Who Owned the Treasure?
As the Oak Island Treasure Company retreated to Halifax to devise another attack plan, another problem arose. The legal ownership of any treasure recovered was in suddenly in dispute. English law, enacted centuries earlier, gave the rights to any treasure to the crown, allowing the monarch to reassign a percentage to the discoverer. However, there was no requirement for the finder to receive financial benefit or reward, other than the thanks of the crown. In other words, the crown could take all the treasure without any compensation to those who had actually found it and didn’t even have to say, “Thank you.”
Earlier companies had operated under a treasure license granted by the crown and would take their chances. If the reigning monarch was generous, they would be amply rewarded. That situation changed in 1867 when the Dominion of Canada was created by the British North America Act of 1867. Under the new law, the province had the authority over any and all treasures. Blair petitioned the Nova Scotia government for a clarification of what the government would claim if treasure was recovered. An agreement was reached giving two percent of the treasure to the government and the rest would be divided among the various shareholders and company officials once the treasure had been recovered.
With all the legal problems finally resolved, they went back to work. They decided to dynamite the drains at Smith's Cove and plug them there. That should stop the flow of water into the Money Pit and all the ancillary pits and tunnels and finally allow them the chance to get to the treasure.
The third hole they dug in Smith's Cove broke through into a shaft filled with water. Convinced they had found the channel that let water fill the pit, they crammed it with dynamite, filled it in, and then set off the charge. Water and debris flew a hundred feet into air. The water in the Money Pit and those around it boiled with activity. Convinced they had succeeded where all those others had failed they believed they were close to recovering the treasure and yet the pumps could barely keep up with the flow of water. With the pumps working twenty-four hours a day, they were able to hold the water at the hundred foot level. The company erected a platform and spent the rest of the summer of 1897 boring exploratory holes inside the Money Pit hoping to find evidence of great wealth just under them.
The major find of this new boring was a cement vault about a hundred fifty feet down. Inside the vault there seemed to be a chest filled with loose metal. Continuing the operation, they discovered an iron plate at 171 feet but they were unable to bore through that. Analysis of fillings recovered from the pit, confirmed the belief that there were iron plates in the pit. Analysis also revealed that there was a concrete vault, obviously something that had been created by human hands or that was what was claimed.
By the fall of 1897, the directors of the company were more convinced than ever that they were digging for a huge treasure. They decided to dig two additional pits to 180 feet, away from the original site, and then tunnel over as so many others had. They wanted to come up under the iron plate so that they could get at the cement vault.
Water again defeated them. One shaft reached only 70 feet before the water burst through from one of the other, long abandoned tunnels. The second shaft reached 160 feet before water drove them out. Pumping failed to reduce the level of the water in either and the effort had to be abandoned.
The next summer, they decided to again plug the drainage system in Smith's Cove. To precisely locate the drains, they decided to throw dye into the Money Pit. By pumping water into the pit, they hoped to backwash the system forcing the dye back through the channel to reveal the source. This, they hoped, would allow the channels to be plugged. They were horrified when the plan worked all too well. Dye showed up in Smith's Cove, as they had expected. But it also appeared on the south side of the island in what is called South Shore Cove. Dynamiting the drains in Smith's Cove, even if successful, would do little to stop the flow of water.
They spent the next two years digging additional shafts, trying to defeat the water booby traps. But each shaft was soon filled with water. They ran into other lateral tunnels that other searchers had dug in the century before they began the new work. Blair and his associates figured that the water flowing into the pit had to come from more than the two identified sources but they couldn't prove that.
By 1900 the whole Oak Island Treasure Company was about to sink into the muck they had created. A new prospectus was written and some additional capital was brought in. They dug another shaft but it too flooded, driving out the workers. Additional exploratory holes were bored but produced no interesting results. The company finally went broke and was unable to continue. The Oak Island Treasure Company finally gave up.
Blair, however, had not lost his enthusiasm for Oak Island. Spending his own money, he retained his lease on the Money Pit acreage. And he kept the treasure license from Nova Scotia government in force. Blair was convinced that the Oak Island Money Pit could be defeated, that there was great wealth hidden at the bottom and he was going to get it.
