was formed to attempt to find the treasure.

Unfortunately, they faced the same fate as the Onslow Company, although they did manage to get some drilling done before the pit flooded yet again.

During drilling a team member noticed the water in the pit was salty, and that it seemed to rise and fall with the tide, leading diggers to realize the clever individuals who created the money pit had designed an intricate drain system.

There were several channels dug into the clay, under the beach, and lined by rocks, leading right to the money pit. Those who buried their treasure — or whatever they buried — were dead set on using nature’s own forces as a tenacious barrier to anyone who tried to dig it up.

These channels acted as a booby trap, designed to flood the money pit at depths of 95 feet and 110 feet, if anyone got too close to the treasure.

The company made an attempt to stop the flooding by building a dam around Smith’s Cove to hold back the tide. Then pits were dug around the money pit to prevent any water from reaching it.

While it seemed like a good idea, it unfortunately failed and the company gave up when they ran out of money in 1851, more than half a century after young McGinnis stumbled onto the site and began poking around for lost treasures.

TRAGEDY STRIKES

The next attempt to crack the code of Oak Island would not come for another 10 years, when a new crew of searchers used steam engine-powered pumps in hopes of reaching the rumored treasure.

It was the same type of steam-powered machine used to pump water out of coal mines, and it brought with it inherent dangers. One day a boiler in the pump burst and a worker was scalded to death, while several other workers were injured.

By 1864, the searchers had run out of money and were forced to abandon the hunt. Several more attempts were made in 1866, 1893, 1909 and 1936.

In fact, the 1909 expedition conducted by The Old Gold Salvage Group included Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was 27 years old at the time, 12 years before he developed polio in 1921.

Roosevelt had heard about Oak Island through stories passed down from his grandfather, Warren Delano Jr., who was a well-known sailor and trader involved in financing some excavations on Oak Island.

This photograph, provided by Wikimedia Commons, shows Franklin D. Roosevelt (center with white shoes and pipe) and others at Oak Island in Nova Scotia. The person on the far left appears to be Duncan G. Harris, the person in the bow tie appears to be Captain H.L. Bowdoin, leader of the expedition, and person to the right of FDR (on FDR’s left) is Lathrop Brown, his Harvard roommate.
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Other notable speculators who were part of excavations at Oak Island included actors Errol Flynn and John Wayne, along with polar explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd and wealthy industrialist Vincent Astor of the Waldorf Astoria hotel fame.

Methods such as setting dynamite charges to destroy the flood tunnel and bringing a crane with an excavation bucket were attempted but never successful.

In wasn’t until 1959 that a new discovery was made. Robert Restall, a former daredevil motorcyclist, moved to Oak Island and brought his 18-year-old son, Bobby, with him for the adventure.

The first thing Restall wanted to do was find a way to block the channels that flooded the money pit. His goal was to seal the opening of the channel to prevent future flooding.

Restall found the channels began at Smith’s Cove, so there he began his attempt to stop the drain and in so doing stumbled across a rock that had the number “1704” carved into it.

He believed this stone was from the time of the original construction. Unfortunately, Restall would never live to figure out who inscribed the rock as tragedy struck again in 1965.

In his attempt to stop the drain, Restall dug a shaft 27 feet deep. While excavating he passed out and fell into the water at the bottom of the hole.

His son, Bobby, attempted to rescue him but he too passed out. Kal Graseser, Restall’s partner, and workers Cyril Hiltz and Andy DeMont climbed down to assist, but also collapsed before reaching the bottom.

This is when Edward White, a visiting fireman, jumped in to help. He descended down the shaft with a rope tied around his waist. He was able to save DeMont, but the other men died.

In all, four men died that day, Aug. 17, 1965, and after investigation, White suspected carbon monoxide poisoning from a nearby gasoline pump. The alluring and deadly money pit had won again.

ROBERT DUNFIELD

Later that year, investor and geologist, Robert Dunfield, took his turn trying to find what lay at the bottom of the money pit.

