From a distance, Oak Island, located on the south shore of Nova Scotia, Canada, appears to be just another island. Located approximately 200 feet from the shore, the tree-covered island rises to no more than 36 feet (11 meters) above sea level, and covers an area of no more than 140 acres. However, this tiny island is home to one of the biggest treasure hunts in history. Many have been drawn to the island in the quest to uncover its supposed hidden riches, and a handful of people have lost their lives doing so, but to this day, no treasure has ever been recovered from Oak Island.
The Oak Island treasure hunt began in 1795, when 18-year old Daniel McGinnis saw lights coming from the island. Out of curiosity, he went searching for the lights and discovered a clearing on the southeastern end of the island. Within the clearing was a circular depression, and nearby a tackle block hung from a tree. (A tackle block is a system of ropes and pulleys used to lift heavy objects). With friends John Smith (in early accounts, Samuel Ball) and Anthony Vaughan, McGinnis returned to the area and began excavating the depression. A few feet beneath the surface, they discovered a layer of flagstone, and the pit walls had markings from a pick. Approximately every ten feet (3 m) they dug, they found a layer of logs. After excavating to thirty feet beneath the surface, McGinnis and his friends abandoned the excavation without ever finding anything of significance.
Reports of the boys’ efforts were published in several printed works. Eight years later, the Onslow Company sailed to the area to try to recover the supposed treasure, that was assumed to lie hidden at the base of the pit. Based on the written accounts of the boys, the Onslow Company attempted an excavation of what was now referred to as the “Money Pit.” They excavated an additional 60 feet (18 m), taking the total excavation to 90 feet (27 m) beneath the surface. Like McGinnis and his friends, the Onslow Company also found a layer of logs every 10 feet. Additionally, they found layers of charcoal, putty and coconut fiber at 40, 50, and 60 feet. Somewhere around 80-90 feet, the excavators from the Onslow Company discovered a large stone bearing inscriptions of symbols. Researchers attempted to translate the symbols, with one concluding that they read: “forty feet below, two million pounds lie buried.” The excavation was again abandoned when the pit flooded to the 33-foot level.
In 1849, another excavation was attempted. The Turo Company, formed by investors, returned to the site to try to uncover the treasure. They successfully re-excavated the pit down to 86 feet when it flooded again. They drilled into the ground to allow the water to drain, and the drill auger passed through many layers of different materials: a spruce platforstone at 98 feet, a 12-inch head space, 22 inches of what appeared to be pieces of metal, 8 inches of oak, another 22 inches of metal, 4 inches of oak, another layer of spruce, and then 7 feet of clay.
In 1861, a company called the Oak Island Association attempted another excavation. During their efforts, the bottom of the shaft collapsed. It is unknown whether it collapsed into a natural cavern, or a booby-trap intended to protect the treasure. The first fatality occurred during this excavation when a boiler pump exploded, killing one. The Oak Island Association’s excavation attempts ended in 1864 when they ran out of funding. The lure of hidden treasure remained strong, as additional excavations were attempted in 1866, 1893, 1909, 1931, 1935, 1936, and 1959, with no success. They did, however, pour red paint into the shaft, which led to the realization that it led to three separate exit holes. The second fatality occurred in March 1897.
Excavations continued through the early 1900s. In 1931, excavator William Chappell uncovered an axe, an anchor fluke, and a pick. Because the area had been littered by equipment from the previous excavation attempts, it is unknown who these artifacts belonged to. In 1928, Gilbert Hedden, a steel fabricating operator, had learned of the island and became fascinated. After much research, he believed he found a link between Oak Island and a map found in Harold T. Wilkins,’ book: Captain Kidd and His Skeleton Island. Hedden ultimately purchased the southeast end of the island, and began digging in 1935, although his efforts were unsuccessful.
In the 1960s, the Restall family began excavations, which tragically led to the deaths of four men. Robert Dunfield leased the island in 1965, using a 70-ton crane to dig the pit area to 134 feet (42 m) deep and 100 feet (30 m) wide. In 1967 the island was purchased by Triton Alliance, Ltd., and excavations made it to 235 feet (72 m) deep. Cameras were lowered into the shaft and some believed that images retrieved included chests, human remains, wooden cribbing and tools. However, due to poor image quality, the existence of these items has never been confirmed.
To this day, the elusive Oak Island treasure has never been recovered, and it is not even clear what the treasure contains. It has been speculated that the treasure includes: pirate treasure, naval treasure, Marie Antoinette’s jewels, Shakespearean manuscripts, Knights Templar or freemasonry treasure. Some non-treasure theories include that the area is a natural sinkhole created by underground caverns, and that it is the site of a sunken Viking ship.
Oak Island and the Oak Island Treasure remain a mystery to many around the world. It has been featured in books, movies, songs, TV shows, and video games. Throughout the various excavation attempts, many man hours, funds, and even human lives were sacrificed in hopes of finding the treasure. Perhaps someday the treasure will be found, but for now, it remains a mystery.