In 1909, Henry L. Bowdoin, who had been hearing about the Money Pit for years, joined forces with Blair. Bowdoin was convinced that with modern equipment and divers, it would be a relatively simple task to recover the treasure. In April 1909 he formed the Old Gold Salvage and Wrecking Company in New York City and in August 1909, Bowdoin and members of his company sailed from New York to Halifax. On August 27, they arrived on Oak Island and established their headquarters, which they dubbed "Camp Kidd."
After some preliminary work, such as searching for the drains in both Smith's Cove and South Shore Cove, they moved their equipment to the Money Pit. Without the 1,000 gallon per minute pump they had planned to buy but couldn't afford, they couldn't lower the water level at all. They decided to send down the diver. He dropped to about 113 feet. The way was clear to that point, but beyond it, there was wreckage from the many other attempts to reach the treasure. Bowdoin hauled up the diver and then dropped dynamite into the pit to try to clear out the debris. This was accomplished.
Next they began to probe the bottom of the pit, boring through it in an attempt to recreate, or corroborate, the findings of the 1897 expedition. Twenty-eight holes were bored, but according to the records kept by Bowdoin, they found nothing to indicate any treasure in the pit. Like the expeditions before him, Bowdoin soon ran out of money. He failed to sell any more shares in his treasure company, even with a prospectus that claimed the reward would be more than $10,000,000 for those who were lucky enough to invest in his company.
Over the next few months, Bowdoin exchanged correspondence with Blair. The tone of the letters was less than cordial. Blair accused Bowdoin of being overconfident and undercapitalized. Although Bowdoin wanted to extend their contract, Blair refused, insisting that Bowdoin prove that he had the financing to mount a proper expedition for the next round. Bowdoin responded with anger saying that he would tell the world that the Oak Island treasure was a hoax. On August 19, 1911, he did just that. In Collier's (magazine) Bowdoin published, "Solving the Mystery of Oak Island." He wrote, "My experience proved to me that there is not, and never was, a buried treasure on Oak Island. The Mystery is solved."
Over the next several years there were additional attempts to recover the treasure. Bowdoin's biased article had not done much to stop the interest in Oak Island. However, none of these attempts made much progress in either learning anything new about the Money Pit or in recovering the treasure hidden in it.
Work Stops Again and then Starts Again
Blair's search for another investor, or group of investors, failed to produce results until 1931. Then, it wasn't all the newspaper articles and advertisement written that produced the investor. It was one man's long interest in Oak Island, and the fact he had been on the platform in 1897 when the drilling operation had provided some corroboration for the belief in the treasure. William Chappell of Sydney, Nova Scotia, knew that the treasure existed. Since he had been on the crew in 1897, his family's lumber business had expanded and produced huge profits. He decided to use some of those profits in another attempt to recover the treasure.
Ironically, their first problem was to figure out where to dig. No work had been done for over twenty years and the area was riddled with holes, shafts and tunnels dug by all those others trying for recover the treasure. Chappell finally settled on a site and began his operation. When Blair visited the island later, he told Chappell that he was digging in the wrong place.
Chappell then decided to dig a large shaft around the Money Pit. With the help of an electrical pump, he kept his new shaft relatively dry. As they dug, they found old tools and an anchor fluke. They reached a depth that no one else had managed, but then things turned to crap. First, so many shafts had been sunk, and so much water had been forced in and pumped out that the ground had turned into a soup. The soft earth began caving in. They also found what might have been the mouth of the drain from South Shore Cove. They couldn't plug it but that didn't matter. The pump was up to the task of keeping the water out of their new shaft.
By the end of the summer, they had spent $40,000 and had accomplished very little except digging up more of the real estate. They shut down the operation for the season because winter was coming and they believed they would come back the next year to finish it. That, however, didn't work out.
The next complication for those treasure hunters was created by a dozen people who had very little to do with the search but who were important to it. Sophia Sellers, who had owned the Money Pit for years, died, and her heirs were each requiring a huge sum to lease the area before they would consent to further operations. But in the summer of 1932, the heirs allowed another party to begin operations. Blair still held the treasure trove rights so that he would be involved in the recovery if there was one. That new operation was of little value and failed to produce any results of note other than complicating the issue.