He used a 70-ton digging crane to gather dirt from the pit. This dirt was then carefully sifted and pieces of porcelain dishware were found.

Due to heavy rain the work was delayed for months and Dunfield soon ran out of money, forcing him to leave Oak Island empty-handed.

“No one knows what’s buried here, who buried it or even where it’s buried. That’s what excites people, the possibilities,” said Charles Barkhouse, Oak Island historian and tour guide.

THE TRITON ALLIANCE

In 1967, investors Daniel Blankenship and David Tobias investigated the rumors circulating Oak Island, deciding to test their luck and join the treasure hunt by purchasing a majority of the 140-acre island.

They began to drill holes all over the island. Throughout 1967, more than 60 holes were drilled into the ground surrounding the money pit. During their many drillings all they found were a piece of brass and several pieces of porcelain.

Undeterred, Blankenship and Tobias formed the Triton Alliance Limited in 1969 and in 1970 began excavations at Smith’s Cove.

During their time there, workers uncovered a U-shaped formation of logs marked with Roman numerals.  

Other findings at Smith’s Cove consisted of a pair of wrought iron scissors, a wooden sled, a portion of an iron ruler, iron nails and spikes. Intriguing as the items were, none delivered any real monetary value.

The Triton Alliance sent their findings to the Steel Company in Canada for testing. The materials found at Smith’s Cove were said to pre-date 1790.

The following year, one of the drilling holes was opened up to 27 inches in diameter and 165 feet deep.

The site had been prepared and the team sent a video camera into the hole. While the picture was dark and grainy, it was clear enough to make out a dramatic image … a human hand.

After seeing this severed hand the Triton Alliance initiated approximately 10 diving excavations into the hole but were unfortunately never able to find the hand.

The Triton Alliance faced legal troubles in 1983, filing a civil suit contesting ownership of Fred Nolan’s seven lots on the island. They lost the appeal and were forced to pay Nolan $500.

Although the civil suit penalty’s payout was miniscule, legal fees combined with a struggling stock market at the time caused much of the work on the money pit to come to a halt.

Although excavation of the money pit ceased, Blankenship and Tobias were determined to monetize their investment and began a tourism group called Oak Island Exploration Company.

At this time Oak Island had gained public interest and many others began forming their own tourism groups, among them the Oak Island Tourism Society.

It wasn’t until the late-1990s that Tobias decided to sell his shares in the property.

Oak Island Tourism Society heard about Tobias selling and petitioned the Canadian government to purchase the shares so they could open the land to the public.

Despite the organization’s interest in the shares, the majority of the island was sold to brothers Marty and Rick Lagina in 2006.

It wasn’t long before the Laginas met Blankenship and together they formed Oak Island Tourism Inc.

Watch full episodes of “The Curse of Oak Island” on the History Channel.

LAGINA BROTHERS

Marty and Rick Lagina, in their 60s, brothers from Kingsford, Michigan, heard about Oak Island back when they were young boys.

They read an article in Reader’s Digest and immediately became fascinated.

At the time, the story pulled them in like it has for many others. The hope of buried treasure and the desire to uncover the mystery of the money pit.

Years later in 2006, the brothers decided to buy a 50 percent stake in Oak Island Tours, a treasure hunting company.

Oak Island Tours owns about 75 percent of the island, with the remaining amount being owned by private parties.

Rick Lagina, a retired U.S. postal worker, is more of a dreamer. It was his idea to buy into Oak Island Tours, and in doing so drug his brother along.

“There’s a story to be written up here. Treasure, perhaps, but it’s a truly wonderful story from a long time ago. Every day it feels like we’re turning a page of a really good book,” Rick Lagina said in an interview with the History Channel.

While Marty Lagina did follow his brother to the island, he still speculates if there is anything buried there.

Marty Lagina is a wealthy business owner who in 1982 created Terra Energy, the largest operator of gas wells in Michigan.

Eventually, in 1995, he sold Terra Energy and now runs a renewable energy provider called Heritage Wind Energy.

“Everybody who’s gone there has basically had a certain amount of bad things happen. There’s the cost of human life, the cost of human fortune, and a cost in human time,” Marty Lagina said in an interview with Huffington Post. “But I think the fact that it lures you in with these promises of huge riches or worldwide significant things and then breaks you down, that’s happened to a lot of people.”

The Laginas have been continuing work at the money pit for years now, even starring in a long-running documentary on the History Channel called, “The Curse of Oak Island,” which recently launched its fifth season. But unlike the treasure hunters before them, the Laginas are not afraid to ask for help.

Over the years they have brought historians, engineering professionals and even technology experts to the island. And they have, in fact, discovered some interesting artifacts if not the motherload of treasure they, and all who ventured before them, have sought.

“Many of the previous hunters wanted to control the entire project themselves. The Laginas, however, regularly bring people to help them,” said Barkhouse, Oak Island historian and tour guide.

OTHER DISCOVERIES

Between 130 feet and 151 feet treasure hunters found a blue seal. After investigating this seal they found that it was made up of sand, clay and water.

This same blue seal was found again between 160 feet and 171 feet, and many believe the seal is similar to the putty found at the 50-foot level.

Between these blue seal layers, a cement vault was discovered. The Oak Island Treasure Company used a drill to attempt to break through the cement and find what, if anything, was in the vault.

The drill hit wood, a void several inches high, an unknown substance, and then 3 feet of soft metal. When the drill was pulled up, they realized there was a small piece of sheepskin parchment attached.

Examining the parchment, they found the letters “vi,” “ui” or “wi.” To this day, no one knows what the parchment is or says.

“There are several theories related to lost treasures, based upon known historical events, artificial recovery and carbon dating,” said Rick Lagina. “There’s a timeline or window of time where more than a few treasures were lost to history. And that window fits the activities that were conducted long ago on Oak Island. That window of time is very intriguing.”

While searching a swamp not far from Smith’s Cove, the Lagina brothers found an old Spanish coin.

“We were getting all sorts of metal hits on our electronics,” said Marty Lagina. “I said, ‘Let’s dig one of these up.’ So, we dug and a coin was down about a foot in the swamp, tangled in some roots. It was definitely in the swamp dirt and seemed to be encrusted. It was Spanish, clearly dated from 1652, and it’s a genuine coin. We don’t believe it was planted by somebody.”

Several treasure hunters have made discoveries on Oak Island but none have yet to find the rumored treasure buried at the bottom of the money pit.

No one knows for sure what lay there, if anything, but the mystery intrigues tourists and explorers alike.

“To me, life’s a treasure hunt. We’re all on one in our own different way, and we happen to be on a real one right now. But really, life is about reaching your goals and that’s what we always try and do,” said Rick Lagina.

Searches have been conducted for hundreds of years and all have come up empty, so we must ask ourselves, is there really something buried on Oak Island?

Does the money pit hold buried treasure?

Who designed such an elaborate pit? And why?

Maybe this is all one big trick. The most intricate hoax in exploration history. A way for people to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into an island that is nothing more than a small piece of land just two football fields off the mainland of Nova Scotia, just another one of the 30 dozen little islands scattered throughout that frigid region of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Hopefully one day we will have answers to these questions, but until that day Oak Island will continue to draw people in with the lure of infinite riches, dangerous adventure, immeasurable wealth and legendary fame. And it will certainly remain a modern day treasure hunt.
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For more information on Oak Island, check out some of these links:

www.activemind.com/Mysterious/topics/oakisland/story.html
paidpost.nytimes.com/history/mystery-on-oak-island.html
www.oakislandmoneypit.com
www.unmuseum.org/oakisl.htm
www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/oak-island-treasure-lagina-brothers_us_56421990e4b0307f2caf03b5

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Danielle Dirks

Danielle Dirks

Danielle Dirks is a staff journalist for MBU Timeline, majoring in public relations. She transferred to MBU in the fall of 2016, from St.Charles Community College. After graduation, Dirks hopes to pursue a career as an event coordinator.

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