In 1933, another man, Thomas Nixon, began his work on Oak Island. He grossly misrepresented himself and did little more than drill a number of holes. In his report, he claimed to have confirmed some of the items from the 1897 diggings but that was all he managed to do. He wanted Blair to extend his search contract and when Blair refused, Nixon threatened to sue.
Blair was no longer interested in Nixon and his tales. He had found another investor, Gilbert Hedden, from New Jersey. His family had sold a business and that left Hedden with the financial resources to pursue his dream of solving the riddle of Oak Island. Hedden told Blair that he was prepared to spend $100,000 to recover the treasure.
In the beginning of this long saga, the first of the companies formed back in the nineteenth century, had invested only four to six thousand dollars, hired dozens of men, and spent months on the island. Now, about a hundred years later, with the mystery unsolved, with the treasure still in the ground, the stakes were considerably higher. Of course technology might overcome the booby traps that sheer determination couldn't.
Blair tried to arrange for the various rights, but the Sellers heirs refused to allow him to dig. They had learned that a millionaire from the United States wanted to dig and they wanted fifty-five hundred dollars for the land. That was ten times what it was worth, unless of course, there was a treasure in the pit. Then it could be worth, literally, millions of dollars but no one really knew.
Blair attempted an end run by having legislation introduced that would allow the holder of a treasure trove license to dig on land owned by someone else. If the two parties couldn't reach an agreement, then arbitration would settle the matter. The law was not enacted but that made no difference. Hedden finally caved in and paid $5,000 for the eastern end of the island. But it was too late in the season to begin any new operations because winter was coming. Another year had been lost.
In 1936, Hedden was finally ready. Rather than attack the Money Pit, he decided to drain the pit dug by Chappell and explore the area around it. Using a huge pump, he was able to drain the Chappell pit, the cave-in pit, and several of the other shafts dug by earlier expeditions. The summer months were used in these operations which were successful in drying out some of the terrain but failed to produce any treasure.
There was one important discovery, however. Hedden, searching the island, found a number of rocks, some arranged in a curious triangular shape that seemed related to the construction of the Money Pit. There were even rumors that these artifacts related to a map included in a book about Captain Kidd. Those connections seem to have been eliminated by later investigations and possibly by some of the evidence found, so the connection to Kidd is tenuous at best. However, the stones found on Oak Island did prove that those who built the Money Pit understood engineering, astronomy and navigation. That would seem to rule out many of the theories about who hide the treasure there.
Hedden spent a great deal of time and effort chasing the strange map from the book about Kidd. When he discovered that the map was the figment of the imagination of the writer, his enthusiasm for the search might have evaporated. At any rate, when time came for Hedden to renew his agreement with Blair, Hedden let it lapse. (Of course the fact that Hedden was in trouble with the IRS might also have contributed to his decision.)
When Hedden bowed out in 1938, Erwin H. Hamilton, a mechanical engineering professor at New York University, was ready to step in. In fact, he had approached Blair a couple of years earlier only to be told that Hedden owned the land and had the rights to dig. But then the way was cleared in 1938 for Hamilton to take over the operation. Hamilton conducted a number of tests, including another using dye. He mapped the various tunnels dug under the island and planned his new assault. However, the Second World War started soon after and that prevented Hamilton from proceeding.
From that point on and through the 1940s, a number of different men tried to recover the treasure. Some of the attempts were little more than negotiations which fell apart as the participants failed to agree on who would get how much of what. The property on which the Money Pit was located was sold by Hedden, fell back into his hands and was sold again. Nothing of importance was accomplished although there were some interesting developments. President Roosevelt, for example, maintained a correspondence with a number of men involved in the search and even made plans to return to Oak Island. He had been one of the original investors in a company formed a couple of decades earlier.
Work on Oak Island would not begin again until the mid-1950s. George Greene, an oil man from Texas, applied to Chappell, who now owned the property, for permission to drill. He sank a number of holes, found a huge void below 140 feet and pumped tens of thousands of gallons of water into it. The water disappeared, flowing out. Greene promised to return the next year but didn't. He was murdered in 1962. That probably had nothing to do with Oak Island though, if it could be connected, it would help reach the total of seven who “must die” before the treasure could be recovered.